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