I’ve been in Portugal less than 24 hours and already i’ve had 3 separate people ask me if i’m all by myself, with varying degrees of concern. I don’t know this yet, but it’ll be a well worn trend that will continue until I leave the country and then will happen once more when I return to the USA at which point i’ll get to the level where I almost bare my teeth and hiss like a feral trash possum at the customs agent who asks.
At this point though, it’s just a mild curiosity to me. I’ve traveled by myself before and while in general I did either meet up with friends in the countries I visited or go on guided tours, there were plenty of times I was just wandering around by myself and no one really paid it any mind. Here though, it looks like it’s gonna be a little bit different.
The couple at the Villa house i’m staying at in Sintra come by to introduce themselves the night I arrive and after some questions of where i’m from (the very real surprise that i’m not Portuguese because of my name is something else that will happen a lot) they ask with a touch of concern, “Ooh, are you all by yourself?” and then peer around me like there surely must be a companion somewhere. The next morning the guy at the window to get my entry ticket to the Moors Castle does something similar when I ask for just one ticket- even though there’s no one behind me in line as i’ve arrived shortly after the 10am opening time he still looks around and asks,
“Just one? You are traveling alone?”
I say yup, shrug in what I hope is a friendly way because I don’t know what else to say and get my ticket. The guy who scans it at the entrance looks around me to the guy at the window and it’s almost like a comedy bit, the unspoken back and forth and i’m starting to get a little worried there’s some kind of rule about not traveling by yourself in Sintra. He scans my ticket though and after I figure out what direction I want to start first, I start climbing and all the weirdness fades from my mind once I get to the top of the walls .
Maybe I should have realized I’d have an amazing view over Sintra from here when the Uber that picked me up from the hotel started climbing up up up but it wasn’t until I peered over the walls that I had even an inkling of the kind of sightline I would have out over the landscape. It was breathtaking in more ways than one.
(Btw you don’t have to take Ubers to get around Sintra, there’s a local bus that runs that will get you to pretty much everywhere you need to go but i’d read multiple advice posts on blogs and forums that said Ubers were pretty inexpensive so thats the route I went. Personally it worked out great for me but I did want to point out that there are many ways to get around Sintra that don’t involve getting in strangers cars.)
The Sintra National Palace, Quinta da Regaleira and The Monserrate Palace are all visible from up on the castle walls and while I can’t quite suggest you make the Moors Castle your first stop in Sintra given I was so freakin tired after climbing all over the walls I wanted to do nothing but roll myself the rest of the way down, I really can’t think of a better way to be introduced to all that Sintra has to offer than from up here.
Pena Palace beckoned in the distance, and I half considered just going on over there next as it’s a short distance away from the Moors castle…but my legs were trembling and given I had spent the day before up for over 24 hours traveling from Dallas -> Chicago -> London -> Lisbon and had not yet managed to eat a full meal, a quick trip back to the villa to change out of my sweaty clothes and maybe pop a Tylenol or two sounded like the best plan.
I would come to slightly regret this when the weather turned gloomy and visibility at Pena Palace became it’s own kind of special struggle, but the guy who picked me up to take me back down the mountain was super friendly and happy to tell me about Sintra. He did, of course, ask if I was traveling by myself but we had a really good talk about why this kept being asked and in his opinion as a pretty frequent Uber driver and tour guide in Lisbon, it’s just rare for people to travel by themselves there and people probably just wanted to be sure I was ok. On that note, he offered me his number so that I would have someone to contact in case I had any questions or needed help with anything and while I never needed to do that, it was still incredibly nice of him to offer and I took it in good faith. This would not be the last time an Uber driver gave me their number and while generally I don’t accept people giving me their numbers, no one in Sintra ever made me feel weirded out or pressured by it and as a younger girl traveling by herself, thats a high compliment.
By the time I made it back up and to Pena Palace, the weather had gone from somewhat sunny and clear to downright moody and difficult. Given I was staying in Sintra for 3 full days, I knew I could have tried again on a less foggy day but to be honest, I had almost been tempted to skip the palace altogether as the photos I’d been seeing of it just weren’t calling to me. Ironically this is actually the most popular of all the castle and palaces in Sintra and though my expectations weren’t too high, I have to admit I ended up pretty charmed by it when I paid it a quick visit that afternoon.
Though there’s a shuttle bus that takes you from the entrance area up to the palace everyone that day was just walking up and so I followed along rather than stand around in the rain. Surely it can’t be too long of a walk, I remember thinking and while that was correct, the straight march up to the colorful entrance of the palace walls left me hurting a bit especially after that mornings excursion.
The history of the palace is interesting, especially when you consider its legacy starts out in the Middle Ages when there was only a chapel constructed on the hill dedicated to Our Lady of Pena, up to the 15th century when a monastery was constructed by order of King Manuel I. It remained as such until the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 reduced most of the monastery to ruins, after which it remained unoccupied until 1838 when King Ferdinand II took an interest and purchased it and the surrounding lands. Giving the commission for rebuilding to Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, the Romantic style palace as we see it today was built. Though I’ve read and been told by some locals it was built to rival the Neuschwanstein, I personally can only say the resemblance is minimal given all the other touches of architectural style at play here (especially the beautiful neo-Islamic influences).
As you can tell from the photos here, I didn’t really get to see all too much and eventually the rain started just pouring to the point where I knew if I didn’t start heading back down I might come to really regret it. What I did get to see though, was honestly very beautiful and I think I enjoyed it better shrouded in fog and rain, the bubbly bright colors muted and calling attention to the structures and shapes. Also, having read many reviews on TripAdvisor on how very very crowded it can get here, I was more than ok with weather if it meant minimal crowds.
Legs trembling a bit and umbrella out at the ready, I started my walk back down towards the main entrance where I would get a ride from a friendly lady who didn’t speak much English but happily communicated to me in Spanish that it was a very rainy afternoon wasn’t it? Laughing as I tried hard not to drip all over her seats, I heartedly agreed.