Yesterday we took a day trip up to Sintra, a town just outside Lisbon that people have been asking us if we’ve been to since before we even got here. Now we can finally say yes, and I’m happy to say that it definitely lived up to the hype.

Unfortunately our trip there also coincided with the first real day of winter that we’ve had here, especially since Sintra is further north and closer to the the coast than Lisbon. It kind of added to the experience though, as we hiked the mountainous trails enshrouded by mist, with boulders or the ruins of a Moorish castle suddenly looming large ahead of us. So it worked in the end, and as I’m sure we’ll go back there many times in the months to come, it’ll just give us something to compare it to.

The train to Sintra leaves from Rossio, an ornate, beautiful station about 5 minutes’ walk from our flat. The train emerges from the station into a long tunnel that runs directly under our house, so we can hear the very train that we took rumble and fade every fifteen minutes, all day long, from about 6 AM until after midnight. There goes one right now. At first it freaked the hell out of me, having been raised in earthquake country, but now I find it faintly reassuring somehow, like the tick of a clock, letting me know that all is well in the world — or at least the trains to Sintra are running on time.

We clickety-clacked through the outskirts of Lisbon, most of which were nothing to write home about, and emerged forty-five minutes later into a different world. Sintra looks like a fairy-tale land, with strange wedding-cake towers emerging out of the mist, topping castles hidden amongst the trees.

Much more than the castles though, I was overjoyed to be away from the city and surrounded by nature again, as Sintra is much more woody and less developed than Lisbon. The smell of the trees in the rain, combined with the scent of the not-too-far-off ocean, all reminded me of being in Nisene Marks or Pogonip: wet trees and mist, ocean and rock. I was intoxicated, and ran around for the first hour or so sniffing my head off, looking like a fool. Oh well, it was worth it for a whiff of home.

True to Portuguese form, the main palace was free on Sundays til 2 PM, so that’s where we headed first. Now, I’ve walked through a lot of manor houses in England (and I mean A LOT), and I’ve also seen my fair share of castles, but the ones in Sintra were something special. The walls were all tiled, of course, with far more intricacy and complexity than anything we’d seen in the tile museum the day before. But the ceilings were also painted, with a different motif in every room, the doors had a jaunty Moorish peak at the top, and those towers… wow. Even the most jaded of palatial connoisseurs couldn’t help but be impressed.

Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought so, as we were joined on our walk through the palace by about a thousand (at least it felt like it) other tourists, all of them oohing and ahhing and stopping to take pictures of every. Conceivable. Thing. I decided that cameras are the indoor equivalent of umbrellas — they are handy when you’re the one using them, but in the hands of other people, they become mindlessly rude. One man actually stepped in front of me to take a picture of an informational sign — as I was clearly in the midst of reading it. Hello, dude.

After getting trapped in multiple bottlenecks at the end of the castle tour, we quickly skipped ahead of the crowd and emerged back into the increasingly gray day. By this time we were hungry for lunch, and stopped to eat at a place called the Lord Byron Cafe. Apparently Lord Byron passed through Sintra and praised it highly, far more so than he did Lisbon, whose only vices he claimed to be “lice and sodomy.” Neither of which we’ve experienced so far, but then, our year here is still young. You never know.

So we ate our surprisingly delicious lunch in the tiny six-table dining room, surrounded mainly by tourists, as usual. Towards the end of the meal, the proprietor switched the TV from coverage of the previous day’s football match to music videos from the 1970s. I didn’t even know “Staying Alive” or “We Are Family” had music videos, but apparently they do. As I was marveling at the incongruity of seeing these guys in tight white pants on a TV in a tiny tourist restaurant in Portugal, the scene got even stranger: the huge British guy at the table across from us actually started singing along and rocking out to the song.

I had to crack up at the strangeness of it all, as it was just such a perfect moment. Although the guy’s girlfriend was mortified, we started chatting with him, and discovered that he was a professional rugby player from the coast of Devon. His family has a farm here, so he decided to move here and bring some fresh talent to the Portuguese rugby team (which apparently was once world-class but has been slipping a bit in recent years.) Classic. I love the people you meet.

Much fortified by the good food, caffeine, and laughs, our day continued with a long hike up the hill to the Moorish castle. It was a gorgeous, steep trail, surrounded by massive boulders, and once again I was walking along huffing the air, reminded of nothing more than my favorite running trails at home. We even saw a small patch of carnivorous plants growing along the trailside, which I’d never seen in the wild before.

As we got further and further up the hill, the mist grew increasingly thicker, until at the top it was dripping down onto us in fat droplets from the trees and we could no longer see the town below. At this point the ramparts of the castle started looming at us out of the mist, looking like they’d grown naturally out of the boulders we’d been passing all the way up. It was a truly eerie and ghost-like world up there, and I half expected to see a troop of Moors riding out at us from the castle gates.

Instead we were greeted somewhat anticlimatically by the guy collecting admission fees, who advised us that we wouldn’t be able to see anything due to the storm, and told us to keep our money. Somewhat taken aback but grateful for his concern, we turned around and headed back out to yet a third palace, which he told us had both an outside and an inside to explore, so even with the bad weather, we’d be sure to get our money’s worth.

In the end our timing was perfect, as it started raining in earnest right as we got to the ticket kiosk for the third palace. We bought our tickets and headed up the hill, deciding to bypass the small trolley that ran people back and forth, since it cost 2 euros. That was a mistake, as by the time we reached the palace proper, we were both drenched and my umbrella was spending more time inside-out than right way around. We’d come prepared for rain, but Lisbon rain as we’d experienced it before, not a full storm with strong winds and pouring rain.

Nonetheless, we were grateful to make it into the castle, where it was dry, if not exactly warm. It was well worth the drenching though, as it was by far the best-preserved example of nineteenth century royal life that I have ever seen before. Each room was crammed full of priceless objects — to combat the Victorians’ “fear of empty spaces,” one sign explained — as if the resident King, Queen, or princess had just walked out of the room a minute before. I could have walked back through the castle at least two more times and still noticed new objects hiding behind other ones on the desks, bookshelves, side tables, etc. It was wonderful.

We were prohibited from taking pictures in this castle, but you can see more about the palace here. Needless to say, we didn’t see anything of the grounds, either, which was a shame because they were extensive and beautifully landscaped. Oh well, at least we saved something for another day.

We headed back down the hill again, this time via the tram and straight onto the bus back down the hill, which filled up rapidly with tourists who looked about as unprepared for the rain as we had been. Thankfully the bus took us directly to the train station, as we were both drenched through and exhausted from all the climbing.

So we returned to Lisbon, tired but happy with our successful day trip to Sintra. It was an enchanting and beautiful town, and we will gladly return with guests in the future — hopefully on a less gloomy and somewhat drier day.

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