From Up Here the Distance Curves- the Castle of the Moors & Pena Palace Sintra, Portugal

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.

~m

The Best Views in Town, Courtesy of a Local- Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany

The best place to start this post is to state outright and without reservations- I love cows and sheeps. Not in a weird or creepy way, just in a very appreciative I-spent-the-first-decade-of-my-life-in-NYC-and-then-the-next-one-in-suburbia so whenever I’m in what can be constituted as the “countryside”, I get overly excited to see them.

Overly excited to the point where I will point them out when I see them- almost every single time. So by the third day of my stay in Germany with Julia she was very used to this and that morning before we headed out to Neuschwanstein castle she took me on a quick tour to the Garmisch part of her home town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen (located about an hour outside of Munich) and started it off with a view that included not only the tallest mountain in Germany, Zugspitze, but also had amazing views of some happy cows grazing in the fields. Needless to say, it was the perfect way to start the day.

After this we drove back into town and found a good parking spot to go on a quick walking tour of some of her favorite places.

We stopped in first at the Parish Church Of St. Martin, which was completely empty that morning and provided an interesting contrast to the vivid colors of that part of town. I wouldn’t call the atmosphere somber though, maybe more just appropriately pious? In any case it’s a beautiful town church and I’d highly recommend stopping in if you’re in the area.

We didn’t wander too far as we still had plans to travel out to Neuschwanstein Castle but that mornings walk provided an over abundance of postcard worthy views and I left with the impression that Garmisch-Partenkirchen was really and truly like somewhere out of a fairytale. Every curve of the road, every street seemed to be filled with charm, color and culture to the point where I almost didn’t want to leave.

(We would be back later that day of course and do some more exploring as well as visit the Partenkirchen part of town the next day but more on that in a later post. )

~m

A Sunset Walk Goodbye- Salzburg, Austria

There’s very few times where i’ll recommend visiting a cemetery, but St. Peter’s Monastery and it’s accompanying cemetery is easy to recommend given it’s history, location and general beauty. One of the highlights of the cemetery (which btw, is the oldest cemetery in the city) are the accompanying catacombs which are carved out of the Mönchsberg itself. They’re open year round and if you’re interested in going up into them, the entrance is located at the graves of Mozart’s sister Nannerl and Michael Haydn. Julia and I of course decided to go up and take a look.



After coming back down from the catacombs we walked to some other churches in the area and then sat on the stairs of the Kollegienkirche for a while, just people watching and wondering where everyone had gotten the delicious looking ice cream cones they were walking around with. Eventually we found ourselves heading to the river to cross back to the other side as the sun climbed lower in the sky.

And whats that in the background? Another church of course. In front of it is the hotel i’d really love to stay at the next time I visit( because yes of course i’m already thinking of when I can visit again). 

Walking back through the gardens of Mirabell Palace, we ended up right back to the first view where we started that day and looked out across the landscape and up to where we’d been just a couple of hours ago.

We eventually made it back to where we had parked the car and the plan had been to head back to Geretsried since its about a 2 hour ride back but, Julia had a suggestion for another place to visit that was hard to resist. So with a roadmap out between us and some fruit snacks ready to be chewed on, we headed on to the last part of that days adventure.

~m

Under the Heavenly Domed Ceilings- Salzburg, Austria

Salzburg is a city full to bursting with charm, history, impressively well preserved Baroque architecture and a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s plenty of ways to view and tour the city- from a Mozart inspired adventure to a more architecture oriented exploration, I’d be hard pressed to say there isn’t something for everyone.

For me and Julia though, we were just happy to explore wherever the streets took us that Saturday we were there and they just so happened to wind us through countless churches and cathedrals (I say countless because we really did pass through a bunch and I didn’t take photographs at each so i’m honestly still not sure which all we saw…I want to say we saw and/or passed by at least 5 though). If you’ve ever looked at a city view photograph of Salzburg you should be able to immediately pick out the many cathedral domes and church towers- especially if its a view of the Altstadt ( the Old City on the left bank of the river)- so its definetly, as the city guide website puts it, a City of Churches. 

After coming back down from our walk up to Hohensalzburg Castle we immediately veered of from the path we had taken before through a iron gate into what turned out to be The Petersfriedhof (St. Peter’s cemetery). Fans of The Sound of Music movie might know this as the cemetery where the von Trapp family found a secure hiding place before ultimately escaping to Switzerland- which, if your keen on it, I saw plenty of tour buses for Sound of The Music inspired tours in the area as well. This is also where we visited the Catacombs, but that along with the cemetery will be it’s own separate post. Stiftskirche Sankt Peter (St Peter’s Abbey) was where we went into after coming back down from the catacombs, and it was an unexpected rococo splendor.

With a history spanning back to 696 when it was founded by Saint Rupert, the abby is full of history and definetly worth at least a cursory visit. The romanesque abby church that is open to all visitors was erected around 1130- though it wasn’t dedicated to Saint Peter until 1147- and the interior that makes it such a beautiful place of worship was refurbished in the Rococo style between 1760 and 1782.

After leaving and walking for probably less than 15 minutes, we came across the Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church)- this would be the one with the slender steeple that’s almost instantly recognizable on the city skyline. This church is one of the oldest churches in Salzburg and it’s gothic style makes it a genuinely fascinating church to visit, from outside to the interior (though apparently I didn’t take any photos of the interior….or if I did my phone and/or camera ate them…?)

Finally the last church we came across and couldn’t help but visit was the gorgeous Baroque style Kollegienkirche (Collegiate Church). This ended up being my favorite of all the churches we visited that day, at least in Salzburg. From the moment you walk in, it’s an otherworldly experience. As soon as you shut the heavy doors behind you, the bustling of the busy square outside shuts off like water from a tap being turned off, and a calm hushed silence completely inundates you. The tall domed ceilings allow light spill into and over the beautifully renovated walls, and while there are plenty of statues, frescos and touches of rococo splendor to be found, its an overall restrained beauty you’ll find here. It’s hard to stand inside and not feel utterly small but, somehow, the expansive halls never once lose their intimacy.

I don’t consider myself a religious person, but I was raised in a fairly spiritual household and the iconography of Christianity was always in my life in one way or another. Rebellious and eager to strike out on my own, I went through a short lived but rather hardcore atheist period that really just drew a kind of “uh, ok then” reaction from my family and eventually petered out into a general agnostic view of things. Now, older and with a deep seated love for learning about history (especially with regards to the Byzantine empire), I find myself much more comfortable exploring these areas of western religion – whether it’s at a museum or in a centuries old cathedral – than I ever did before, mostly as a oddly knowledgeable and respectful outsider but every so often, if the mood is right, as a hands clasped reluctant believer.

Whichever one you find yourself as when visiting Salzburg though, I highly recommend taking a quiet walk through at least one of the churches here- not only for the architectural beauty on display but also as an integral step into understanding the city’s long and fascinating history.

~ m

Final post on Salzburg coming up next, after which will be a post about the Parish Church of St. Sebastian (also known sometimes as the Ramsau church) and then diving into some fairytale castles built by Ludwig II that Julia and I visited. 

An Introduction to German Culture Via Austria- Salzburg, Austria

Technically this post is about the day trip I took to Salzburg from Munich with my friend Julia. But I can’t really start this post before first explaining how I ended up in Germany in the first place, and who Julia is. Julia is a friend I met about a year or so ago through the same website I met Rob (guy I met up with in Edinburgh) and Dennis (guy I met up with in Amsterdam) though she has the distinction of being the only person I know who also has bunny rabbits as pets and that cemented the bond of friendship between us.  

After leaving Amsterdam at the literal crack of dawn and dealing with a truely craptastic journey that included having to buy a whole new train ticket because the one I had wasn’t pulling up for some reason (though I did get refunded for this later thankfully) and wondering why I had thought trying to visit so many countries in one go was a good idea, I finally made it to Munich HBF where Julia was waiting for me. By the time we made it to her car we were talking like we’d been friends for ages and the journey from Munich to Geretsried (where she lives ) was filled with breathless laughter and her trying to explain why someone on the train had said “shoes” to me- they actually said “tschuss” which means bye.

She took me on some picturesque country backroads and by the time we made it to her apartment I was feeling 100% better about my decision to leave Amsterdam for Germany. We settled in for the evening and then ran back out to pick up some groceries and drinks for the next days adventure, which we had decided would be a day trip to Salzburg. 

 Why Salzburg? Because I bought a guide book for the Bavaria region of Germany and there was a whole section as to why Salzburg makes a great day trip. It does indeed make a great day trip- which is probably why we got stuck in traffic almost as soon as we got on the road. The fact that it was a stunningly beautiful Saturday also had something you to do with it I think. The drive took twice as long as it should have but it was enjoyable as Julia taught me some more about the German way of life (like why so many trucks were out on the highway that day, why the exit for Innsbruck was so popular, etc). Eventually we made it to Salzburg and found parking just a short distance from Mirabell Palace and after grabbing a quick lunch across the street at a places called “Pommes Boutique”, we started our tour of the city there. 


The crowds were definetly out in full force here so we didn’t stay long, eventually moving on from the lovely gardens surrounding the palace to head deeper into the city and cross the river to the other side where my guide book assured me there were a hundred and one things to see. 

(That’s Julia in middle picture btw- can I just say how awesome it was traveling and exploring with someone who also loves photography? There’s such joy and freedom in being able to stop to get a good shot and not feeling like you’re annoying your fellow traveler because they’ve also stopped to snap a pic too.) 


Taking a bit of a circuitous walk we made it across the  river, our goal to head to Getreidegasse, a busy shopping street in the historic Altstadt section of the Old City ( as it’s called, I’m not calling it old just to start a fight with anyone).  Even as we crossed the bridge to the other side, I knew I was going to have to come back again because you could just feel and see so much ahead and behind and all around you, every direction holding something interesting. 

 We wandered a bit aimlessly for a while, just enjoying the weather and city- it’s genuinly one of the most beautiful and explorer friendly places I’ve ever visited, so many side streets and inviting storefronts, you feel you could wander happily all day. We stopped in at a Christmas decoration store because Julia was like “oh my, we have to go in there.” And she was right, I have never in my life seen more Christmas ornaments in one place, all delicate, handmade and selling like hot cakes even out of season. 

After that spellbinding (seriously it was magical) interlude we stopped in at some  gift shops so I could pick up some souvenirs for friends and if you didn’t know it before let me tell you now- Salzburg is the birthplace of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As such you’ll easily be able to find his face on any kind of souvenir you wish:  beer steins, postcards, chocolates. It’s pretty sweet (pun totally intended).

Finished up with the requisite souvenir shopping, we made our way vaguely up.

 Hohensalzburg Castle is in view from near almost any point in the city and while we decided not to spring for the entrance tickets, we still climbed up a mini mountain of stairs to enjoy the magnificent views of the city. As we caught our breath from the climb and enjoyed the views, the bells of the cathedral below us started to toll and if the journey up hadn’t been worth it before, that moment more than made up for it. 

~ m