Monday, 5 January 2015


Traveling in the quieter times of the year really has its perks.  Mainly, solitude.

Flying in and out of Lisbon was a good place to jump off to Sintra, the mountainous seaside region on Lisbon's doorstep.  Centuries of royalties made their summer homes here in the cooler high elevation, and it's a place filled with drama and regal beauty.

We rented a car in Lisbon, shoved off down the coastal road, stopping any time we found a particularly beautiful stretch of coastline.

And what dramatic coastline it was!  The waves are just thrashing constantly- this is the Westernmost point in continental Europe and the seas are fierce, chipping away at the rock cliffs with every thunderous crash.  Even on the one day where it was warm enough to consider a swim, it just wasn't a swimming kind of place.    

We decided to give hiking a try.  The trails are a mess- zig zagging and dead-ending with nary a carin or signpost to be found.  Map-reading and good judgement was essential.  I don't think I could have done it alone.

Hiking down to Praja Ursa and having the beach to's kind of magic.  It was incredibly steep, and the trail on the far end of the beach had apparently been washed out by a storm, so we were left running from the tide to scramble back up the same cliffside we had just bravely hopped down.  Worth it?  Oh yes.

While the food scene was just awful and had me skipping meals, we found a local family-run place where the lady of the house did some fantastic dishes, but only if you begged them her to hold the chips and perhaps find a few veggies in the back of the fridge.  They were generous and gregarious and pragmatic and just made the trip more fun.

The skies were dramatic and ever-changing as the first of the winter storms blew in, and surfers flocked to the beaches to try their hand at massive waves.  

Meanwhile, I felt the burn by climbing a very steep staircase up a cliff-side to get a peep at some fossilized footprints of dinosaurs.  

With much rain in the forecast, we abandoned our boots and headed to the town of Sintra: a lovely mountainside village filled with palaces and storied mansions, filled with touches more Arabic than European.

Even in the cold, miserable wet, Sintra was cheerful and charming, especially if you can find a friendly cafe to settle in for a very long lunch to dry off.  


Pena Palace
Climbing up into the tall trees around Pena Palace and the sprawling park surrounding the mountaintop, the smell of eucalyptus heavy in the damp air.  Sintra was a nice contrast of nature and sumptuous luxury for the privileged few, with a cultivated exotic rainforest of exotic plants and lovely Lusitano horses prancing around.

The precariously perched Moorish fortress overlooks the town, with its romantic past obscured by the heavy mountain mists.  At times, it looked like the Great Wall, with a dragon spine pushing up to the sky and slithering here and there on the hillside.

To see how the other half lived, head to the Capuchos Convent, where the only luxury allowed to the monks was an insulation of cork to control some humidity.

The slightly sprawling, mysterious, moss-covered convent seemed organically part of the hillside, carved from stone and connected by caves, with lovely twisted old cork trees scattered around, and the tall treetops dancing maniacally in the wind coming off the ocean damp.

Squeezing and ducking through the tiny doorways into bedroom cells that made my first Manhattan studio apartment seem spacious.  You don't have to be a contortionists to live here, but it does help.

Although, I was amused to see they had some nice Bay Ridge style lighting effects to jazz up the 16th century drab hallways.

It's a place of ghosts.  The mist rolls in and you are surrounded by them.

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