From our base in Odrinhas, we caught a local bus the 12km south into a bus station located a short walk from Sintra town. We walked up the wide pedestrianised street past small cafés and shops, enjoying the bright sun on our faces. As we approached the centre, we caught glimpses of the white twin conical chimneys of the National Palace sitting high above the red rooftops, looking more like Kentish Oast houses.
We passed the Manueline style municipal Town Hall, with its turrets and colourful roof tiling, before we looped behind the National Palace on small side streets, enjoying some different vistas of the town without tourists, to return to the raised, bustling square at the front of the National Palace. From here we were able to get our bearings and see most of the town and its main sights, including the Castelo dos Mouros, Castle of the Moors, on the hill behind, and the rather fantastical Pena Palace beyond. The latter is the quintessential Fairytale castle, one of many over-ornate and brightly coloured buildings in a town that, as someone once commented, was effectively a ‘Disneyworld for adults’.
We could have taken the snaking, tourist mini-train around the town on a sight-seeing tour, but this didn’t quite appeal. So instead we walked up the steep hills and rose through the cooling shade of Merendas Park, but a lack of signage led us back out to the hairpin-dominated road, where we slowly walked up between visitor cars and buses.
We arrived at the gates of Pena Palace and gardens a short while later, hot and sticky from the effort. Pena Palace sits on a high peak of the Serra, dominating views from Sintra below. The palace, previously a Hieronymite monastery that was severely damaged in the Lisbon earthquake in the 18th century, is architectural work of pure Romanticism.
The palace was the ten year long vision of German architect Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, with detailed input from Queen Maria and Prince Ferdinand II. It represented a muddled assortment of architectural influences. Medieval Catholic and Islamic decorative elements are juxtaposed with imagery of Scientific Romanticism, influenced by Greek mythology and contemporary scientific discoveries.
Surrounding the main archway leading to the inner courtyard is a large sculpture of Triton, the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite. Triton squats like an ugly gremlin, adorned on all sides with motifs of seaweed, waves and coral. His shoulders provide support for a large bay window, its colonnettes carved with grapevines and local fauna. In 1838, when the Palace of Pena was being designed, Darwin had just conceived of his theory of natural selection. This sculpture, reflecting Scientific Romanticism, is a carved tribute to this world-changing scientific advancement, with its allegorical representations of the evolutionary jump of life from sea to land.
We sat and enjoyed the view from the preserved courtyard of the 16th Century Manueline cloisters, before following a short walk around the brightly painted exterior walls. This walk allowed fantastic views all around the local area, of Sintra and of the Moorish castle now below us.
After exploring the rooms of the palace and the collections within, we decided to spend most of the time we had left in the gardens around the palace, to enjoy the walking and to escape the crowds. We first headed further up the adjacent hill to the High Cross, the highest point of the Sintra range at 540m. This peak, marked by an elaborate interwoven cross provided a great vantage over the whole of Pena Palace and the grounds.
We descended through the gardens past other follies, statues and miradors, before reaching the hugely impressive Fern Gardens, looking like the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall, or perhaps something from Jurassic Park. Ferdinand II gathered a diverse collection of trees from then Portuguese colonies or further afield, creating a lasting testament to Portugal’s conquests and naval power. Among the species on show were North American Sequoias, Chinese Gingko and Japanese Cryptomeria, alongside ferns from Australia and succulents from Northern Africa.
The gardens led to a few artificial lakes with impressively elaborate duck houses, before we arrived back to the entrance gate with many miles in our legs. We descended back to Sintra, this time down a more formal pathway through the forests. This passed the beautiful Villa Sassetti and its neat gardens, before arriving only metres away from where we began our climb on a different path. We wandered the small streets of Sintra for a while, enjoying the atmosphere and colour of the town, before making our way back to the bus station and returning to our camp at Odrinhas, for some well-earned downtime at the pool, to cool off our overworked legs.
From our room with a view on the clifftops overlooking beaches Praia do Guincho & Praia da Crismina, we cycled one morning into the local tourist hotspot of Cascais. It was all flat and easy rolling, with clearly denoted cycle lanes the entire 9km into the town centre. The only complication en route was that of pedestrians refusing to walk on the wide, clear and obviously marked footpath adjacent to the cycle lane, instead choosing to wander dangerously in the cycle lane with abandon, so we had to remain alert at all times.
On the road in we detoured a little to look around the marina, positioned behind some old castle walls. From here we could see the main sea front of Cascais across the water, with some pretty churches and some awful high rise apartment blocks mingled together.
We continued around the water’s edge to the town. We watched the final touches being added to some beach sculptures, strangely models of ski resorts complete with trees and chalets, on the small patch of beach at the front of the town. Then we locked up our bikes to a lamppost near to an O’Neill’s Irish bar, reminding us we had definitely arrived in ‘Brits Abroad’ resort territory.
Calçada, a traditional form of Portuguese decorative paving created from small blocks, created disorientating waves on the central pedestrianised areas, making the pavement look ridged and uneven on occasion. We wandered around through pleasant squares with several street performers playing music, one lively plaza with a swing band and singer in full flow. All the restaurants and cafés in the town were brimming with people and life, looking very busy even though it was yet to pass noon.
The day was rather cloudy and overcast, but variably bright on occasion, showing off the town. The weather was important, although the numbers of people were more influential on us forming our opinion on Cascais. It was no doubt much less busy than in peak season, but it was still much busier than places we had been used to in our recent travels, and in our glorious isolation we had forgotten how to deal with crowds. We exhausted the small streets around the centre, looking in various shops and listening to the music on every corner. The lively mood and vibe of the centre won us over as we explored further, with us happily forgetting our usual attachment to solitude for one sunny afternoon.