Of course I knew I should spend more time in Lisbon. After all, Portugal’s capital city is supercharged with history and cool places to hang loose. To willfully skip Lisbon would be a huge dumb travel move. It would be like traveling across Italy and closing your eyes through Rome. All along I never intended to bypass Lisbon, no way. It was simply my intention to get back and give the city, in due time its due time. But for that moment, for a variety of reasons, the beacons of other cities sparkled a tad brighter. So off I went to places such as Guarda, Porto, Lagos, Albufeira, Faro, Portimao, Cascais, Parede, Guincho Beach, Seville – towns big and small, stretching across the Iberian peninsula.
One of those cities was Sintra. Sintra is a town blessed with a myriad of medieval castles that date back to the 8th or 9th Century, including the imposing Castle of the Moors built on a looming hilltop with a downward panoramic view of the city. I had made it from Guarda, a semi-rural region near the border with Spain, west to Paredes on the coast, where I stayed with a Portuguese family with whom I’ve now forged a friendship. Early on, they recommended I visit Sintra and offered me a bicycle for what should have been an hour-long journey along city streets. But I failed miserably in my first attempt to reach Sintra on two wheels. I ended up way off course, facing a major highway. Bicycles are not allowed on highways in many European countries, Portugal included. So I spent most of my journey, which turned in to several hours, trying to get around the highway, with every person I asked giving different directions and instructions to breach the motorway and reach Sintra.
While some said it was impossible to reach the medieval city by bicycle from my location, others suggested that it was too dangerous, too far or too steep a climb up and over the mountains. But experience has taught me that locals often will say that a place is too far or too risky or too whatever because they think a foreigner is not cut of the stuff to handle a trek even if the traveler says he or she does
not mind the long or uphill or even arduous walk. If I were given a penny every time I heard some place was too far to walk, I’d be a wealthy man. Still, as darkness loomed, I gave up and returned to Paredes without having seen Sintra. My gracious hosts seemed more disappointed than me. They knew the magic I had missed in Sintra, and several months later I would come to realize that. Sintra, with its rich history of conquerors, invaders and rulers, chief among them the Moors, also draws thousands of tourists each year interested in its Masonic history. Like the Moors, who ruled the Iberian peninsula for more than 500 hundreds, they left their mark on the landscape, with beautiful gardens and castles.
Recently, I paid another visit to my friends in Paredes. Paredes is a coastal town very close to Cascais, Sintra and Lisbon. I made it my mission to see Lisbon and Sintra on this particular trip. But first, Lisbon.
I arrived in Lisbon from Lagos, Portugal, located in the southern region of Portugal known as the Algarve, by ride share arranged through Blablacar. Lagos is a Portuguese fishing town that explodes with tourists in summer. It is served by all major transports, including an international airport in the town of Faro.
If you are ever in Europe, I highly recommend Blablacar, a car ride share that is often faster, cheaper and more convenient than public transportation. Soon as I arrived in Lisbon, I purchased a 3-day tourist rail pass that allowed me unlimited travel on the train that links outer communities to Lisbon.
Unfortunately, the pass does not extend to the metro trains, buses or streetcars. For those you have to buy a separate pass or ticket. But for me, the commuter train pass worked just fine. It allowed me to reach distance cities, such as Cascais, and I would easily get around Lisbon by walking or buying a metro ticket if necessary. I was getting around by commuter train more than anything else. You have to choose what transport option works best for you. The express bus from Lagos to Lisbon is 20 euros during peak season and runs every hour several hours a day. Portugal is well-served by public transportation but it is not always convenient as far as time schedule and cost. Do your homework.
And so on my first real visit to Lisbon I went, recalling during my 3 hour journey on the bus how I had spent my first time in Lisbon at the foot of a bridge trying to hitchhike south to Lagos. On my second visit, I never even stopped, marveling at the longest bridge in Europe, the Vasco de Gama Bridge, which spans the Tagus River. This bridge, which was inaugurated in 1998, is 17.2 kilometers, or 10.2 miles long, and it will blow your mind when you begin to realize how long you’ve been on it trying to get to the other side. It’s just one of the cool things Lisbon serves up. The city, once ruled by the Romans, also has an aqueduct that survived an earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the city in 1755.
I thoroughly enjoyed Lisbon, but the thing that struck me the most was how laid back, patient and helpful residents are with tourists. They stop and take their time to give directions, to help, unlike some other European capitals. It was refreshing.
From Lisbon, there’s a direct train to Sintra. The Viva pass works on this line. There are buses as well, from other coastal cities. One option is to go to Cascais, spend some time there on the beach or having a nice lunch or walkabout, then hop on a bus to Sintra. Some buses make a slight detour to the most western part of continental Europe, Cabo da Roca.
The southwesternmost point of mainland Europe – Cabo San Vicente near the city of Sagres – is also in Portugal. I can now claim I’ve been to as far west and as far southwest point of mainland Europe. Now, keen on the southernmost. That would be Punta de Tarifa, Spain.
From the moment I arrived in Sintra I felt an inexplicable sense of joy. The city has a zen vibe that soothes the soul. Yes, there are thousands of tourists walking about, but it doesn’t feel overrun.
It is nestled in the Sintra Mountains and Cascais-Sintra Nature Park, with beautiful architecture that goes back centuries, and several castles built on hilltops.
Some of the most impressive castles in the world are here, including Pena National Palace, which was the summer residence of Portugal’s monarchs of Portugal during the 18th to 19th centuries. There are a total of seven palaces in Sintra, all worth a visit. Ask for a special discounted fare if you decide to see at least three of them.
In the city center you will find local foods, including traditional regional pastries. Tourists and locals line up to buy them at local shops. Don’t get sucked in by tourists traps, however. You will pay more if you don’t go to the spot, Cafe a Piriquita, for the tasty pastries, including queijadas de Sintra. You might have to take a number and wait, but it’s well worth it. The queijadas look like small custard tarts, but are cheesecakes with a healthy dash of cinnamon in a crusty outer shell. I bought a dozen. But by far my favorite Sintra pastry was the one known as travesseiros, the Portuguese word for pillow. These desserts with a dusting of sugar and a creamy filling inside are heavenly, especially served warm. I couldn’t stop eating them. In Portugal you will find that most towns have a dessert all their own, including Lisbon, but in my opinion, none come as close to perfection as the ones from Sintra. Get to Sintra, have a coffee and a pastry, it will complete your day.