For this week’s regularly scheduled Sunday day trip, we decided to return to Sintra, that land of castles in the clouds. Last time we went, we got rained out of the last palace we visited, the Palacio da Pena, so we wanted to go back on a nicer day and explore the extensive grounds around the palace.

It was certainly a nicer day when we set out from our house in Lisbon, slightly windy but bitingly beautiful in the way only clear, cold winter air can be. As our 45 minute train ride up the coast progressed, however, the clouds became increasingly dark and foreboding, until we realized that they centered directly over the hill we were aiming for. Its crest was topped by the magnificent palacio at one end, the Moorish castle at the other, and the entire thing was overshadowed by a big, black, looming chunk of cloud.

So we decided that Sintra is officially the Eeyore of weather systems — no matter how bright and sunny it is elsewhere, it’s always cloudy over Sintra.

And bloody cold, as it turned out. By the time we’d taken the bus up to the palace and paid our way into the grounds, we had both put on all the outer layers we’d brought in case of rain, including beanie and gloves. Brr! Lesson learned: Sintra is ALWAYS going to be at least ten degrees cooler than Lisbon. That is after all the whole point of having a summer palace, or three — so that the royalty can escape the plebeian heat of the city.

Luckily we’d planned on hiking anyway, so we did so, briskly, and warmed up quickly. We were rewarded by a thorough and almost solitary exploration of the lower half of the palace grounds, since most of the other tourists stayed strictly in the castle, not bothering to brave the cold. We wandered through what amounted to an incredible botanical garden turned forest, with huge specimens of trees ranging from California redwood and Monterey cypress to gigantic tree ferns and exotic species from Brazil. How they kept them all alive in that moist cold climate I don’t know, but they were beautiful.

The camellias were just starting to bloom, so spots of bright red and pristine white floated here and there amongst the trees, boulders, and ferns. And every so often, a structure of some sort would loom up out of the green, usually sporting Moorish arches and pillars of various sorts. The queen must have a place to rest while perusing her ferns!

After about an hour of walking, the castle appeared suddenly between the trees. We hadn’t seen the exterior very well on our previous visit, as we were too busy making a mad dash to escape the rain, so we hadn’t realized how haphazard this palace looks,  like an architectural patchwork quilt. A domed yellow tower on one end, a crenellated red one on the other. Patches of one tile here, and just across the arch, a totally different type of tile. Massive concrete walls hulked just under daintily pointed ramparts, with Moorish arches and delicate filigrees topping the entire affair. Alligator drain spouts confronted lion gargoyles across the main courtyard, where we sat to eat our snack (since the cafe conveniently didn’t open til spring.) And so on. It was like all the castles in the Disney movies smushed into one strange, beautiful creation, and we half expected Snow White or Sleeping Beauty to appear at one of the windows.

Having been foiled in our quest for nourishment, we were forced to stop short of the high point of the park, where some crazy king or another had stuck a massive cross. However, we did have one more destination in mind before turning back for the city below: the Queen’s viewpoint, where apparently one of the queens liked to go to see the valley, the ocean, and the castle, all in one fell swoop. After clambering our way up to the viewpoint, I would be well impressed if any eighteenth century queen in all her petticoats could have done the same! But it was well worth the effort, as we were indeed awarded with incredible views out across the (bright and sunny, of course) countryside.

Having attained our goal for the day — and still left something to strive for the next time we return — we made our way back down the mountain, via foot and bus, in search of sustenance after a few good hours of chilly, hilly hiking. (We only covered half of the park, by the way, in almost three hours of walking.)

Lots of places were closed, so we settled on the Cafe Paris, just across the square from the other main castle. We didn’t expect much from what was clearly a tourist trap, so were pleasantly surprised by the inventive meal we had, which combined flavors in unexpected and delicious ways. I had vegetable-apple soup and a chicken salad with mango and papaya, and Gabe had chicken in yogurt sauce, with pieces of peach inserted into slices in the chicken breast. It was very tasty fare, and much welcome in our cold and empty tummies.

After a man at the table next to us lit up a massive cigar, we beat a hasty retreat back to the train station, stopping for another queijoada on the way. My tutor told me about these after the last time we visited Sintra: this is their pastry specialty, since every town has to have its own delicacy. Belem has its pasteis, Cascais has its sandeis, Sintra has its queijoadas. Since their name literally means something like “cheesing,” I was expecting a savory treat, but was delighted to find a lovely cinnamony concoction, wrapped in a brittle pastry shell that makes a satisfying crack in your mouth as you bite into it. They might be my favorite yet… or at least a very close second to the pasteis de Belem.

Bellies full and bodies tired, we both dozed as the warm train clickety-clacked its way back to Lisbon, with the setting sun reflecting off the high rise apartment buildings outside, their lines of laundry flapping in the wind. Thankfully, our second excursion into the fantastical fairy tale world of Sintra ended on a much higher and drier note than the first! We spent the rest of the evening at home on the couch, watching old movies on TV, thoroughly drained and content with our busy and wonderful weekend.

And now — back to work!

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