20 October 2015

Lisbon Day 3: Day Trip to Sintra

Many of Lisbon's museums and other attractions are closed on Mondays so I decided to visit the nearby town of Sintra.

First, though, I stopped by one of the other coffee shops on my list: Copenhagen Coffee Lab's Lisbon branch. I really liked the original CCL and had high hopes for its Lisbon counterpart, which is located on a quiet street in Bairro Alto. The building is painted a cheery yellow but inside, the décor is as sleek and minimalist as you would expect of a Scandi café. The coffee menu was extensive, with V60, Aeropress and French press offered alongside espresso-based drinks. I ordered an Aeropress brew (only €2.50!) and took a seat in the window. The coffee was great and the café is a cool and cosy place to hang out — the Macs were out in full force!

The historic town of Sintra is a 40-minute train ride from Rossio station in Lisbon's city centre. There are a few trains an hour (I had to wait about 30 minutes as the 11.21 never showed up), and it costs €4.30 return (the train is free if you have a Lisboa Card). Sintra is located in a huge national park about 20 miles northwest of Lisbon. There are numerous palaces, castles and parks to explore and although you can buy combination tickets, the entry prices rack up quite quickly. There are public and tour buses that run between the train station and the main sights, but given the distance between the sights and the hilliness of the terrain, you are probably better picking one to three for a half- to full-day visit.

Fed up of waiting around for public transport, I decided to walk to the 19th century Palácio da Pena, which is probably the most famous of the Sintra sights — it's certainly the most spectacular, with its bright colours and quirky architecture. The woman in the tourist information office told me that it was about a 5km walk, all uphill, but this didn't put me off. Unfortunately, I couldn't find the footpath she mentioned, so I ended up walking along the roadside. There isn't a proper pavement but the switchbacks are so tight that it is easy to spot approaching cars, tuktuks and coaches.

It took me about 50 minutes to reach the entrance of Palácio da Pena. I passed the Castelo dos Mouros on the way and, as I was also planning to visit the castle, I wish I had bought my combo ticket there as there was no queue. Instead, I waited in line for about 30 minutes at Pena. The inclement weather on Saturday meant that the Pena park itself was closed, but you could still access the palace. I paid €18.43 (including a 10% Lisboa Card discount) for entrance to Palácio da Pena and the Moorish Castle. You could knock about €7 off that price but just visiting the terraces of the palácio and not the inside — with hindsight, I wouldn't have bothered with the palace interiors.

There was one final 500m slope up to the palace itself, although if your legs have given up, you can pay another €3 for a shuttle. The palace is really quite cool. From the moment you glimpse its vibrant red and yellow walls from afar, you know it isn't like any other palace you've ever seen before. Up close, the detail is also quite superb, especially the tiling.

The inside of the palace is pretty nice too. On seeing the dining room (which offers views across to Lisbon), another tourist remarked: "It's not that big. You could imagine living here." Hmm...

Afterwards, I walked around the terraces — there aren't really very many barriers to prevent you from tumbling down the hillside, but this made for some excellent views. I even managed a slightly precarious (for my camera) self-timer shot.

Next stop was the Castelo dos Mouros. Door-to-door, it's about 15 to 20 minutes between the two sights, and yes, there is more climbing. The remains of the castle sprawl across the hillside and you can climb all over the ramparts — again, there is little to stop you from plummeting downwards, so do be careful!

From the castle you can look back across at the Palácio da Pena and down on the town of Sintra and Palácio Nacional de Sintra. The views are quite stunning and I definitely felt that I had earned my selfie!

About halfway between the castle and the castle ticket office, I spotted a sign for a footpath back to Sintra (it just says 'centro historico'), which was a much quicker route down. It's probably steeper than the road but shorter and definitely safer. My ankles weren't too keen on all the steps but before too long I was on the train back to Lisbon, enjoying a well-earned ice cream. Note: the food options at the palácio and the castelo are pretty poor, so take your own food if you can. Also, if you can earlier in the day, the queues will be shorter and the sights won't be so crowded.

Cinema tickets in Lisbon are under €7 and I wanted to take advantage and catch up on my movie to-do list (I saw Sicario, which is excellent). I just had time for a quick early dinner at Fábulas, a lovely, cosy café-restaurant near Baixa-Chiado metro. You can stop by for a coffee or a glass of wine in the crypt-like surroundings, but I had a delicious bowl of pumpkin risotto (€9), which filled me up after a hard day's hike.

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