Sintra (Even the Hills Have Hills)

After two days in Lisbon, we decided to take our first out of town to see what else Portugal has to offer.  Our first day trip brought us to the wonderful town of Sinta, an affluent resort town that has been one of the seats of power in Portugal for nearly a thousand years.  From castles built on top of mountains, to palaces built on top of mountains, and more palaces built on top of mountains, Sintra has everything a history lover is looking for, and may be the most challenging day trip in the history of traveling.  And if Lisbon doesn't give you the hills you desire, which means you must be part mountain goat, never fear, Sintra will have you in a vertical climb almost as soon as you step off the train.  Welcome to Sintra, Portuguese for "upper hill both ways."

Getting to Sintra is easy.  Jump on one of the trains (remember, this is not the Metro) from the Rossio train station in the heart of Lisbon.  They run two trains and hour out and back to Sintra.  The train ride takes about 40 minutes, and is free if you have the Lisbon Card we mentioned earlier.  When you arrive at the train station in Sintra you are going to have three options.  You can hike to the top of the mountain from the train station which will take more than an hour at best (and is a brutal hike), you can ride the local bus up to the top of the mountain (which usually has a line to get on), or you can have fun and take a tuk-tuk to the top.  The tuk-tuk ride costs €5 per person, and is well worth the price.  I need to stress this as much as I can, I love hiking, and have no fear of the physical challenges, but the hike to the top of the mountain is brutal.  The roads are all paved, and the paths through the mountain are very well kept, but the incline is so challenging it will tax even the best of hikers.

There are three must see sights in Sintra, and the place to start is the Pena Palace which sits on the highest peak in this mountainous town.  After being dropped off by the tuk-tuk, you will still have a 15 minute walk from the ticket booth to the house.  The palace, built in the 19th Century on the site of a former monastery, is the creation of King Ferdinand.  King Ferdinand is the cousin of the famous "Mad" King Ludwig of Bavaria who built the better known Neuschwanstein Palace.  Pena Palace is quite possibly the most impressive, and at the same time most mismatched, palace in the world.  King Ferdinand, who came from Germany, combined the history of the ancient monastery, the former Moorish rulers of Portugal, and the Christian history of the country since then into one massive palace.  From building to building the you will see ancient Muslim inscriptions, giant Christian crosses, gargoyles, and almost any creature that can be carved in stone.  Each building of the palace is painted in bright, vibrant, colors that can be seen from miles away.  Once inside the palace you will find breathtaking rooms like a dining hall made for monks, but converted to the dining hall for a king.  You will find a private sanctuary built for the royalty of Portugal to come worship along side the king.  The altar piece alone matches anything you will see in any cathedral in Europe.  Each room you proceed through brings you to another equally impressive site including swords with handles carved out of ivory, life-sized statues carved with the king's face, and a collection of stained glass King Ferdinand collected from across Europe.  Once outside you can take a walk along the palace defense walls for a mile high view of the valley below, the Moorish Castle that King Ferdinand used as inspiration for his artistic works, and the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.  After you are done with the palace, spend some time walking through the wonderfully kept gardens that are fitting of a palace of this type.  You could easily spend another 2-3 hours wandering the grounds, and that would be time well spent, but I would suggest spending about an hour and then moving on to the Moorish Castle.

 After leaving Pena Palace, set off down the road for the short walk to the Moorish Castle.  The castle is the true example of what comes to mind when you think of a castle.  Sitting on the next peak over from Pena Palace, the land around the castle has been occupied by people since the 5th Century B.C., and was the seat of power for the Moors who ruled Portugal for more than four centuries starting in the 8th Century.  Walking towards the castle from the gate you will find ancient holes in the ground that people used for grain silos more than two thousand years ago.  You will also find grave sites for the neolithic inhabitants of the land from before the time of Jesus Christ.  Walking along the stunning landscape, you will find the first church built by the Christian rulers of Portugal after they conquered the Moors in 1147.  After entering the castle you will see there is not much left of the interior, but you get an idea of the size of the grounds, and you understand why it would have been a menacing site to any potential invaders.  Walk along the still standing walls of the castle and you will feel yourself climb almost vertically between the two peaks that fall within the castle walls.  From the highest point in the castle you will see the a breathtaking view of Pena Palace behind the castle, and another stunning view of the valley below.  When you leave the castle you can either hop on a bus or tuk-tuk back to the city, or take a walk through the gardens that will bring you out at the top of the downtown area.  The walk will take you about 45 minutes, but is well-worth the effort, and will give you a chance to take in some wonderful landscapes that look almost the same as they did a thousand years ago when the Moors ruled the land.  The best part about the walk, it's downhill the entire way.

Once back in the city make your way to the National Palace.  The National Palace was the seat of power for the Portuguese royal family since the 15th Century, and it is ironically the place where the kingdom came to an end in 1910 after the royal family abdicated the throne following a series of assassinations in 1908.  Being back in the city you may think the challenges of touring are over, but don't worry, they have built plenty of steps into the palace over the centuries to make sure you get a good leg burn in.  With a fraction of the crowds of Pena Palace you can take your time in each room, and see a well-preserved palace that still holds government functions to this day.  One unique note about the palace, it is the western most royal palace in all of Europe.  After entering the palace you will wander into the Swan Hall, painted with swans to remind one of the former kings of his daughter who loved swans after he married her off to a foreign king.  You will pass through the former sitting room of the king.  Check out the gold celestial globe that has been illuminating the minds of the royal family since the 16th Century.  Throughout the centuries, European royalty has been one of the leading sponsors of Christian art.  In all of the palaces, museums, and art exhibits we have toured through we've never seen a painting as creepy as their portrait of John the Baptist.  The Blazon Hall was the gathering room for grand meetings between the royal families and their allies for centuries.  We did narrowly avert an international incident when Wendy dropped her chapstick cap behind the rope.  If you hear that we have gone to war with Portugal you will know what happened.  When you are done head down to the kitchen and see what had to be the biggest royal kitchen in the world.  The kitchen is so big they literally turned the room into two giant 100+ foot tall chimneys.  The kitchens are literally in a giant house sized fireplace.  After leaving the palace wander through the downtown for a few hours.  Portugal is known for their artistic tiles, and their are countless artists working in Sintra hand painting tiles daily.  They also have several wonderful wine shops that are happy to offer you a taste and tell you about Port, the wine of Portugal.

Sintra is one of the most fun day trips we have ever taken in Europe.  Between the palaces, the fun shops that circle the National Palace, and just the overall beauty of the community, it is worth a day of your time.  We even ran into some questions about Trump while we were in one of the tile shops.  The nice Portuguese lady wanted to know what we thought of our president.  I got the feeling whatever we said was going to be the way she felt too, but it turned into a pleasing 20 minute conversation about how much she loved and respected the United States for the choices we have as Americans.  That wraps it up for our trip to Portugal.  It was a whirlwind trip, but we felt like we got the most out of a week in Portugal as anyone could hope to accomplish, and we are thankful we got to visit this wonderful county and people.

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