Beautiful Sintra and the Park and Palace of Monserrate- Sintra, Portugal

The day started early as my body had yet to regulate itself to it’s new Portuguese time zone and I was up at the painfully early hour of 530am. The sun hadn’t even risen yet and to be honest I laid in bed for another good hour just being lazy and reading through texts my bf (who was still back home in Texas) had sent me the night before and browsing tumblr. Finally though, I got up and started to get ready for the day which I knew would be lengthy as I had booked a tour through WithLocals for a full day of sightseeing in and around Sintra with a lovely lady named Silvia.

She would be picking me up at 830 in her van and then it would just be me and her for 8 hours, the agenda being very loosely situated around exploring the town of Sintra, checking out one of the castles or palaces there, driving out to Cabo de Roca and then ending the day at the fisherman village of Cascais. Or at least, that was the plan but of course, you know with me things rarely ever go to plan (but I will say even before I start, this was one of the most amazing and fun experiences I’ve had and except for one unfortunate turn of event on my part, there’s nothing I would go back and change).

After stuffing myself full of the delicious breakfast that was brought to the room (cheese, ham, pastries and strong coffee), I was just wiping the crumbs off my shirt when there was knocking on my door and I was informed Silvia had arrived- she was lingering behind the housekeeper, a friendly smile on her face that turned down for a sec when she spotted my bare arms.

“Ooh make sure you grab a jacket or sweater, it can get a little cold!”

Grabbing my jacket and bidding a goodbye to the housekeeper I rushed out, ready to start the day with Silvia. She introduced herself and her white van and seemed to have enough enthusiasm to power 10 pep rallies. Basically, she was lovely and any indecision I have about spending the whole day with her was erased by the time we were heading up the mountain road to find a good parking spot from where to explore the twisty streets of Sintra.

We grabbed coffee and pastries at a local cafe while she got to know me a little better and gathered our plans for the day- she was of course delightfully puzzled as to why I was traveling by myself but didn’t press me with questions and instead asked what palace or castle I had chosen for us to visit that day. I had picked the Monserrate Palace to leave for last, both because it seemed like the one with the least amount of walking required (maybe it’s silly but I didn’t want to embarrass the hell out of myself huffing and puffing to a seasoned veteran of the area while clambering around the Moors castle or making our way up the steep climb to Pena Palace) and because it was the one I was least interested in- that way if my guide had turned out to be a dud, it wouldn’t ruin the trip for me. Silvia was more than happy for us to make our way to Monserrate after touring Sintra, though she advised she didn’t know too much of it’s history as overwhelmingly people usually asked her to take them to Pena Palace. As she said, “It will be a fun change from the usual!” 

After finishing up our coffee and pastries we set out to walk around the quiet streets of Sintra, the town still just barely waking up and making it the perfect setting for us to take a leisurely stroll while I snapped photos here and there as Silvia told me some of the towns history. We walked to the Palácio Nacional de Sintra which would end up being one of the major sites I didn’t make time to visit (something to do next time I visit) and from there walked around the central square of São Martinho in the historic centre.

I wish I could recount every detail Silvia told me regarding Sintras history, as it’s truly fascinating and contains so much intrigue, speculation and drama that I could easily see it spawning an HBO series but, my brain is only so useful and when presented with the choice of memorizing historical details or taking in one of the most enchanting towns i’ve ever visited, the choice was clear. What I do remember is Silvia telling me how Sintra’s popularity has waxed and waned through out it’s existence but it’s never completely disappeared, it’s particular appeal to the rich as a retreat allowing it to endure even after the devastating 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Personally, if I had the means, I know I wouldn’t hesitate to at least vacation here every chance I got, never-mind constructing yet another grand estate to the join the overflowing bounty of already existing ones.

After spending about an hour and 1/2 in Sintra we made our way to Monserrate, the palatial villa with gorgeous landscaped gardens that was constructed to it’s current design in 1863. It’s a bit of a walk from the entrance down to the palace itself but the day was lovely and the gardens are beautiful, an interesting mix of rigid landscaped areas with more wild spots interspersed here and there. Once you catch a glimpse of the palace though, there’s nothing else that will grab your attention- though all of Sintra seems to be influenced by Romanticism and Moorish Revival architecture, even after having seen the rest, I was moved to silence by the gorgeous mixture of the two here.

Though the palace is empty of furniture and collections, there’s more than enough to take in. From the ornate ceilings, carved columns and the abundance of interactive information available about it’s history, I’d say there’s enough to see within the palace to justify a visit. When I visited with Silvia there were about maybe 3 other groups of people and we had plenty of time to just marvel at the details in the architecture and read the infographics regarding Francis Cook, the English merchant who owned the property and engineered it’s construction. Eventually though, we were ready to head out and Silvia guided me to the gardens to make our way back to her van, our many other planned stops for the day clamoring for attention.

We stumbled upon the ruins of an old chapel on our winding way out, and of course I had to wander inside and take a look, Silvia taking a seat on a log outside to catch her breath a little. She was amused by my enthusiasm for ruins of any kind, especially with how I had enjoyed the ornate opulence of the interior we had just left and then gamely thanked me for giving her a good idea of something to potentially show other visitors one day. We left, a little sweaty from the walking but laughing and energized for our next destination.

~m

The Mystery and Magic of Quinta da Regaleira- Sintra, Portugal

My second day in Portugal started out at about the same time as the first- that is, way too early at 6am since my body was still adjusting to the time change but it was nice to get a few hours to myself to just chill, send messages to friends and eventually eat a hearty breakfast before heading out to the first stop of the day, the historic estate of Quinta da Regaleira.

Quinta da Regaleria, also know as the Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire” was one of the places I was most excited to get to visit, amid all the many others to be found there in Sintra it seemed to be the one with an air of beautiful mystery that just called to be explored. I arrived right after opening at 9:30am and lucked out to a mostly clear day and no tour crowds to be seen yet. I knew I wanted to explore the grounds and most especially to see the popular Initiation well.

I got turned around a few times because to say the estate is sprawling would be an understatement but eventually I found myself looking down at the inverted tower- it’s a “well” in name only as it’s never held water and was used for ceremonial purposes- and debating if I wanted to walk down the spiraling stairs.

I did eventually walk down carefully and the view from below up was definitely worth it. Getting out proved a little tricky as I followed one of the underground tunnels to a green lagoon area underneath a small waterfall and couldn’t quite figure out where to go from there. There was a path of rocks that led across the bright green water to the other side i wanted to go to and though it seems like a foolhardy idea, in my head this must be the way to go, so out I stepped.

It’s probably a minor miracle I didn’t fall into the green goo but I made it across…. only to see a sign from that side saying to please stay off the rocks. Flushed with mortification I carefully hurried away but unfortunately a couple of people had seen me crossing and were inspired to try and recreate my journey back across to the tunnels. I want to hope they didn’t fall in either but I had disappeared into the trees before they could turn to ask for advice.

After about two hours of just wandering around and exploring the grounds I finally took a break at the small cafe and enjoyed the quiet. The crowds were just starting to come in as I finished my break so I figured I should wrap things up with a tour through the main building and then head on to the next stop which was to be Queluz National Palace.

Sadly though, most of the areas inside the building were closed and all of the upstairs was under renovation so I didn’t get to see much or read up on the history of the estate. That was only a slight negative in terms of the whole visit though because the true beauty of Quinta da Regaleira is really in the grounds, all the hidden gems, odd statues and utterly impossible to resist trails leading to who knows what. I could have easily spent a good few more hours here but the rain I had managed to avoid that morning finally caught up with me and I decided the best bet was to move on and see one more place for the day.

The story of how I met the worlds nicest uber driver and how I got yet another phone number from a concerned Portuguese citizen wanting to make sure I was ok traveling alone is for the next post.

~m

To the Louvre Once More- Paris, France

I visited the Louvre for the first time in 2017 last October, and it was at the tail end of a whirl wind two week first time trip ever to Europe. It was a dream come true and I have yet to go to a museum that could surpass it but, there was definetly still a lot to be seen . People asked, “Did you see the Mona Lisa?” to which I would reply no, and i’m quite alright not seeing it that up close and person with 200+ people thank you. The idea that there are greater works of art of be appreciated here was, is and will probably always remain my steadfast opinion.

After a trip that had included a visit to Michelangelo’s David, not to mention the almost countless other works of art housed in the museums and palaces we had visited, there was almost a bit of trepidation that morning that we woke up to head to the Louvre. I was excited to get a chance to see the whole other section of the museum I had missed last time, namely the Egyptian and Mesopotamian artifacts but I was worried the bf might suffer a bit of art fatigue within the first hour.

Thankfully, this proved to not be the case and it was actually me who ended up sitting down just shortly after taking a walk through the newest department at the Louvre, the department of Islamic Art. After a short break to rest my slightly weary feet though, I was up and happily exploring and learning about the beautiful Islamic art, mosaics and artifacts curated in this section. It actually turned out to be one of the highlights of the visit.

I think in total we spent about 6 hours here, and once again I still feel there is so much left to be seen and marveled over and while I don’t think i’ll be back again anything soon (as in, next year or so) I do very much want to come back, possibly when my French is much better.

We headed back to our hotel to rest up- trust me when is say spending the day walking around a gigantic gorgeous museum and just trying to absorb everything around you can really take it out of you- and relaxed out until night had fallen. At that point, we got our walking clothes out and headed back to the Louvre to catch the illuminated pyramids and enjoy a short evening walk around the area. Off in the distance, before we headed back, we caught sight of the Eiffel Tower illuminated as well and we were almost tempted to take the metro there but, in the end, the fact that a light drizzle had started decided us against it and our very tired feet were happy to head back to rest for the next days adventures.

~m

The Forum Romanum and a Goodbye- Rome, Italy

Was this the highlight of our stay in Rome? Long answer no (St Peters Basilica was surreal but my hurt hurt like the dickens to the point it was excruciating to stand and marvel at it all), short answer heck yes. I honestly can’t emphasize how necessary a visit is to the Roman Forum if you are visiting Rome and considering we almost didn’t go ourselves thats saying something.

I think the only real downside to the visit was that because we chose to do this in conjunction with the Colosseum tour (which isn’t necessary but the ticket price for us just made sense), we didn’t have as much time to explore as I would have liked once the tour concluded. But to be fair, I feel like I would need a full day to see it all and I’m more than willing to come back to do so.

Being for centuries the center of everyday life in Rome, the sprawling ruins of the forum are capable of capturing anyone’s imagination and I would almost dare anyone to visit and not be filled with wonder and immense curiosity at the lives of the people who inhabited these spaces.

( For information on how to get there, it’s location- next to the Colosseum it’s pretty obvious but still-, the price of admission and opening hours I would suggest going here. )

After paying my respects at Julius Caesar’s alter (not to be confused with his grave, but where his remains were cremated and where his altar is dedicated ) we headed back down the street to our Airbnb apartment where it was time to pack things up for the next mornings journey to Paris.

After snacking on what will always remain the best tasting strawberries that I’d picked up earlier on our walk back from the Pantheon, I alternated between packing and making sure we were reading for our early departure and marveling at the incredible view from our windows as the sun set and night descended complete with twinkling stars.

I can say with a surety that i’m sure has been expressed millenniums before- there is no city quite like Rome and I would almost say that any first time visit to Italy isn’t complete without at least a stop to the city that all roads lead to.

~m

A Walk Through History in The Colosseum – Rome, Italy

After making it back from our morning sightseeing walk and depositing the souvenirs we (I) had obtained as well as the fresh fruit I had picked up from a market stall along the way, we headed back out just down the street to meet up with the tour group that would be taking us through the Colosseum.

These two photos here- of me and this flag i’m holding-  are rather important, if only because one should inform the other. Through out the whole portion of the trip we spent in Italy, more often then not, I kept being mistaken for being Italian (though I got a couple of “français ?” as well) . And this wouldn’t have been a big deal if I was fluent in Italian but i’m not- even at this point in time as I write this, i’m only painfully awkward at a conversational level. I can understand the language well enough but definetly not enough to speak it when i’m mistaken as Italian by a local and they begin speaking to me rapidly in said language (the look of disappointment in their eyes as I began haltingly answering back in Italian and then was forced to switch to English is a giant motivator in the last few months of study i’ve put into learning the language btw).

So anyways, story time. Me and the bf signed up to take a tour of the Colosseum + the Roman Forum and once we met up with the group at the appointed time and location, we headed on towards the entrance, where the tour guide got tickets on our behalf and once we made it up to the point where security passes you through a turnstile, he would use each ticket to have us go through. When it was my turn, I passed through without incident but when the bf tried to go through, the turnstile wouldn’t turn- apparently there was an error with the tickets.

The thing is, we had signed up for this tour specifically because it was the only way to tour the underground levels of the Colosseum, as you had to do it accompanied in a tour group but also with a licensed archeologist guide that would meet the group inside the Colosseum. This archeologist was already waiting for us at the designated meeting point and as our tour guide was being held up by trying to figure out what was wrong with the tickets, he turned to our small group and said, “Ok, I need one of you to take this flag while I go fix this.” And then, somehow, I ended up being the person who got to lead out tour group down to the meeting point. Which would have been fine, if a bit of a novel experience, if the archeologist waiting for us hadn’t immediately pounced on my when she saw I was holding the flag to begin rapidly talking in Italian and gesturing to our group with questions.

The rest of the tour group jumped in rapidly to correct her and let her know where our real guide was and her response after realizing the situation and mix up was a long and hearty laugh, many apologies and the words “Mi dispiace! You just have that face- doesn’t she just have that face?” and thats the story of how I got to lead a tour group in the Colosseum for all of 10 minuets and was mistaken as a tour guide while sporting a rather old and overly large hoodie I borrowed from the bf (professional attire at it’s finest i’m sure).

I’d like to say the rest of the tour in the Colosseum went without incident but someone actually ended up puking while we were in the underground levels. Thankfully, they were ok, and it was near the end of that part of the tour and even with all this little things I would still highly recommend signing on to take the tour that enables you to visit the underground levels- most especially because you will be guided by an actual archeologist who has been working there in the Colosseum . I’ve never had a tour guide who was as passionate as she was- not only with telling us the history of the Colosseum (also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre) but with impressing into us the importance of acknowledging the incredible amount of human suffering that went on there, especially while we toured the underground levels.

This is where people worked, lived, fought and died, I remember her telling us. I had already known the majority of combatants who fought in the arena were generally slaves, condemned criminals or prisoners of war but there was something about standing there underneath the arena itself as she showed us where the fighters would have prepared, as we were led us across narrow dark hallways where light barely shown through, as we were shown the pulleys and levers that would transport animals up or bodies back down-  there is a difference to reading about history and standing face to face with it.

That white part you see there in this photo above, that is the only part of the arena floor that remains and once again, you can only step out onto it with the guided archeological tour- and let me tell you, that alone is worth the price of admission. Standing there on the elevated platform and looking out over the arena stands is almost enough to transport you, if only for a moment, to AD 80 when the amphitheater was completed.

By the by, it’s worth nothing how impressive it is that given when it was first built, it still remains the worlds largest amphitheatre.

The rest of the tour was impressive, but as soon as we caught a glimpse of the Roman Forum from one of the upper levels and were told that was where the next part of our tour would be, I could barely hold in my excitement. If you know anything about me and traveling, you know almost nothing interests me as much as ruins and here was this impressive sprawl of ancient roman ruins just waiting to be explored.  We said goodbye to the Colosseum and headed on to the next part of our tour.

We walked slowly from the outer edges of the forum, the views of the Colosseum all that more beautiful to me for having been inside, and deeper into the heart of the Roman Forum.

~m