Arrival in Sintra
Our delayed flight to Lisbon from Madeira was followed by another delay collecting the hire car, but with a great outcome, thanks to complimentary upgrade – a brand new Alfa Romeo Giulietta to drive. Tops!
Arrived in Sintra much later than originally planned, thanks to airline shenanigans and sorting the car. But we got to our accommodation without too much stress, just the occasional close shave in adjusting to driving on the righthand side of the road again (although the first time through the gate of the hotel was a bit stressful – narrow as hell!).
Old world charm greeted us in this 2 star establishment, Hotel Sintra Jardim, that was once a manor house and is now a little B&B with a splendid garden, pool and terrace – a prime spot from which to sip a dry Portuguese white wine with views of the Moorish castle and the sunset.
By the time we had settled in it was mid-afternoon, and having not eaten since breakfast, we thought we’d walk to the centre of town to a restaurant I had flagged with potential. After a few impulsive turns which took us the ‘wrong’ way through a gorgeous park, we ended up at INcomum by Luis Santos (probably the only fine dining option in Sintra).
We had sautéed shrimp with garlic and fresh herbs; marinated salmon, dill, avocado and samphire; green asparagus, salad, dried tomato and azores island cheese (the asparagus were not al dente as we prefer, but still nice); and a board of Portuguese cheese. Service was a little patchy, but smiling and enthusiastic.
And as a day of travel always takes it out of us, an evening in with some Portuguese brandy and Netflix was in order.
The next morning, we headed out just before 9am to explore the sites of Sintra. There was an option to hike from our B&B to Pena Palace, but we thought, what’s the point of having a car if we don’t use it? So glad we did! It was mountainous!! We were also early enough to get one of the last spots in the tiny car park right next to the entrance. At 9:10am we joined the end of the queue of those who already had tickets (which was relatively small at that time), and I went to grapple with the ticket machine. I tried to help an American woman who was having no luck with the technology, and I suggested it was because she had no PIN (her card kept getting declined). She didn’t believe me, so I sorted myself out and got back in line with John – you cannot help people who don’t want to be helped. At 9:30 on the dot, they started letting us through. We also bought a €3 ticket each for the shuttle bus. Glad of that, too – it was over 500m of nearly straight up!
Pena was an extraordinary palace. It was built between 1840 and 1885. There is much history associated with the place and a profusion of eclectic architectural styles, including Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance. It’s a national monument, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal (who knew there was such a thing?).
The low cloud we were in this morning added to the magic. The bright yellow and deep ochre stucco was a lovely compliment to the blue Portuguese tiles and grey stone. There were no photographs allowed inside – only because it slowed everything down. A shame, but understandable – otherwise people would never leave!
National Palace of Sintra
We dismissed the notion of taking the shuttle back down the hill and enjoyed the saunter instead. It was time to move on to the next site. We decided to drive into the historic centre, risking the lack of parking spot, and visit the Palacio Nacional. Good decision. We found a spot very near at €1 per hour. We wandered through the winding narrow pedestrian alleyways filled with touristy cafés, restaurants, and souvenir shops.
Meandering to and through the palace, we spent a pleasant time there learning about the monarchs’ love of art and the mishmash of architecture. It’s the best preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal and has been inhabited continuously from the early 15th century to the late 19th century (and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site).
Doing some last-minute TA research on restaurants, I found a little place called A Praça – too new to actually have a rating on the site. It’s a wholefood vegetarian place tucked in behind the palace. The service is delightfully slow because everything is being dished up by these two women in a centre court kitchen, and there is only one menu per day. It was plenty of food, so we shared one serve between us and ordered two white wines (at €1.50 each). Our menu was: a watermelon gazpacho starter; a main of a ‘bean roll’ (which was like a refried bean bake), carrot mash, swish chards and beetroot; dessert of season fruits; drink of water flavoured with orange, raspberries and mint. All of this for €10. The venue is clean, the service charming and friendly, and they actually care about the food they are serving. The woman who served me said her son had only put it on TA 3 weeks ago, so I hope it really takes off. [UPDATE: as of 7 April 2023, it ranks #1 of 269 restaurants in Sintra]
We normally limit ourselves to two sites in a day – being a tourist can be tiring! But after a rest in our hotel, we drove out again to the Castelo dos Mouros in the evening (it closed at 8pm with last entry at 7pm). Pretty chuffed that we left that till then; there were hardly any visitors, and it was cool and peaceful.
What would’ve once been a crowded medieval city crammed inside the castle walls is now filled with gardens and trees, so serene. I am sure that the hoards visiting earlier in the day would’ve compromised this serenity, but for us, it was intact. We did some climbing along narrow walls with no safety rails, cautious in our footsteps, but grateful for the lack of WHS precautions that would’ve marred the atmosphere. The view of the city was vast, and the deep ochre walls of the neighbouring Pena Palace high on the next hill looked down on us with a slightly haughty tilt to her arches.
Next, on to Nazaré…
Accommodation: Hotel Sintra Jardim