A travel journal
to Sintra by Jose Kevo
Quote: Medieval or Modern? Which ever you prefer, you'll find with convenient, inexpensive day-trips from Portugal's capital. Sintra, Queluz, Obidos and Nazare are steeped in culture and history while the coastal resort villages of Estoril and Cascais keep an upscale pace catering to the rich and famous.
NAZARE - This quaint fishing village will grab your heart equal to the grip locals use for hanging onto customs, traditions. Situated just below the cliff-top village of Sitio, Nazare has one of the most beautiful, popular beaches north of the Tagus. Hemmingway could've written volumes inspired by this "step back into time" destination worth more than a day's stay! VUELVERE - aqui tambien/here also!
CASCAIS - Even if you're not a "high roller" at one of the local casinos, including Europe's largest in nearby Estoril, you'll enjoy strolling the pedestrianized streets of this village where Old World embraces chic and trandy. Set aside time to also explore the rugged Atlantic Coast...including the "Mouth of Hell" if you dare!
LISBON - Portugal's capital city is an excellent place to base your regional day trips from. Check out my Lisbon journal to learn more. VUELVERE!
Lonely Planet's Portugal guide gives the most in-depth information to what you'll find and need in these areas as well as a wide variety of accomodations, cafes, shops keeping budget travelers in mind.
If possible, try to visit during the week avoiding typical weekend tourist rushes. Enjoy the places to yourself - your own Magic Kingdoms! Early arrivals are a plus; the longer you stay - the longer you play. Late afternoons are best for shooting elevated shots when sun is to the west.
Off-season travelers will also benefit from more culturally authentic experiences than in summers when villages toss in a "Jekyll & Hyde" act for free - understandably trying to capitalize on the hordes of tourists. Nazare and beach front communities transform the worst.
All prices listed are based for receiving 218 escudos on the dollar.
Second visit? Do the walking tours/trails leading to/from 529 Cruz Alta with spectacular Pena Palace views and other photo ops back thru the Pena Park gardens. Medieval abandoned hidden structures dot the landscape. It's a definite locale to indulge your inner-child running, playing, climbing impossible cliffs trying to get the perfect shot. A definite must for nature lovers!
Third or fourth trip? Skim your favorites as well as checking out nearby 14th century Capuchos (cork) Monastery, Peninha's 17th century azulejo decorated chapel, Caba da Roca lighthouse at the western-most point of Europe's mainland, or the rest of the Serra de Sintra area conveniently awaits your discovery.
TIPS: You'll definitely want to be in "decent" physical condition for exploring/experiencing this rugged terrain to the fullest. Even if using public transportation, strenuous walking is unavoidable - especially within the rampart walls of Castelo dos Mouros which resemble a mini-version of the Great Wall of China.
Sintra Bureau of Tourism, off the main square, distributes detailed maps for free - especially essential for trails on in-depth walking tours away from main sites and attractions.
Both palaces close 1:00-2:00 for lunch breaks. Avoid Monday's and Wednesday's as one or the other are closed. Admission for both average $2.75 each; free on Sunday's before 1:00.
Fountain facilities are scattered about Sintra not for display, but where locals fill bottles with fresh drinking water. Fonte Mourisca and Fonte da Sabuga have nicely structured, decorated entries. They're definitely worth checking out...and for more than just a cool sip.
Sintra is a mega-tourist attraction but good deals can still be found for meals and souvenirs with a little shopping around. The bakery across from the National Palace has inexpensive lunch/sandwiches for dine in or carry-out for that picnic further up on the mountain. Local handicrafts can also be a good buy. (Last visit, paid less than $23 for a woven, heavy-wool Portuguese designed blanket.)
GETTING AROUND: Regional trains from Sintra leave Lisbon's Rossio Station every 20-minutes costing $1.75 round-trip. Sintra is last stop on the line.
Once arriving in Sintra, it's a nice exhilarating walk into the village. Or perhaps take a taxi, carriage ride. From the nearby bus depot you can buy a one-day SINTRA 434 PENA LINE pass for $2.75...good only for this line which passes thru the village, entries for the two palaces and Mouro Castle ruins, and shuttles back to both bus and train stations.
On your first-ever trip, I suggest arriving early and riding to the top, touring Pena Palace before walking back to and thru the Castelo dos Mouros. From here, take the back-trail thru the enchanted woods down to Sintra Village, have lunch and then tour the National Palace before shopping and heading back to Lisbon.
A Sintra area Day Rover pass, costing $5.50, is good for all local lines running anywhere thru the Serra de Sintra region. Buses are easily accessed at the Terminal next to the train station.
HIGHLIGHTS: This is the closest day trip to Lisbon; perfect for a "lite-day" of sightseeing. The palace is open to the public from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. except Tuesdays/Wednesdays.
The first room you enter will be the elaborate mirror-lined throne room. The last room will be the royal bedroom with a domed ceiling, impressively designed exotic woods floors, and the walls are filled with murals illustrating the life of Don Quixote. In between all of this...
Along the back wall of the garden is a canal where the royal families used to enjoy boating. The canal walls are decorated with colorful azulejos. There are also many interesting works of art scattered about the garden in the forms of statues and fountains.
TIPS: Photos in guides were better than the real thing! I wasn't impressed with Queluz which left me feeling like - 'If you've been to one palace, you've been to them all.' Considering all the other local palaces, I'd definitely recommend seeing this one first or else it won't compare.
The terraced, land-scaped gardens really have potential framed by the back facades of the palace. It's just they were looking a little ratty while I was there...and I already obviously wasn't impressed or in the mood.
Queluz also has a much more rigid feel to the place thanks to the added security for visiting dignitaries staying within the facility and the military post across the street.
GETTING AROUND: To get here from Lisbon, take the Sintra-line which leaves every 20 minutes from Rossio station. There are two stops for Queluz - make sure you get off at the BELAS stop. A round-trip ticket is $1.25
Once leaving the Queluz-Belas station, it's either a nice 15-20 minute walk to the palace or taxi ride. Walkers - there aren't really any signs marking the way so ask a local; it's easy to find. Actually for myself, the walk to/from in the Queluz village was better than the Palace.
Praia da Ribeira beach area is great for watching fishermen from "the Ol' School" daily reject modern progress in plying their trades as has been done for generations.
Parque Municipal da Grandarinha is definitely worth passing thru to see the azulejo murals and other artworks, watch local children enjoy the playgrounds and animal bizarre, or simply stretch out on the grass under a shade tree and bask in your reality of being in Portugal. Be sure to check out the 19th century mansion of the Counts of Castro Guimaraes before leaving the area. There's also a museum inside I've never been to.
Boca do Inferno - The Mouth of Hell is a crater-like abyss along a strip of elevated cliffs where tides from the Atlantic come crashing in as if to exercise the power of the sea. Once you pull away from the crowds and the make-shift tourist traps, it's a great spot for quiet reflection and catching a sunset.
Sandy beach strip and coves heading in the opposite direction towards Estoril also feature "surf-side" salt water swimming pools where waters are replenished with each high tide. (*The most famous surf-side pool featured in postcards is in Caba da Roca; part of the Sintra de Serra region.)
TIPS: The center shopping area of Cascais, with pedestrianized streets, is definitely a relaxing and intriguing mix of old and new. But consider the area, also keeping in mind the high prices. Unless it's something truly unique, you can probably find it cheaper back in Lisbon.
Many restaurants and pubs surround the Largo Luis de Camoes plaza area with sidewalk cafes for the inside areas and patio decks for the outer areas. As you might expect, prices are more expensive; seafoods very popular and excellent. I celebrated a birthday here but don't remember the name of the place...probably because it was also the day I discovered Vinho Verde wine - another "Lord Have Mercy" thing Portugal is known for.
GETTING AROUND: Cascais is the last stop on the commuter trains which leave from Lisbon's Cais do Sodre train station. Estoril is the two stops before. Round-trip fare is 1.75.
Once you arrive at the Cascais train station, the pedestrianized center is just to the east. When you've browsed the shops, you can either keep looking/walking or head for the Tourismo across from Jardin Visconde da Luz where free trams leave every hour shuttling tourists to Boca do Infenro. But if you're preconditioned to walk and enjoy the day, Boca is less than 2 kms from the city center and you'll pass by all the things I've listed under Highlights. If you're going to ride out, at least consider leisurely walking back.
Obidos was once an important coastal port until the bay completely silted up by the 1500's leaving the village land-locked upon a hill within 14th century ramparts. The Portuguese reclaimed the area from the Moors in the 10th century. Obidos was given as a wedding present to a King's new bride in the 11th century which set a "Royal Presidence" which left a permanent mark on this enchanted, enclosed enclave of less than 5000 people.
HIGHLIGHTS: The narrow, winding cobble-stoned streets are lined with white-washed cottages and structures colorfully trimmed adding a puritanical feel to the medieval/royal environment. In season, Obidos is also known for its bougainvillea and potted flowers.
The ancient castle, built in honor of when Obidos was captured from the Moors, is now a Pousada where peak-season doubles start around $135. Many locals also offer rooms out of their own homes.
To have the fullest appreciation for Obidos, you must walk the perimeter of the city from upon the rampart walls. The elevated overview gives better perspective to the "smallness" of this hillside village. The old, moss-covered stucco tile roofs also add a colorful flavor seen from this vantage point.
TIPS: Know the Obidos history of royalty and significant happenings to fully appreciate what you're experiencing. Actually, there's more to know than there is to see!
Be sure to save one frame of film for a village picture as seen from the nearby passing highway on the ride home.
So I looked around, walked the ramparts, shot a roll of film...but for all the Old World magic and charm that Obidos conjures up, I'm still not sure it's worth the effort. Even Lonely Planet says you can be in/out in an hour if you're pressed for time. I wasn't in any hurry and it still only took an hour. When you consider it took an hour-half to get there...another to return - for a one-hour experience?
On the other hand, I arrived at 8:30 a.m. before the locals were up, shops and cafes open, and the mass tourist buses invaded. Obidos would definitely be more justified and doable of an evening with a special someone, a romantic dinner and walk thru the streets. It's definitely a good lite-touring, half-day trip from Lisbon.
GETTING AROUND: For those pressed for time and using public transportation, I made the Lisbon-to-Obidos trip in 4:10 using these convenient time frames and connections: Go to Arco do Cego bus terminal one block east of the Saldanha metro stop. It opens at 6:00 a.m. with the first round of Rede Expresso buses departing at 7:00. Arrive in Caldas da Rainha at 8:10. The Obidos bus picks you up in the same station at 8:15. Arrive in Obidos at 8:35. At 9:35 catch the bus back to Caldas da Rainha. At 10:00 catch the bus back to Lisbon which arrives at 11:10. Round-trip tickets cost about $10.85. Also keep in mind that as the day progresses, the later bus services tend to fall behind.
HIGHLIGHTS: The People! We're talking hard-core, old world steeped in traditions-type people that would likely run their young one's out of town for trying to buck the system! I find great elegance in the appeal of simple peasantry and these people and village are representing well. They reminded me of seaside hillbillies with their aggressive, boisterous ways of greeting each other and visitors in the streets. The only thing "louder" was the traditional garb they wore - layers of heavy woolen shawls, skirts and petticoats for the ladies; slacks and layered sweaters for the men - all handmade of every conceivable design and color. Of course, nothing matched, but it served its purpose for warmth against the rough Atlantic.
The hilltop village of Sitio was the original settlement until the ocean began to recede in the 1700's and Nazare slowly evolved into the main community over time. Sitio has a cathedral and chapel with historical and religious significance centered around a statue of the Virgin Mary brought from "Nazareth" in the 4th century and which has faithfully watched over and blessed the area according to legends. But it won't get anymore heaven-inspired than looking over the cliffsides 110m below to the ferocious Atlantic waves thundering upon to the expansive beach while the peaceful village keeps a secondary watch as if behind the scenes. Be sure and walk the full distance down to the Sitio lighthouse station to appreciate the full extent of the vistas and beauty.
TIPS: Stop by the tourismo on Avenida de Republica for friendly assistance, free maps and information. Check out the official Portuguese Tourism bureau's 24x36 poster hanging on the wall of Nazare and the beach as seen from Sitio. If they have them available, they'll gladly give you one.
Most printed information still depicts the local people as fishermen working from the beach, teams of oxen pulling boats in from the tide, ladies hanging fish on beach racks to dry...and all wearing those "hard-to-miss" traditional work clothes. Take a good look at the pictures and postcards enjoying them for what they are - a fading memory! Within the last 15 years, a harbor south of the village and motorboats halted these age-old daily work rituals that the town is still mainly promoted under.
Fishing is out - Tourism is in! Without all the work on the beach, it leaves the men sitting around passing time and those "not-soon-to-be" forgotten ladies in the streets seemingly barking at each other and tourists. Actually, they're competing to have guests stay in their houses and eat at family run cafes. Seafond is the speciality and I had a large plate of seabass with potato, vegetable, bottle of wine, cover charge/tip for under $10. Lonely Planet indicated there're incredible sleeps/eats deals combing the back streets and alleys. Hope to some day find out!
While in Sitio, the cluster of novelty shops to the right of the entry road reaching the lighthouse area has the best selection of local handicrafts for the best prices. Beachfront shops in Nazare were VERY pricey.
Something tells me this place takes on a Mykonos/Greek Islands party feel come summer time. I've no reason to believe the town all but likely triples in size with the amount of tourists; especially evident when seeing shots of the crowded beach. It's a good place for sunnin', but swimming's probably out judging from the pounding of the tides and undertows. (Check out the awesome sunsets in those postcards!)
GETTING AROUND: From Lisbon, go to the Arco do Cego bus terminal and again, I recommend taking the first bus out at 7:00 a.m. to maximize your time. The 1 hour, 50 minute ride one way is worth the trip, good for naps coming/going, and costs $11.45 round-trip. If you've to choose between visiting Nazare or Obidos, this is definitely the hands-down winner. It's also not a bad place to consider staying over during the off-season when rooms are readily available. However, I wouldn't recommend coming here spring/summer without reservations.
A small funicular runs the cliffside between Nazare and Sitio for 50-cents one way.