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

Wet Feet, No Ponchos and A Forest of Burls- Olympic National Park, Washington

We decided to head up to the Pacific Northwest region of the US on almost a whim. By the beginning of June the stress from spending almost all my free time studying to pass the Salesforce Administrator Certification exam had reached an all time high and like I told the bf, “If we don’t book some kind of getaway for next month I think I’m gonna end up running away to become a hermit in the wilds of Alaska.” Needless to say he was supportive of helping plan something and after some consideration we decided to head up to Seattle and possibly make a day trip to Vancouver as well since we’d never been to that part of the US before and I was very enthusiastic about the idea of heading to cooler climes.

By the time the trip rolled around I had thankfully successfully passed the exam (hooray) and we headed out on 5 days of adventure with enthusiasm and only haphazard plans of what we were going to do- which is pretty standard for us, because who needs plans?

The first day there, out flight touched down around 10am and after grabbing our rental car, we headed east towards the coast on HWY 101. Living in North Texas really makes a person eager to see the ocean, breathe in fresh salty air and hear the crashing of waves so off we went, no actual destination in mind apart from just the vague idea of driving until we couldn’t go further.


A leisurely winding 2 hour drive from SeaTac later found us gassing up at Queets and entering the outer reaches of Olympic National park, and we started seeing signs for trails with beach access. We planned to grab some snacks (and coffee!) at Kalaloch Lodge and then park and walk down to the easy access beach there but, I was curious about those other trails and convinced the bf to have us go back and take a look at where they might take us.

The trail for Beach 2 proved much too muddy and slippery for us, as unprepared as we were to do any kind of hiking, but the trail at Beach 1, the Spruce Burl Nature Trail, while having no cars parked at the trailhead looked level and relatively straight forward and and so, we started on our way.

We had no umbrellas, ponchos or hiking books and there was a steady misting rain coming down on us but we had the trail that leads through the woods, across a wooden footbridge and onto the beach all to ourselves, not another person in sight as far as you could see, just the sound of waves and the water rushing up the sand. It was perfect and though we were pretty soaked through by the time we headed back to the car, I don’t think I’ve been as carefree and happy as that in a long time.

(Fun fact- Neither me nor the bf had ever seen burls as big as these on trees before and there was both wonder and slight fright at the number of burls on these Sitka spruce trees in these woods.)

Instead of heading back the way we came to make it to our hotel in Silverdale, we decided to head north because per the GPS it would end up being the same length of time and we figured, why not see some more of this Olympic peninsula area? Funny enough we had completely forgotten that the town of Forks (used as the main setting in the Twilight books) was situated here and we pass right through and then doubled back to take a photo of the town sign because it was too fantastic an opportunity to pass up.

With that photo souvenir taken, we settled in for the rest of the drive back to our hotel, rain still lightly coming down and the almost everything around us surrounded by lush greenness.

~m

The Neuschwanstien Adventure- Schwangau, Germany

After leaving the beyond idyllic town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Julia and I embarked on a quick hour and a half roadtrip to see our second Ludwig II castle, Neuschwanstein. This is the one castle I had heard of before doing any research into where I wanted to visit, as it’s about the most famous of all German castles and arguably the most beautiful. Something I didn’t know before we went is that it’s also one the most visited tourist destinations in all of Europe, which makes sense of course, given it’s accessibility and beauty.

The skies were a clear brilliant blue and I enjoyed the views on the drive- the rolling hills, lush green farms and small towns just off the main highway almost begging for us to stop in and explore them. Finally though, the road curved just right and off in the distance, nestled right into the hills, we spotted the castle.

A 19th century romanesque revival palace constructed for a king who could be best and most kindly described as a social recluse, it was built in homage to the operas of composer Richard Wagner. Neuschwanstein was still incomplete when the king died in 1886 however, and in total he only slept 11 nights there. As the official tourist website for the castle states “the shy king had built the castle in order to withdraw from public life – now vast numbers of people came to view his private refuge. ”  To say there’s something deeply and almost sadly ironic about this would be an understatement.

After catching this glimpse of the castle so near and yet still so far away Julia and I continued on our way and then we ended up missing our turn and would up driving into the outskirts of Füssen, which turned out to be a lucky break as a I had no idea the town was there, nor that it would be so immediately interesting to me. As we made the necessary u-turn to get back on the right route I turned to Julia and said, “We really should see if we can find the time to come back here after we tour the castle, or at the very least stop in for lunch.” She readily agreed and all was well, even as we got behind a long – extremely long- line of cars that were all apparently going the same way as us.

By the time we made it up to the general parking lot at the bottom of the hill from where the castle is situated, we realized that perhaps spending our morning exploring Garmich-Partenkirchen had been a bad call and we should have gotten here earlier. Tour bus after tour bus lined up 6 deep and more people walking around trying to either buy tour tickets, start their walk up the hill to the castle or board a bus than I had seen at any of all the other places I had been to so far. Both Julia and I were caught off guard and we both expressed some version of “holy crap” as we tried to navigate our way to a parking spot.

So here’s something I rarely talk about in my blog posts- heck something I don’t even really talk about in my everyday life- which is the fun fact that I have occasional bouts of sensory overload coupled with social anxiety. As you can maybe imagine, traveling, especially to extremely crowded or busy places… well it can honestly wreak hell on my nerves. I can handle it well enough after years of forced practice and in general, unless you know me pretty intimately, you would just think i’m a bit tense and maybe not having the greatest time. That isn’t to say I don’t enjoy traveling in cities or to tourist attractions, just that I need to be prepared in advance for the amount of energy i’ll need to have to find it in myself not to get overwhelmed by everything and everyone.

I work really hard to make sure there’s nothing ever standing in the way of the things I want to do- whether thats time, money or even myself- but of course the other side of that is also knowing when something isn’t quite worth the effort. If I had been by myself I would probably have taken one look at this crowded parking lot and flashed a cheery peace sign as I departed to calmer pastures but since I was with someone else, I took a deep breath and grabbed that extra cord of determination I keep stored at the bottom of my chest for emergencies and did my best to put on a happy face.
Thankfully however, neither of these were necessary as Julia was of the same opinion that really, this didn’t look like it would that much fun. So we talked it over for a bit and came to the decision that we would book it out of that madhouse, head to Füssen for lunch and then go to Linderhof Palace and maybe come back to Neuschwanstien the next day.

We got a bit turned around as we attempted to make our way out back to Füssen and ended up on some quiet roads that provided some really wonderful (and much more solitary) views of the castle and the surrounding hills and really, that just made us feel even better about our decision.

Things to think about if you decide to make the trip out here:
Just like all the other Ludwig II castles, you can only enter to visit with a tour, and these tours only last 30 minuets. The tickets cost $19 per person and while you can buy them when you arrive, it’s best to reserve ahead of time as they do sell out. Like I mentioned above, it’s an extremely popular destination and it’s probably best to try and make it as early as possible, though tours don’t start until 9am during the summer hours and 10am in the winter. And last but not least, photography is not allowed inside the castle.

On our way back from Füssen (which i’ll cover in the next post), as we headed to Linderhof Palace, we spotted a road that wound it’s way to a very picturesque church so we of course made a quick little detour to snap a couple of photos and check out some pumpkins being sold by the roadside that I had become intensely interested in. The skies had turned grey over the course of the past few hours we had been here but the wind was only a little crisp and with no rain immediately visible on the horizon, we headed on our way to the final Ludwig II castle on our Bavarian agenda.

~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 Church By the River – Ramsau, Germany

well I don’t know if we will make it before dark… but we’re already on our way so…

might as well try!

That’s the exchange Julia and I had as we drove from Salzburg, Austria to Ramsau bei Berchtesgaden, Germany while we were trying to decide if we would make it in time to see the church she was taking me to or if we’d arrive after dark. After getting turned around twice while trying to navigate our way out of Salzburg, it was anyone’s guess at this point. The postcard worthy scenery as we made our way- tall lightly snow dusted mountains, lush green valleys and a winding road that showed it all to the best advantage- had already made the drive worth it to me though.

And what were we on our way to see? Why, another church of course! The Parish Church of Saint Sebastian( if you haven’t read my previous post on all the churches we visited in Salzburg- here it is – , which might give you a greater insight into why we both enjoy visiting these places and how truly worth the visit they are even if you wouldn’t normally be interested in these kinds of places)

The town of Ramsau bei Berchtesgaden is a small one, and one I had never heard of before Julia mentioned it. She told me the area was very popular with tourists though, as they liked to photograph the church, which is situated by the lovely Ramsauer Ache river, with the surrounding mountains rising in the background. It just sounds very picturesque, no?

The gently curving road eventually deposited us outside the town and I can say with full honestly the first words out of my mouth were a solid “wow”. The town is like something out of a fairytale, nestled right into the valley, with the main street tucked next to the river. There were also plenty of hotels and Gasthäuser in the area, not to mention a few tour buses and vans spotted here and there so it’s definetly popular with tourists of all kinds.

After finding a lucky parking spot just by the river and walking across the bridge to take a couple of photographs of the church opposite the other side, we meandered around the streets there for a bit and then made our way back. We crossed the surprisingly busy street (well, busy for the small town atmosphere) and found ourselves looking up at the church. “Should we go inside?” Julia asked and why not? We’d come this far, it would be almost silly not to really take it all in.

We encountered a group of German tourists at the entrance and they asked Julia to take a photo of them- coincidentally, they both had the same camera model after which they headed off and we looked around to realize we had been left with the whole place to ourselves.

The inside of the church was modest, at least compared to some of the other splendorous insides we had seen that day, but there was a really wonderful intimacy that was unique to the space that still stands out to me when I think back on it. We stayed inside for a bit and then quietly made our way back outside, where we took the path just next to the church that leads up to the cemetery.

Is it in bad taste to comment on the aesthetics of a cemetery? Maybe, but that doesn’t stop me from saying this was one of the loveliest cemeteries I’ve ever visited. It’s situated right behind and slightly above the church, which means it overlooks the valley, river and surrounding mountains, providing a really unexpected kind of view. We walked through the area there before heading back down and then taking another path around the side of the church through what ended up being a historic graveyard.

What I can most easily remember as we walked there in the town and around the church was the gentle smell of burning firewood somewhere , something heady and slightly sweet that wafted over us and made everything seem that much more idyllic.

Eventually though, true darkness began to settle in the valley and we decided it was probably high time to make our way back home to Julia’s apartment- especially since we wanted at least a little bit of an early start the next day when we headed to Herrenchiemsee, to see the palace built by King Ludwig II that was intended to be a Bavarian Versailles.

~m