It was early morning at the Rossio train station in the center of Lisbon, Portugal. My better half and me, equipped with croissants and takeaway coffee were making our way to the local train huffin’ and puffin’ its way to Sintra. It seems to be a well known tourist route, as also a main commuting line for people working in Lisbon and living in nearby suburbs and towns.
So, what is Sintra exactly? It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a king’s valley of some sort, except it’s not a valley, but a series of magnificent fortresses built on top of different local hilltops. You can visit all of the forts, sporting different architectural influences, ranging from oriental (Arabic) to pretty much everything else in the artistic currents of European history.
The procedure goes like this. When you arrive to the Sintra train station, you have to take a bus. Best course of action is to buy a round trip ticket while in Lisbon, a sort of a Sintra bus pass. With it, you can switch up busses to your liking. The bus’ point of departure is from the train station, and it makes a round trip across the local hills, driving you past every single fortress you may wish to visit. In my personal experience, if you don’t wish for it to become a two day trip, do choose one fortress, and one museum in Sintra. After deliberation, we decided to visit the most renowned of the Sintra mansions, the Pena castle.
14 € each, and we gained access to a humongous park, and the terraces of the castle. Pena, a castle rebuilt on the ruins of a monastery devastated in the great Lisbon earthquake is world renowned for its beauty and its view. You can see the nearby Atlantic coast, or you can take a stroll in the forest park underneath the building. Take a seat near a serene pond and take a breath. It will calm your unsettling romantic nerve.
Afterwards, we were in quite a hurry, as we had to catch a bus to Cabo da Roca. We barely made it. And what was coming seemed to be one of the most breathtaking commutes on this vacation. The bus takes you from the Sintra train station to Cabo da Roca, or Cape Roca, the westernmost part of continental Europe. What’s special about it is that the bus takes you through some local villages and towns, and the landscape, nature and little houses there are remarkable. I really can’t remember when’s the last time I’ve seen villages of such beauty. It looked more like an impressionist’s painting than a real-life moving picture for me. The driver, well, he’s probably used to the scenery, so that must be the reason why he decided to switch to his stuntman self, and drive what felt like a tiny cardboard bus about 90 mph through the narrow streets, cursing at other ‘reckless’ drives conforming to the speed and safety limitations. So the ambivalence of the experience was really something special. I had to balance the most beautiful landscape I ever visited with a legitimate fear for my life. Schyzophrenic, to say the least.
But, we made it there in one piece. The downside was the wind blowing. Cabo da Roca is a cape, cliffs dropping into the Atlantic (which I was seeing for the first time), and there’s no more European soil from the last stone of those cliffs hitting the salted waves, all the way to what was once known as New Amsterdam (not counting the Azores and Madeira, we are talking about the European continent here). The rocks are spray-painted by various football fans, so I also had an insight who Benfica or Sporting were playing against in a past year or two. Legia, Zenit… take your pick. It seems even hard-core football fans like to do some sightseeing now and then. Some contemplation with soundtrack coming from the waves, and a photograph here and there, and we were running again, trying to catch the bus to the Cascais holiday resort. I felt like I was on springs running through the ice plant fields towards the bus station.
This time, the ride was much more relaxed. And there we were, in Cascais. Now, if I would have to rate all of the sites on this short one day trip, Cascais would probably be last on the list. It’s a holiday resort in the most classic sense of the word. You can see many hotels, a fortress, yachts and German tourists trying to pronounce Azulejo and sounding funny doing so. Palm trees everywhere, signs made out of flowers, restaurants that look expensive, the whole shebang. After an hour spent sitting on the sandy beach, trying to catch a bit of a tan (the water was ice-cold, even though it was the beginning of July), it was time for lunch. And here, we made the most out of Cascais.
We found a small tavern, owned by two brothers, that seemed to offer the most affordable meals. I finally ate some proper sardines, and a whole bottle of wine was ridiculously cheap, like 5 or 6 euros. And once again, I was reminded of a Portuguese friend in disbelief when he bought wine in Slovenia, saying it’s overpriced rubbish. Also, a bottle of famous Mateus rosé wine doesn’t get more expensive than 6-7 euros.
The owners, two testosterone pumped manly men, were obviously Sporting Lisbon fans. Scarves and flags were hanging around all over the restaurant. Also, for the first time I noticed something that seemed like a strange portuguese custom at the time. Namely, people enter the tavern, ordering coffee. They don’t sit down, but stand by the bar. When the espresso is prepared, I could see them exchanging a couple of words with the bartender, and then drinking their coffee in a single sip, like it was a shot of vodka, turning around, and leaving the premises. That’s what I call stopping by for a quick coffee.
After two bus commutes, we were embarking on a train once again. It was already evening, night was falling, and all I could see out the window was the Tejo river sparkling in the night. Back in Lisbon, exhausted, the only thing we could do is take the metro home to bed.
Next time: SL Benfica stadium and Bairro Alto jazz clubs and hashish vendors.