The Monumental Palácio Nacional de Mafra- Mafra, Portugal

“Oof, you know I think we’re a little lost.”

Those words usually inspire a flurry of mild anxiety in me no matter who says them but, for some reason, as Silvia peers at her phone on some random bumpy backroad near a town who’s name I can’t pronounce, I just feel a sense of calm descend over me.

We had left the beautiful Palace of Monserrate  about two hours before this, stopping at a couple of view points along the way, most notably the Miradouro das Azenhas do Mar (the observation deck area pictured above) where we had wandered along the coastline for a bit, just chatting about the area and our plans for the rest of the day. Already Silvia had guided me around the lovely town of Sintra and toured me through the grounds of Monserrate, as well as a couple of other stops after that. But we were at a bit of an impasse now, because she still had me for next 4 hours and we weren’t quite sure what to do. Usually people picked another larger palace for her to take them to, like Pena Palace, and/or hadn’t already gone to Cabo da Roca but of course I had to be different and while she still had her last stop of the day planned, the fishing village of Cascais, she really wanted me to get the most out of the day with her.

“Ok, hey! Do you want to go to Mafra? Mafra Palace? I think you will like it.” 

I had actually looked up the Palace of Mafra on my first day in Sintra and had been interested but unfortunately it was about a 40 min drive from where I was staying and I really didn’t think the effort of trying to get out there and back would be worth it. But, if Silvia was offering to take me, why not?

And thats how we found ourselves driving along the quiet road towards Mafra, occasionally doubling back when a road sign told us we had gone the wrong way and jotting down phone numbers of any properties for sale in the area (her husband works in real estate and after I saw her take a photo of a “for sale by owner” sign, I kept my eyes peeled for them as well, a new kind of roadtrip game to play). It should have been slightly stressful, not really knowing where we were going and traveling with someone I had never met before but, honestly? It was the most relaxed I had felt in weeks. This of course, probably had something to do with the fact that just two weeks prior my whole department at work had been laid-off and I was the only one kept on from a team of about 30 people. A shocking turn of events to be sure, but once I had landed in Portugal I had been determined not to think on it, not to move on from it exactly, but at least not linger on the unexpected hole blasted in my work life. (Obviously there is something to be said for being lucky enough to not only keep my job but be able to then jet off to Europe on a preplanned trip and I really can’t overstate that enough for having enabled me to keep some semblance of calm about the whole thing and not just flip a table on the spot)

Chatting with Silvia about Portuguese culture, her family and my plans for the rest of the trip as we watched the landscape change from coastal to hilly farmland, winding our way through quiet towns to whatever Mafra would hold, it was the best kind of escape I could ask for.

Built between 1717 and 1755 during the reign of King John V, the palace was constructed per a vow the king made in 1711- in summary, he would order a great convent built if his wife gave birth to an heir. As Silvia told me, the vow must have really worked because the couple went on to have not only their first child María Barbara but an additional 6 children beyond that. Though it was originally meant to be a convent only large enough to house 13 Capuchin friars, due to the immense influx of wealth received from Brazil (a Portuguese colony at the time), construction was vastly expanded to have enough space for 330 friars. The original design was also altered to include state rooms, so in the end the proposed convent ended up serving as hunting retreat for the king as well due to it’s proximity to the royal hunting preserves in the area.

It’s hard to really explain the size of this palace in terms that can be visualized. I could tell you the front façade of the palace is over 250 meters long and stands high above the surrounding town buildings at a not inconsiderable 68 meters. I could tell you there are over 1,200 rooms built around the central awe inspiring basilica, not to mention the rare books library that houses over 30,000 books on it’s shelves. All these things don’t really make you feel the true size of how big this place is though- how tiny you feel inside- especially when you and tour guide seem to be the only people wandering in and out of rooms, only the occasional other visitor seen far ahead of you.


We spent about two hours there, slowling winding our way around from one end to the other, taking in the sumptuous gorgeousness of some rooms and the almost stark emptiness of others. I think we saw one other person visiting while we were there and I could almost imagine what it would have been like to wander these halls as if I lived there, no one to disturb me as I walked down the long halls. Silvia apologized many times for not knowing too much of the history of the palace since she rarely visited but I was just thankful she had brought me and made sure she realized I couldn’t have asked for a better guide for the day.

The library was the most memorable place in the whole palace, at least to me. The day we visited was sunny, allowing golden light to spill into the deep rectangular room, the shelves packed from end to end with books as far as my eye could see and though the area was roped off to prevent damage to the library, being able to take photos and some moments of video was enough for me to cement the visit as a complete and happy success.

We ended the trip with a visit to the giftshop so I could grab some postcards for friends as well as a book on other rare book libraries in Portugal (you can bet this inspired many ideas of future trips once I read it) and then we were back on the road towards Cascais.

Unfortunately, a perfect day from start to finish was not to be as I ended up having to cut the last part of our trip short due to some unexpected nausea and stomach cramps. I promised Silvia I would much rather just head on back to my hotel than have her try and cart me around Cascais- that though I would have loved to see it with her, it was no great loss to save it for a future trip. She was of course accommodating and even stopped at a gas station before she dropped me off to buy me a water and some Sprite to settle my stomach which I honestly just love her for. We hugged tightly as we said goodbye outside my hotel and I thanked her profusely for an amazing day, promising to leave her as high of a review as possible on the WithLocals site I had booked her through.

I ended my day sipping Sprite out on the patio connected to my rooms, one of the house cats sitting above keeping me company, reading about other beautiful libraries in Portugal and already dreaming of coming back to visit them one day.

~m

Btw, if you’re at all interested, this is the WithLocals link you can use to get $15 off any private tour you book through them (and I in turn would get $15 to use as well, which hey, thats nice). If you do end up going to Lisbon and Silvia is available as a guide for a tour you’re looking at, I can’t recommend enough that you book her. She was so knowledgable, friendly and just one of the loveliest people i’ve ever met and I honestly would love to go back and take another tour with her. (No i’m not sponsored by them btw, I just honestly loved being able to use them and legit can’t praise the guides I had enough)

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 Rococo Splendor of Queluz National Palace- Queluz, Portugal

Coastline view of Cabo Da Roca

(Lets gloss right over the fact that I haven’t posted anything on this blog in like half a year and also that i’ve since gone on yet another trip which will probably take me a couple more months to get to and… dive back into the adventure that was Portugal)

“You haven’t been to Cabo da Roca yet? But why not!”

My Uber driver Nuno seems very displeased with my answer, but thankfully not in an angry way, more like this is unacceptable and he needs to fix it soon, if his next sentence is anything to go by.

“Would you like to go? We can go right now if you like, it’s good weather!”

It’s not good weather, not really- I had to bust out my umbrella while I waited for him to pick me up on the side of the road just down from Quinta da Regaleira because I’m a dummy who got a bit lost and went the wrong way and then was too tired to just turn around and go back and instead called an Uber while waiting outside some random person’s home. I’m actually starting to feel like I could very easily become a cautionary tale for women who travel alone, and that feeling deepens a couple minutes later when I tell Nuno, yeah why not, lets head to Cabo Da Roca and also take a sweet mint candy from him to enjoy on the drive there.

* Spoiler alert, I don’t get murdered and Nuno was honestly one of the kindest people I met on the whole trip but, also, don’t ever do any of the stuff I do because I genuinely am a thrice damned idiot sometimes …

As I suck on the candy, which is actually really good and helps with the vague nausea you can get while taking the twisty turns down the mountains here in Sintra, I send a quick text to a friend who lives in the Netherlands (anyone who would care in the USA is still asleep) with a photo of Nuno from the Uber app and a msg saying something like,
“Yo, if I don’t text you in like an hour, this guy’s probably responsible”.

They takes it in stride because at this point most people just accept the situations I seem to get myself in. Nuno talks to me about the local drivers, how he dislikes tourist who try and drive around Sintra (you couldn’t pay me do it myself, hence the over-reliance on friendly Uber drivers) and asks questions about my trip. He looks to be in his 50’s, is very charming and while his English isn’t perfect, my own Portuguese is non existent so we try and supplement it with some Spanish here and there. We get into a spirited conversation regarding my last name, which he insists is Portuguese (I will have this conversation about 4 different times while i’m in Lisbon/Sintra) and then we’re out of the windy roads and heading towards the coast, a Black Eye’d Peas song playing in the background on his radio and the rain actually lessening to the point of some glimpses of blue sky.

We make it to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Portugal and continental Europe, about 20 min after Nuno picked me up and pull into the parking lot next to a gigantic tour bus. For a second I wonder if i’m supposed to get out of the car and go wander about because that feels a bit weird but, then Nuno is turning off the car and getting out himself, gesturing for us to walk down together over to the tall stone monument and peer over the cliffs edge. The air is crisp and clean and the water is varying shades of lovely blue. I haven’t seen a coastline like this in what feels like forever and there’s something about knowing i’m as far west as I can be while still being in Europe that makes the unexpected detour worth it.

We only spend about 10-15 min here because I don’t want to take up too much of Nuno’s time plus the rain has started to make a comeback, and soon we’re back on the road headed towards my original destination, The Palace of Queluz. The drive is calm, following the coastline for a while, and Nuno and I chat a bit again about what I have planned for the next few days, with him giving me recommendations for restaurants and advice for parts of Lisbon to visit. He gives me his number while we’re on the highway, insisting that I please give him a call if I need anything or if I get lost or even just for more recommendations and I program it into my phone because even though I know I probably won’t use it, it’s a lovely gesture and lowers the loneliness of traveling alone in a foreign country by about 25%.

After saying our goodbyes outside the rain soaked entrance to Queluz, I step inside to buy a ticket and realized exactly why Nuno expressed mild confusion over my wanting to visit this place. He had been kind when he said people didn’t really visit it much, not when compared to all the other places, but there had been something about it when I looked it up online that made me want to make the time (you know I love me some Rococo) ,and given I had a full day tour the next day to visit everywhere else in Sintra, it just made sense. But stepping into the deserted lobby and then into the empty ticket/help desk area and seeing the genuine surprise on the girl behind the counter when I asked to buy a ticket…yeah. I saw maybe 4 people who weren’t workers over the next two and a half hours I spent leisurely wandering around the gorgeous halls and elaborate rooms, but since I quite like when places aren’t packed to the rafters with people, it worked out pretty well for me.

I can’t recommend for you to visit or not visit, mostly because it would depend on how much time you have in the greater Lisbon area. If you happen to have a couple of extra hours and enjoy late baroque splendor mixed with some interesting Portuguese history, then yes, stop on by…just be prepared for how your Uber driver or literally any local will tilt their head at you if you say you’re visiting (the next day my tour guide for the day was like “Ah..ok, well thats nice then, it’s an interesting place!” and then politely changed the subject to other points of interest). It was interesting to read the Trip Advisor reviews before and after the fact as well, because they’re all filled with pretty much the same kind of experience so, I guess I will say if you like getting a chance to explore places people wouldn’t normally visit, this would be it.

More info about the palace and gardens here.

After taking in the interior rooms and then walking around outside in the gardens a bit, I stopped in at the ground floor cafe for the fanciest glass of freshly squeezed orange juice i’ve ever had (the glass was a delicate sparkling crystal and I kept an internal monologue of “don’t break it don’t break it” as I sipped the juice), I headed back to the main building area to stop in at the gift shop and then back outside to wait for my last Uber driver of the day. This one didn’t offer his number to me but, we did have a lot of fun getting lost on the way back to the my hotel- we ended up passing the same street sign about 5 times to the point where when we finally got to the destination we both let out a very relieved cheer and I thanked him profusely for not just kicking me out of his car and rage quitting. He in turn thanked me for promising to give him a good review- it’s not his fault streets in Sintra weren’t made with cars in mind after all- and wished me luck on the rest of my trip. I finished out the day listening to the calming sound of the rain gently falling outside on the patio and wondering what the next day would bring.

~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

Sainte-Chapelle, Jardins du Trocadéro and A Goodbye- Paris, France

A paradise of color, an ecstasy of diffused light all encased in a gothic masterpiece over 750 years old- that is the marvel of Sainte-Chapelle.

I’m getting ahead of myself though, because the day actually started at another church, Notre-Dame. The plan had been to wake up early enough to make it there before the crowds descended but we woke up rather late and by the time we had taken the metro line down, there was a line that snaked from the entrance over a bridge and then possibly even further beyond. It was honestly the longest line for an attraction/point of interest I had ever seen and though we weren’t exactly pressed for time, neither the bf or I really felt that it would be worth the wait when there were so many other places to see. We also really doubted this would be our last visit to Paris so, we trundled off a bit chagrined sure, but not with too heavy a heart.

The next destination on that days list was Sainte-Chapelle, a church the bf had picked out and I knew absolutely nothing about( this would be key later) and luckily it was situated only a short walk away from Notre-Dame. We were a bit smarter here and the bf managed to buy us skip the line tickets and we were inside and through security in less than 10 minutes.

We stayed on the first floor of the chapel for a while, because again I hadn’t researched ahead and didn’t know what there was to see here. But then I noticed off to the side, people going up a very narrow dimly lit staircase almost hidden into the wall. We figured why not go check it out?

It’s unspeakable hard to put into words what it was like stepping into that room and having absolutely no idea what you were going to find. Think of it almost like getting a crowbar upside the head- I think my heart actually paused it’s rhythm for a few seconds while my eyes tried to take it all in.

A stained glass gothic marvel is a good one sentence descriptor probably.

I think overall, from start to finish, we probably spent an hour here and we might have stayed just a little bit longer but then a tour group came up the stairs and we knew it was time to head back out into the busy streets of Paris and onto our next stop.

And where was our next stop? Why the Eiffel Tower of course. Well, lunch at a nice little bistro tucked into the street just near by first though.

A picture perfect way to say goodbye to Paris wouldn’t you say?

After spending about 2 hours in the area- sitting on the lawn directly in front of the Eiffel Tower and then leisurely making our way across the street to the overlook provided by the Trocadero square gardens, we took one last metro ride to catch sight of the famous Arc de Triomphe – it’s up to you personally if you would like to go up to the overlook it provides but we really weren’t enthused by the idea of waiting in the underground line when we’d already gotten some pretty amazing views already. Plenty of other people had the same idea we had too, and we even helped a couple take a nice photograph of themselves with it in the background from across the street.

After this, with the weather turning a bit gloomy and potentially rainy, we headed back to our hotel and the promise of ice cream and relaxation before we had to begin repacking everything for the next day’s journey back home. It was an easy and relaxed day to end our whirlwind European adventure and later as we lay in bed eating French chocolates and thumbing through all the postcards and souvenirs we’d picked up, it was incredibly hard to believe we’d actually been to all these incredible places. (It was also very hard to accept we had to go back home to Dallas- which for all its charms can’t honestly compare, at least to us.)

We know we’ll back though- actually we’ve already bought tickets for our next trip in December! There is a lot that’s happened since I began posting about this trip- both because I began back in April and also because of my severe wanderlust that’s only been fueled more these past few months. I usually do an outtakes post at the end of a long series like this one but I think I may skip it this once in favor of a short updates post in the coming week.

Either way a sincere and happy thanks to everyone who’s been reading from the start, popping in here and there and those that just recently joined. This is my very small and personal way to share my love of photography and exploration with people (and hopefully inspire them to explore themselves) and it’s genuinely nice to have a place to come to and recount my stories.

Not drowning in my coffee cups yet,

~ m