Our final Sunday excursion turned out to be much longer and far hotter than either of us had bargained for, but it was well worth it in the end.

Our goal was to see the Palacio da Ajuda, which was the royal palace for many centuries, up until the last king of Portugal was overthrown in 1910. Since that palace is conveniently located near Belem, our real motivation was to end the day with a final trip to the much-adored Pasteis de Belem. It’s a good thing we had that carrot dangling in front of us, too, or else I probably would’ve given up long before the day was over.

We decided once again to brave the Lisboan bus system, as it looked like the best way to get up the hill to Ajuda. After some confusion over which buses went where on Sundays, we finally found and boarded the correct bus. We asked the bus driver where we should get off for the palace, and he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you when we get there.” Great! That’s real nice of you, senhor.

So we embarked on our rickety old bus, whose shocks had long ago been ruined by the cobblestones and potholes of Lisbon’s streets, making it feel more like riding a jackhammer than a bus. About half way through, we stopped to switch drivers. I said, “Oh that’s nice, so much for us now!” but Gabe said he’d heard the old driver telling the new one that we wanted to go to the palace. I said, “That’s impressive — you’d never see that in the States!”

Famous last words. After we had been winding up the hilly streets above Belem for quite a while, Gabe got up to remind the bus driver that we were going to the palace. “Oh yes,” he said, “Keep going forward. I’ll tell you when to get off.” Reassured, we sat down and waited some more… and kept waiting… and kept waiting, long after we’d passed the stop that we’d originally thought would be the closest one.

As we did so, I looked up the street and saw the corner of the palace just a block uphill from where we were. “Shouldn’t we get off?” I said, with an all too familiar sinking sensation in my stomach. I could already feel one of those “This is Portugal” moments coming on.

Ever the optimist, Gabe replied, “No, he said he’d let us know. Maybe there’s somewhere even closer that we don’t know about, and he was saving us the hike up that hill.”

OK… so we continued waiting, even though the bus was now clearly heading away from the castle. Even Gabe was dubious by this point, but still put his faith in the driver, saying, “Maybe we’re going to turn around and head back in the other direction.” Sure enough, at one point the bus did take a turn back towards the castle, but it didn’t go far enough.

Eventually, the bus driver pulled over to the side of the road and said, “The castle is back that way. Just walk straight ahead and you’ll get there.” He let us off right there, at the side of a roundabout in the middle of nowhere, where there wasn’t even a stop! As we walked to the door, I saw that the entire back of the bus was empty. The only other person on the bus was the little old lady sitting in front of us, and yet somehow still the driver had very clearly forgotten that we were there, or where we were going.

Cursing the day he was born, we set out in the direction he’d pointed us, which was along an abandoned, littered, and very sketchy stretch of sunbeaten sidewalk without an inch of shade on it. It took us about fifteen minutes of walking before we even spotted the palace, by which point I was fuming and more convinced than ever that he’d forgotten about his promise to tell us where the palace was.

I was right: it had become another definitive This is Portugal moment. Hiking half a mile in the hot sun after congratulating ourselves for not only figuring out the bus system but also getting a driver friendly enough to tell us where to go — and then believing that he would actually do such a thing? Only in Portugal. I guess we needed one last reminder of the reality of this place, just in case we were getting too sad about leaving.

When we finally did reach the palace, it was of course well worth it. Only a fraction of the rooms were open to the public, and many were under renovation, as you can see from the first pictures in the set below. The rooms we did see, however, were every bit as ornate and over the top as we’d expected. They were also quite sad, especially when compared to the Palacio da Pena in Sintra, which is immaculately preserved and climate controlled. This place was musty and smelled of rot, which you just knew was coming out of those beautiful satin-covered walls and priceless tapestries.

Also unlike Pena, we had the entire place to ourselves, and only came across two other sets of visitors during our entire tour. And this on a Sunday, when it’s free, in the height of summer. Very sad.

Still, it was pretty cool to have the royal palace to stroll around on our own, and we had a great time laughing over the strange royal paraphernalia (e.g. a pair of silver-capped deer hooves, given to the queen to commemorate a hunt), admiring the impressive collection of Ming vases, and marveling at the size of the throne room. The banquet room, the final stop on the tour, was the most impressive by far, with room for at least 100 people. Life is good when you’re king.

All that oohing and ahhing (and walking in the hot sun) worked up an appetite, so we wandered down the hill (via some more botanical gardens) to Pasteis de Belem, where we gratefully grabbed a table and ate our fill of delicious cream-filled pastry goodness. For the last time — alas! There is really nothing like it in the world. So sad.

Much replenished, we made our tired, warm way home, where we spent the rest of the evening resting and doing some preliminary packing, which somehow hadn’t happened earlier in the weekend. An excellent final Sunday, in the end, if only because it gave me one more great — and very very Portuguese — story to tell.

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