Typically I prefer to explore a city at my own pace, wandering through the tiny side streets that are bursting with photo opportunities. However, when some of my well-traveled friends raved about a Portuguese tour operator, I decided to see what the hype was all about.
I contacted Filipe, of Different Portugal Tours to see what places he would recommend for me. After discussing my travel plans (Lisbon based for one week), he suggested a tour of Sintra, the romantic, castle-filled town just a 30 minute drive away.
Filled with excitement at the thought of reliving my childhood fantasies and wandering through royal homes all day, I woke early to meet Filipe and his guide Mané so that we would beat the midday crowds.
Filipe and Mané turned out to be two of the jolliest, happiest men I have ever met. The short drive to Sintra was filled with laughter and interesting historical fun facts, and I almost forgot that I was technically traveling without friends.
Mané explained that the we would not just be visiting Sintra, but also the beach town of Cascais, and Roca Cape, the westernmost point on continental Europe. He told me that the drive from Lisbon to Sintra to Cascais and back to Lisbon was like a triangle. The first leg was the only unattractive piece of Lisbon, filled with the homes of the large commuter population, and lacking the scenic coast views. He assured me that the remaining two-thirds of the journey would reflect Portugal’s rugged charm and rolling hills.
As the car approached Sintra, the land became noticeably more green and lush, and the area seemed covered by a cluster of cartoonish looking clouds. Enveloped in a micro-climate, Sintra’s terrain and temperature vary from its surrounding towns, with it typically being at least five degrees cooler. As we drove through the dense forests that opened up onto a storybook town, by heart was thumping loudly in my chest. This was a magical place and I needed to soak in every moment.
Our first stop was the Pena Palace, a castle of moorish design, literally translating to The Feather Palace. As we drove up the long and winding drive to reach the castle gates, I thanked my lucky stars that I had not ventured up here by foot. Allowing me to enter the grounds alone to enjoy my experience at my own pace, I bid adieu to my guides and entered the turreted palace. I was one of the first guests to arrive so I had no trouble leisurely wandering through the outdoor terraces that make up the Pena Palace’s charm. Every step brought a new tower, turret, or balcony, just begging to be photographed, with a thick forested background and the rising sun for light. The interior of the palace was beautiful, but seemed pale in comparison to its natural outer beauty. As I stood on the balcony for a final goodbye,the wind whipping my hair as I took in the panoramic scene, I felt a strange calm. It was not hard to imagine why the royal family used to spend their summers here; truly, there was magic in this place.
As the palace began to fill up with tourists, we headed down the winding road and into the town for a taste of the local dessert, Travesseiro. This flaked pastry is filled with a paste primarily made of almonds and sugar, and gives even the largest sweet tooth a bit of a challenge.
We then sauntered down the cobble stoned road, past the traditional style homes and picturesque cafes into a nondescript Cantina. What happened next is still a bit of a blur, as I was invited to taste four different versions of Port wine, Ginjinha, a sour cherry liqueur typically drunk from a chocolate cup, mead, and shots of prize-winning olive oil. Still quite early in the morning, I was grateful when the tastings turned to cheese, famed Portuguese olives, and strange flavored jellies (tomato!). Portuguese cuisine is varied and flavorful, and you can sense the pride of the locals as they describe each dish, exactly the way their mothers had prepared them.
After clearing my head in the fresh air, we headed towards our last destination in Sintra, the Brazilian built home, Quinta da Regaleira. As I was handed a map that vaguely resembled a scavenger hunt, with landmarks titled “lake of the waterfall” “grotto of the east” and “promenade of the gods.” I started walking, map in hand with my mouth drawn open in awe at the lush beauty around me. I spent the next few hours wandering through the floral paths, scaling the stone towers, and peering down into the seemingly bottomless well.
The highlight of these grounds however are the underground passageways, some only accessible by hopping across large stones beneath the waterfall. The darkened corridors all link together, and the mystery is to see where you will end up. As the light from my iPhone gave way to natural light, I was thrilled to find myself at the bottom of the well, in the mouth of the grotto, and finally, at the Portal of the Guardians, an impressive stone structure conjuring romantic images from Greek Mythology.
The grounds of this home called to me on such a powerful level, that I found myself so completely disinterested in touring the home itself. Instead I lost myself in the magic of Quinta da Regaleira, walking alone, and yet not, as I was accompanied by a host of fluttering wildlife.