The town of Sintra is written up in all Portuguese guidebooks I have seen as a “must do”, if time permits. We had time on a Wednesday, so we took the train from Rossio station to Sintra, a 40-minute trip, the cost of which is covered by the Lisboa Card. It was about 4€ each way to buy the ticket separately.
Even if we hadn’t seen any sort of cultural site, we loved Sintra the minute we got there. There were lots of trees, lovely gardens, and a sense of calm peacefulness that was really relaxing.
While the guidebooks lauded the Palácio Nacional de Sintra to the skies, they neglected to mention that it is closed on Wednesdays. Fortunately, Sintra has more than one castle. For 5€ (return) we got a bus up (way, way up) to the Palácio da Pena, located inside the Parque da Pena (www.parquesdesintra.pt). Entry fee for the castle was 12€, and for another 2€ we got a shuttle from the park gates up (again) to the front of the castle.
A structure like Palácio da Pena is what happens when someone tries to build a permanent birthday cake. It was variously described as a “confection” and a “folly”, and I could not argue against either word. No pictures were allowed of the interior, so you will have to take my word for it that it was richly decorated, and rather impressive.
The grounds around the place are massive, so this is the sort of thing that should be at the very start of any day, in order to see the majority of it. There is a restaurant on site. We did not eat there, although I had a look at the menu, and it seemed reasonably priced.
For our lunch we went back down into Sintra’s centre, and sought out Alcobaça Restaurante, which had been recommended by Fodor’s. (The same Fodor’s that had neglected to mention the Wednesday closing of the Palácio Nacional, I should point out, so we were showing ourselves to be rather forgiving and/or optimistic).
The restaurant was great, with fast, friendly service in a charming room (cash only). I ordered bacalhau com natas (cod with cream), which was one of the most common dishes on menus in Portugal, although I had yet to try it. There was cod and cream, of course, plus shredded potatoes and cheese. It was Portuguese comfort food, and I adored it.
A short stroll up the street brought us to Piriquita Dois, a renowned pastry shop. We sat on the terrace and had queijadas (a sort of cottage cheese tart), and a Travesseiro(it means “pillow” in Portuguese), a filled pastry in which the dough is folded over seven times. Neither was overly sweet, and we really enjoyed them.
There are two schools of fado music, which is often called Portuguese opera. The Coimbra version is sung only by men, while the Lisbon version can be sung by both men and women. We had heard men and women sing last night in a very casual, outdoor setting, so for a change of pace, we made reservations at Sr. Vinho Restaurante Tipico (www.srvinho.com) in the Lapa district.
This restaurant is quite well known, since one of the owners is Maria da Fé, a legendary singer. She was there the night we went, but she did not sing. Apparently, she rarely does these days, because she is getting older and fado is hard on her voice. The room was upscale, and service stopped while the singers performed. There were three different singers, two women, and one man. It was quite a different experience to hear fado indoors, since the music can be quite intense, and a low ceiling concentrated the effect. With all due respect to each singer I heard in Portugal, the man I heard in Coimbra was far and away my favourite.
Yet more hot and sunny weather greeted us the next morning, as we set off for more exploration. We got tram #15 from right outside our hotel to Belém, another neighbourhood of Lisbon (and home to another Starbucks, in case that’s important).
The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (www.mosteirojeronimos.pt) was a monastery, commissioned by Dom Manuel I, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in the Manueline style, and it is a stunning place.
Next to the river we saw the monument dedicated to Henry the Navigator. We declined to pay for an elevator ride to the top, and kept walking along towards the Torre de Belém, one of the main symbols of Lisbon.
My Lisboa Card got me into the tower, and we climbed up to the fifth level, which is the highest. The spiral staircase was narrow, crowded, and handled traffic going in both directions. This climb was not for the faint of heart. There was most certainly international diplomacy work going on as we navigated through the masses of tourists from a variety of different countries.
Hotels are some of my favourite places in the world, and I had spied one on the way to the tower, had popped in for a quick look, and had then decided it warranted further attention. (The hotel orders toilet paper, white AND black, from a company called Renova, which bills itself as “the black toilet paper company”. How this is a selling feature continues to escape me) It was the two-year-old Altis Belém Hotel & Spa (www.altisbelemhotel.com), and it appeared to cater to a business crowd. Arriving just ahead of the people in suits, we got ourselves a table at Cafetaria Mensagem, and ordered lunch.
I started with a glass (6€) of Murganheira Reserva “Bruto” Távora Varosa. Portuguese sparkling wine does not get talked up much, but it should, because it’s good stuff. With our meal we got a bottle of Vale das Areias 2010, a blend of Tinta Roriz and Touriga Nacional, made by a co-op called Sociedade Agrícola da Labrugeira/Rafael Neuparth. With flavours of dark cherry, smoke, cedar, and plum jam, it was a steal at 15€, and a perfect match to my risotto with mushrooms and duck confit. For dessert I ordered doce de leite com sorbet de morangos, a milk custard with strawberry sorbet. It tasted much better than it looked.
Fortified, we carried on to the Belém Cultural Centre, and Museu Colecção Berardo, Arte Moderna e Contemporânea (www.museuberardo.pt). The permanent collection of modern and contemporary art was excellent, and free.
Our final cultural stop was the Museu do Oriente (www.museudooriente.pt), which houses a terrific collection of art and objects from Asia. We had no idea that Portugal had such a profound influence on Asia, and we were impressed with the breadth of the collection. It was quite dark inside, which was tough on us, given how long the day had already been, and the how strong the desire was to nap. The museum was also quite compact, though, so we were able to get in a solid visit in about an hour.
Back in central Lisbon, we went up the Santa Justa Elevator, had a beer at the restaurant right next to the top of it, and then went to freshen up for dinner. We ate at O Churrasco (rua das Portas de Santo Antão 83-85), which was near our hotel. I had cabrito assado, kid (goat) that had been marinated and spit roasted. It was delicious. We were worn out from the day, so with full stomachs, and sore knees, we called it a night.