A couple weeks ago, we took a train to Lisbon and transferred to another for the half hour ride to Sintra. For those unfamiliar with Portugal, Sintra is a town on a mountain between Lisbon and the ocean, whose climate, greenery and convenient access made a popular place for Portuguese royalty to escape the summer heat and periodic epidemics of plague and cholera. It’s covered with palaces surrounded by spectacular gardens and crowned by the ruins of an eighth century Moorish castle.
Sintra is one of those destinations the travel guides insist you visit as part of your trip to Lisbon, as in “If you only have two days (or three or four) in Lisbon, you’re required by international law to get on a tour bus and go there.”
Barbara and I agree it’s worth a visit, but we can’t say our lives are any fuller or richer for having been there. Frankly, the magic of it was lost on us.
Perhaps the word “magic” comes to mind because it struck me as Portugal’s answer to the Magic Kingdom. As a matter of fact, Sintra can be considered archaeological evidence that civilization conceived of theme parks long before the technology existed to build them or Walt Disney dreamed of them under the influence of hallucinogens.
“Here’s my idea,” said Pharaoh Barnum&Bailey, “We’ve got all this desert property nobody is using. Let’s build something on it, something really spectacular people from all over the world will want to see. I saw this idea in Popular Papyrus the other day for something called a pyramid. It’s square at the bottom and comes to a point at the top.”
“Yeah, yeahhhh . . .” said the High Priest, dubiously,” I think I’ve got one of those in my kitchen. I use it for squashing oranges to make juice.”
“Right,” said the Pharaoh, “but here’s my idea. Let’s build a really big one! Like, as big as a house; heck, as big as a mountain! Let’s build a lot of them. We’ll call it the Valley of the Kings! People will want to see it, we’ll sell tickets to get in. They’ll need some place to stay, so we’ll build a hotel and restaurants and sell souvenirs. We’ll have events like camel races and elephant rides and boat trips down the Nile. The beauty part is, we’ll control the whole thing — we’ll call it a “monopoly.” We’ll make a fortune!”
The High Priest furrowed his brow. “Hmmm, I like the sound of that – “monopoly.” But do you really thing people will come?”
Are you kidding? People are starved for entertainment. There’s nothing like this in the world. What else do they have to do in their spare time except beat on logs with a stick? They’re all suckers, I tell ya, and there’s another one born every minute.”
“Right, Chief, it’s a great idea! Let’s do it!”
“How long do you think it’ll take to put it together?”
“Oh, I’d say a thousand years, give or take a couple of centuries.”
In case you’re wondering, the above is an actual transcription of some hieroglyphics found in Egypt a few years ago. It marks the beginning of the entertainment industry, the lineage of which can be traced directly from ancient times through the centuries all the way to Six Flags Over Planet Mars, which I understand is in the planning stages at Tesla Motors.
So, like the Pyramids and Rome and the kitchen cabinets you gave the guy the down payment to build six months ago that he still hasn’t delivered, Sintra wasn’t built in a day. The palaces were constructed at different times over Portugal’s history and represent successive building styles, royal dynasties and social eras. There are also a flotilla of elaborate mansions built mostly in the 1800’s by rich industrialists and merchants.
With all the landscaping it’s a hiker’s paradise. You could probably spend a couple months wandering through the forests and gardens. For the casual pedestrian, a word of caution – it’s all uphill. Barbara and I spent the better part of three days traversing the area, and by the end of it the entire back side of my body from my calves and hamstrings up to my neck was screaming in pain.
However, the main feature we took away from Sintra are the crowds. That thing that says you’re required to go there results in hordes of tourists being dumped out of yellow and red buses to follow some guy around for a day and then check it off their itineraries.
“Yeah, we went to this place with all these mansions, I forget the name of it, sort of like that movie star bus thing we went on in LA. I bought a T-shirt but I forget what happened to it. Pretty place, though.”
We piggy-backed a four-night stay there onto a trip to nearby Cacais, where our friend Rita has an apartment. We were on our way there to take care of her dog Jules, whom I’ve previously introduced, while she went back to Colorado for a week.
We stayed four nights at a delightful VRBO owned by a gracious lady by the name of Maria Dulce Texeira. The apartment was tiny, charming, full of flowers, located in the historic center of town but completely secluded on a narrow side street.
As we strolled for the first time out into town, we suddenly saw a wall of people marching resolutely in our direction. Any idea that they might make way for us to go through them dimmed as distance neared. The formation remained as steadfast as a regiment of redcoats advancing on the enemy, that enemy, I realized, being us.
The terrifying thing was to look upon their blank unseeing expressions, or rather lack of expression, as if they had been stripped of all humanity. Perhaps when they swiped their tour passes getting on the bus an electronic surge went through their bodies shutting down their brains. They resembled something between zombie movie extras and grazing herd animals. I half expected to see them nibbling the leaves of overhanging trees as they proceeded along their way.
We were forced into the street to avoid being trampled and then had to jump to avoid the onrushing taxis and rental cars. We are told that visitors renting autos at the Lisbon airport are routinely given “a special upgrade to a full-size vehicle at no extra charge!” resulting in lines of very un-European monster SUVs clogging the city.
The cheapest way to see the sights here are the city buses that run two routes from the town center. The Northern one hits three or four estates, including the biggest draws, the Castelo dos Moros (Castelo) and the Palacio Nacional da Pena (Pena). The Southern one goes to two other main draws, Montserrate Parque and the Quinta de Regaleira, as well as a couple also-rans.
We hit town on a Thursday and, after taking one look at the situation, did something right. That is, we took the Northern route to see the most popular attractions before the weekend. That way we missed the absolute worst of the Saturday crowds – although you wouldn’t know it by being there.
On Friday we visited the Castelo and Pena and some other place I can’t remember. Late that afternoon we went back to the Pena entrance to wait for the city bus, where we saw a long line of people already loading. It was pretty clear there wasn’t a big enough bus in the whole world to get us all on. Sure enough, it left and we settled down to wait for the next one.
Circling the bus stop like vultures waiting for a kill were the other kinds of transport Sintra offers – taxis, vans, the yellow and red guided tour buses, tuk-tuks (those funky electric vehicles that resemble golf carts except they travel on roads), even motorcycles you can rent to ride by yourself or on the rear seat behind the driver (a popular option for single women). The operators of these things stared at us like they’d just as soon eat us for lunch as go to the trouble of driving us anywhere.
Periodically, one of the drivers would walk down the line hawking space — “I have four seats available, five euros each,” or “Two seats available, leaving in five minutes,” or “Taxi service, ready to go,” or “Three bags full, get ém while they’re hot,” (OK, so maybe that was the popcorn guy, but you probably could have booked a ride on his cart if you wanted to).
Eventually, another bus showed up and the line started moving again. A man shouldered his way up to the front and started yelling at the driver; turns out his wife was pregnant and he got the two of them on first. Seeing this, some guys farther back in line started trying to convince their girlfriends to stuff whatever luggage they carried under their blouses. From the arguments, it seemed these efforts were putting a lot of relationships in jeopardy.
We were lucky with this bus, the next to last couple to crowd on. As the doors started to close, I heard a lot of angry noises in a variety of languages. I had visions of a mob running after us throwing rocks and setting things on fire. In response, the panicky driver started calling out “NEXT BUS FIVE MINUTES” over and over. The very frightened -looking ticket taker on the ground took up the mantra in a somewhat desperate voice, and, last I looked, the crowd had settled down to dissatisfied grumbling.
When we got back to town, we realized the trip had taken ten minutes. We could have walked there in less than thirty minutes. As it was, we had waited for the bus for over an hour. Oh, well.
On Saturday, we took the less traveled route and spent the morning walking in Montserrate Park, the partly formal, partly wild gardens of a nineteenth century mansion. In contrast with the day before, it was lovely, quiet and mostly empty, with flowers and plants from all over the world in full growth. This was the least Disneyish moment, the one we choose to remember from our trip to Sintra.
We also saw the Quinta De Regaleira, designed by an opera set designer for a Brazilian coffee mogul. The whole place is like a theatrical set, including a series of caves carved into the rock beneath the gardens. Walt couldn’t ask for more.
Real Estate Listings
The first of the three main attractions, the Castelo dos Moros, is the ruins of a 7th century Moorish castle set atop the mountain. It’s all stark stone block walls and towers with crenellations, not as well preserved as the castle at Palmela we visited a few months ago but with the same intent – to slaughter anyone who might try to evict these people who invaded the country from Africa and held onto the Southern part of it for about six hundred years. It’s perfect for spotting Christian armies or Viking raiders to prepare for holding them off. On the other hand, there’s nothing romantic or charming about this place nor anything to suggest an iota of comfort in the occupants’ lives.
In the Middle Ages up until the widespread use of cannons, siege warfare always favored the defenders. You could sit up in your castle for months while the besiegers threw rocks and shot arrows and maybe tried to dig under the walls without you noticing. Some sieges lasted years, but mostly the attackers eventually got tired of it and went home.
Given that fact, it’s kind of amazing that Afonso Henriques, the first official king of Portugal, managed to conquer this place and Palmela and most of the Moorish holdings in the 1100’s. The guy certainly deserves his place in history.
The highest point on the mountain is actually not the castle but a large stone cross set on the peak, called appropriately the Cruz Alta. But after we spent a couple hours climbing around the castle we were too worn out to go there. When we later mentioned this to our friend Rita Ochs, she said that when she was there, “We climbed up to the Cruz Alta and then we were too tired to go to the castle.” Gotta pick your poison, I guess.
The other big draw on this route, and perhaps the biggest attraction in Sintra, is the Palacio Nacional De Pena, commissioned by King Ferdinand II in the early 1800’s – and the royal residence up until a republic was declared in 1910. This is the one that looks most Disney Princess-like, and the guidebooks appropriately use words like “hedonistic” and “kitschy” to describe it.
It’s all room after room of lavish furniture and decorations that pretty well drained the entire Portuguese treasury. A lot of the stuff was produced by celebrity artisans of the period. I found particularly striking an entire room’s worth of large heavy cabinetry with hand carved jade fronts. The stuff is all beautiful, but what’s really striking is the excess.
No one living there could possibly appreciate it all – after awhile it just numbs the senses. These people spent enormous amounts of money on stuff nobody but they and their servants charged with cleaning the stuff would ever get to see. It’s all too much for one family; you wonder if they even knew what they had.
On Sunday, we visited the third big attraction, the Palacio Nacional de Sintra in the city center. It was the primary royal residence in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s also a lavish place, but in a different way than the Pena Palace. It’s not self-aggrandizing. The walls and ceilings are covered with the classic azulejos, the decorated tiles characteristic of Portugal. There’s a room with the coats of arms of 74 nobles families on the ceiling, and others with ceilings decorated symbolically in magpies and swans.
The paintings on the walls are mostly biblical scenes and portraits of important people, allies and distinguished honorees. The furniture is grand but severe, and most of the rooms include oratories, closets just big enough for the royal denizens to lock themselves into and kneel in prayer.
These three places suggest to me a timeline of history. The Castelo do Mouro is about conflict, the early struggle to establish a civilization and a country. The Palacio Nacional is about austerity, the responsibility of ruling a nation and representing its grandeur to the world.
The Palacio do Pena is about decadence and self-indulgence, about a privileged class who had long outlived their usefulness and lost contact with their people. To me, the place is creepy and reeks of decay.
It was from here that Amelia, the last queen of Portugal, fled to Brazil in 1910 after being dethroned in a revolution. Four years later came the start of World War I, the deaths of millions, when the old order was swept away and led to the fascist era, including one in Portugal. The Palacio do Pena is a prophetic vision of what was to happen – and why.
Puttin’ On the Glitz
So, if the rumors I’m trying to spread are correct, the Portuguese government is negotiating to name all the sights in Sintra after Disney attractions. Not that they’ve asked me, but I have a few suggestions. The Castelo do Mouro would be a good location for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, the Palacio Nacional for Prince Charming’s Palace and the Palacio do Pena the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. The Quinta da Regaleira is perfect for Goofy’s Farm. Otherwise, there are plenty of vilas and mansions to house Mickey and Donald and Dumbo, the Little Mermaid and that Frozen girl, and on and on and on. There’s also a toy museum which would be perfect for the gift shop.
I fully applaud the people of Portugal for making their country a major cash receptacle for tourists from all over the world. It doesn’t bother me a bit that the restaurants in this town cost as much as in the United States and if you choose one for the view you’re guaranteed the food will be both mediocre and overpriced. More power to them; this country’s due for a boom.
Give Sintra its due, it is truly a beautiful place – the gardens, architecture, the artwork. There were a lot of things we didn’t get to, like a monastery with walls lined in cork and doorways built low so monks had to kneel to go through them. Nevertheless, having spent a long weekend here, it’ll be a while, if ever, before we feel obligated to come back.
On to Cascais. Até Logo.