Castle-gazing in Sintra, Portugal

Castle-gazing in Sintra, Portugal
Castle-gazing in Sintra, Portugal

Stepping outside the terminal in Lisbon, I noticed first the sunlight. Late afternoon, clear and creamy, it shafted between buildings and spilled all over the station platform. I had almost forgotten what I was missing back in England. If I stood on tiptoe, I could spot the sea peeking on the horizon. Europe, but shading nearer my island home of the past two years — I prayed in fervent gratitude for a long weekend in a new land.

After two solid months of fifteen, sometimes twenty hour days, zooming back and forth by bike between my home outside the city to the university center, I had determined to prioritize resting on this trip. To make good on this resolve, I booked a room outside the capital, in a little town most tourists counted worthy of a day trip, for three nights of absorbing its beauties at a tranquil pace.

Every booklet boasted Pena Palace as Sintra’s top attraction. Banking on off-peak traffic, I found my way by foot to the garden gates, where an unhurried vendor sold me a ticket on the spot. I conducted myself at a leisurely pace through the interior tour, lingering over the tiled courtyard, gazing round-eyed at the carved ceilings, retracing my steps as often as I liked.

The furniture and unobtrusive inscriptions convey visitors directly to the days when the royal family dressed before mirrors, signed letters at the desks, gathered at the expandible dining table. The artist-king, as they dubbed its principal owner, drew inspiration from the romantic views. Pena overlooks the city, and the Castelo dos Mouros — a short stroll away — overlooks Pena.

A stone dragon sprawling over the hilltops: the Moorish fortress unwound like a boy’s daydream over the tallest mountain peak. Visitors scaled the walls with nary a railing or velvet cord in sight — proceed at your own risk, to the top of the towers, along the crumbling stairs, from one end to the other. I tore myself away only when the light failed.

That weekend I enjoyed the best meal of my life: a tasting menu from Incomum, with wine pairings to match. Sparkling, rosé, white, red, and Madeira escorted plates of salmon and avocado, scallops and artichoke, duck with orange shavings, olive oil cake with pineapple ice cream — beautiful on the eyes, luscious on the tongue. The soup arrived as a mound of oyster sorbet, with a curl off the half shell nestled alongside, which the chef doused with a beaker of hot purée. Throughout I munched brown bread seasoned from a stoppered bottle of salt, a swirl of oil, a jar of olives.

After such a performance, the follow-up meals impressed by not disappointing. A seafood restaurant lavished on me the largest octopus I’ve ever seen, all purple tentacles and ringlets, grilled to tender perfection. A lunch spot serenaded me with a lively band featuring accordion and tambourine while I scarfed a scabbardfish.

Even my bed-and-bakery treated me to a princessly spread every morning — enough for breakfast, lunch, and dessert, with a brown paper bag packed for my last morning in anticipation of a redeye flight.

I had saved Quinta da Regaleira for my final excursion, enchanted with its lacy facades. The chapel overflowed in ornamentation, a cloud carved into stone. One of its resident families caught this spirit of exuberance: sixteen children!

In a curious study of contrasts, its gardens housed a labyrinth of limestone caves. Duck around a frothy fountain, and you could creep through dimly lit passages of wet and winding turns — or descend by stair into the mind-bogglingly deep Initiation Well.

I’ve never studied Portuguese, but my few days there unraveled many of its mysteries (“dos Mouros” as in “do-os,” “of the,” not the Spanish “two”). Languages flowed freely in that town: in restaurants, I had overheard Italian, Spanish, even French intermingled with the local conversation and business English.

Sintra is the only place where the locals responded to my pleas for directions by saying, “Go up.” Stone staircases climb swiftly between shops, houses, and into the woods. Glance over your shoulder, and castles spring from the mountainside like wildflowers. Not for nothing do they name this town the Fairy Tale of Portugal.

view from the Villa Sassetti trail

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