A plethora of palaces

“Walk?” queried the young lady in the Tourist Office.

Her face had momentarily showed something reminscent of borderline amazed horror but she pulled herself together just as quickly when I explained.

“Yes, to the Moorish Castle. Up there.” I pointed in roughly the right direction. “Is there a footpath?

“Yes, yes.”

The right eyebrow returned to its usual resting position.

“Walk a little ways along the road to the Lawrence hotel. Turn left. Walk a little ways again and then turn right into the Vila Sassetti.”

I thanked her for her time and wandered out to find Jonathan.

“I am not sure people walk to the castle. The girl in there looked quite taken aback at the idea of us climbing straight up there to 500m.” I explained.

“Maybe everyone takes the bus or tuk tuks?” he suggested. We had walked successfuly through a phalanx of drivers earlier at the railway station, all of them touting their wares as drivers and tour guides. Jonathan had spotted that if we avoided speaking English we would not be bothered. He was right. We strode with silent purpose through their ranks and headed unassailed up the hill. Had other visitors fallen victim to their charm?

The town hall

If it wasn’t them, it was the array of delightful shops filling the narrow picture postcard Sintran streets with all manner of tourist trinkets. Having also survived Ryanair’s maximum bag size regime, there was no way at the boarding gate we would be returning with souvenirs. But I digress.

We had taken one of the graffiti covered trains from Lisbon to Sintra after a very leisurely hotel breakfast. No train is untouched by the artistic spray paint; the railways and stations showcase some true talent via these pop up and very mobile exhibitions.

Vila Sassetti

Sintra sits 25km roughly west of Lisbon in the mountains of the same name. A royal playground in the 19th century past, it is known for the somewhat whimsical architecture scattered amidst pine forested hills. With opulent palaces, extravagant mansions and a castle, we decided it would make a perfect film set for Mowgli does The Prisoner in a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang remake.

Inside the chalet at Pena – the walls are dressed in cork

Having escaped the temptations of shopping and an easy ride to 500m we found the footpath, exactly where the Tourist Information girl had said. She knew her stuff.

It was a delightful walk and nothing like the warning-laden visitor website labelling it ‘steep and very challenging’. A steady gradient on the now familiar mosaic cobbled paths, granite this time, wove its way through the Vila Sassetti gardens.

Fuchsia, pelargoniuns, camellia, hydrangeas and periwinkle decorated our route under the pines.

Periodically the views opened out, either to the Atlantic or up to the castle. We had the ascent generally to ourselves and covered the mile or so in good time to reach the Castelo dos Mouros or Moorish Castle.

The Castelo dos Mouros

Established during the 9th century by the North African Moors to guard the town of Sintra, it fell into disrepair after the Christian conquest of Portugal.

The castle was restored in the 19th century by King Ferdinand II, who, following the fashion of the era, transformed it into a romantic ruin and a major feature of the gardens of the Pena Palace. That drama still fills the castelo, with no health and safety reminders or barriers between low slung castellations and the ground lying more than a few feet below. It made for a thoughtful but very enjoyable exploration.

Having done the major portion of the climb, we decided to bag the National Palace of Pena summit too. The building is an eye watering mashup of sherbet colours, Disneyesk architecture and a ‘look at me’ attitude.

We goggled from afar, preferring to tramp the beautifully mountain wrapped Kew gardens instead up to the Sintra mountains summit at High Cross.

The rest, as they say, was all downhill. Our hotel guest advisor had suggested we visit Sintra as part of a guided, chauffeur driven tour. It had sounded very tempting. Irrespective of the exorbitant price however, we preferred our version. The metro, trains and walking all added to the day.

One of the Ardennais ponies on the Pena farm – hugely muscled equine teddy bears used for forestry and farm work.

We didn’t just go to Sintra, we had our own little expedition and it made for a memorable time together. Apparently we racked up 12 walking miles and 1500ft ascent too which most probably explains why the two of us usually lose weight on holiday.

Double rations of cocktails, chocolate and champagne tomorrow then.

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