A Day in Sintra
We spent Monday visiting Sintra, a popular site because of its picturesque views, its association with the 19th-century Romantic movement, and its major attractions, including the Pena Palace and Moorish Castle. It’s about 30 miles west of Lisbon.
We chose Monday after reading about how crowded and difficult it can be to visit there on weekends; it was a good decision, because we found it still crowded, but manageable. The easiest way to get there is by suburban train from the Rossio station in Lisbon (Metro Restauradoras). Round trip is 4.80€; because it’s a heavily-used commuter line as well there are trains every 15 minutes from early to late. The trip takes about 40 minutes.
Only one of Sintra’s main attractions—the National Palace—in town, about 1 km from the station. The other two, the 8th/9th century Moorish Castle and the 19th century Pena Palace are up on the mountain above the city. The castle can be seen from the station, stretching across a wide area.
NOTE: There’s an information office in the station, offering information about getting to the various attractions and maps, etc. If you can, get a map before you go, and use the information below for the bus. There is no “take one” for the map…everyone who wants one must wait in line for the young woman at the counter to tear them off and mark them up one-by-one. Fifteen minutes on a Monday…imagine a weekend crowd!
There’s a public-transit bus, No. 343, that runs from a stop down the street from the station. Tickets are 5€ and are good for a complete circuit that runs from the station to the historic center, up the mountain to the Moorish Castle, from there to Pena, and then back to the historic center and the station. Your ticket is only punched and invalidated on the way back down the mountain; at the bottom, you’ll have to choose between center and station as your final destination.
From the bus stop, visitors walk about 500 m through the outer walls and walks to enter the main section of the castle, which was primarily a defense work built by Moorish rulers to defend against invasion. The thick walls, with walks on top, encircle a large area of the mountain, with a smaller walled area within intended as a final redoubt if the outer walls were ever breached. It was not intended for residence, just as a military installation.
Inside the main section you can see the base of the walls, built onto the rock, with stepped walks going up in both directions to watchtowers and defense posts, which are accessible by climbing and climbing and climbing. There are two routes; one to the right from the point shown in the picture (about 300 steps to its highest point) and one to the left (about 700 steps). No signs to tell you which; we took the left, which leads to the “royal” tower, highest point of the castle, with spectacular views of the valley, and of the Pena Palace.
There is a useful map/guide handout available at the ticket booth; unfortunately they seem to be out of English, so we had to make do with French and German. The interpretive signs along the walks (of which there are not enough) are in Portuguese, English and Spanish.
Just inside the central section is a small refreshment area and shop; the canteen offers soda, beer and coffee, and reasonably good sandwiches (chicken, chorizo, tuna or cheese) for 4.50€. After you’ve climbed one of the wall routes, you’ll want to stop there. The WC is there, as well.
From the Moorish Castle we took the bus up to the next stop. Only about 400 yards, but steeply uphill. Which is also true of the walk from the gate to the Pena Palace. At the gift shop at the entrance, 2€ buys you a round-trip up the hill and back on a tram. If you’ve already done your stairmaster work for the day at the Moorish Castle, it’s an allowable indulgence!
The palace itself has been compared to “Mad” Ludwig’s fantasy palaces in Bavaria, but it has two significant differences. First, one part of it is a repurposed convent “acquired” by the royal family after the suppression of religious orders, and second, they actually lived in it as a summer place for a good number of years. King Ferdinand, husband of the reigning queen, made it his project, adding a new wing and rebuilding the spaces in the old. In the picture, the old is red, the new is yellow/ochre. Both are getting a needed coat of paint at the moment.
Walking through the rooms inside can be slow, because some areas are narrow and there are crowds, even on Monday. Near the entrance, there’s a series of panels that discuss (three languages again) the romantic movement, and also the 19th-century changes in values relating to domestic life and home. While some of it is generally applicable, it does seem a little silly to project the changes in bourgeois life onto the family in question, the Saxe-Coburg-Braganza rulers of Portugal!
Admittedly, we don’t care much for royals or the wealthy; after a while in any palace we find ourselves focusing again on the gap between this or that bunch of 1%ers and the 99% below them. In this case, the royals don’t seem to have taken much account of republican ferment in Portugal; they continued to pour money into changes and improvements to Pena right up to and even after the assassination of King Carlos in 1908. Pena became a national palace (as opposed to personal property of the royals) with the Republic in 1910 and was opened to the public almost immediately.
The interior fittings are quite interesting, including a few surprises: a bathroom with a long Empire sofa next to a bathtub with a shower fitted on, the original “royal switchboard” and a room in which the plaster walls were carefully painted to resemble wood. No, not fine oak or the like—they resemble nothing more than cheap paneling from the do-it-yourself lumber yard!
Pena also has a small snack bar/lunch area, with a terrace view over the mountain.
EATING IN SINTRA
There are many restaurants around the historic center area, near the National Palace (which we didn’t visit). This area is the most tourist-focused part of Sintra, with many souvenir shops of different quality as well. These are generally quite a bit more expensive than their equivalents in Lisbon, or other parts of Sintra; some of the guidebooks warn away from them.
We wandered back toward the station, and found a very nice small café called Cintia, just across from the station. I had an excellent sopa alentejana, and turkey cutlets with ham and cheese in a rich brown sauce (probably deglazed from the turkey drippings) and fries; my wife had salmon, which came as two steaks and a romaine/tomato/carrot/onion salad that was quite nice. With water, bread-and-butter and cheese, 24€.
Incidentally, bread, butter and cheese are charged separately in most Portuguese restaurants, with the price listed on the menu. You only pay if you eat it, but it’s not expensive.