Little known fact: the architect behind Sintra’s Pena Palace completed the original draft in 35 minutes. Six-year-old Doris Schneebaum submitted her proposal at the end of Arts & Crafts time, having rushed to complete the assignment: “Draw a Silly Castle”. Her teacher, King Ferdinand II of Portugal, took one look and was convinced. “It’s perfect! This shall be my new home!”
The first of Sintra’s many palaces that you’re likely to spot is the one which shares its name. The Palácio Nacional de Sintra is located in the dead center of town, and everything else seems to radiate around and outward from the castle. Actually, that’s probably exactly how Sintra developed.
With its castles, hills, fog and forests, Sintra looks as though it was ripped straight from the pages of a fairy tale. For centuries, this was the preferred retreat of Portuguese kings, and its beauty has been celebrated by legions of poets, painters and authors. In order to properly soak up the atmosphere, and to visit everything it has to offer, we decided to spend a week there.
In the hills just to the northwest of Lisbon is one of the city’s more unique viewpoints. Although the former Restaurante Monsanto has been abandoned for years, its circular shell has remained intact. You’re no longer able to order a delicious meal, but nothing is stopping you from enjoying the views.
We had been frustrated in our attempt to visit Lisbon’s Jardim Botânico, finding it closed for renovations. “Indefinitely”, as the bored girl behind the desk put it. But we had a back-up in mind: within the Parque de Eduardo VII is another botanic garden, called the Estufa Fria.
Sloping upward from the roundabout of Marquis de Pombal, the Parque de Eduardo VII is a weirdly attractive green space in Lisbon. It’s simply a long hill in the shape of a rectangle, nothing outwardly special about it. But in this city, it’s all about the views, and from the top of the park is one of the best.
It didn’t surprise us to learn that Lisbon was home to a thriving street art scene. This is known as a somewhat anarchic city, with a large population of struggling, disaffected youth, and a fairly permissive culture. That’s the perfect combination for excellent graffiti: political, angry, sarcastic, weird and often beautiful. During the course of our stay in Lisbon, we’d discover something new every time we stepped outdoors.
On the way back toward Sesimbra from Cabo Espichel, we pulled over to check out the beach of Riberia do Cavalo. After realizing that reaching the beach would require a 30-minute walk through the brush, we almost bailed; this was the final activity of our five-day road trip, and we were both tired. But we decided to tough it out… and thankfully so, because this beach was worth it.
Although we spent two nights in Sesimbra, a beach town on the western side of the Serra de Arrábida, we never really had a chance to explore it in depth. We arrived late into the first evening, after touring the Arrábida National Park and sampling the wines of Azeitão.