For Friday, I had splurged on a tour to Sintra through Context Travel. From what I had read, one could easily “do” Sintra without needing a guide, but we were interested in knowing the history of the sites we were to visit. Besides, after our trip to Belém, I was more than happy to have someone tell me what to do.
We woke and breakfasted early so that we could walk to Rossio Station in time for our 8:45 meeting time with our docent. Context limits the size of their tours, and our was just four people. The tour actually started right at the station, as our docent explained its neo-Manueline style and told us the appalling story of the tourist who destroyed a statue of King Sebastian at the station when he tried to take a selfie with it. This was a preview of sorts, as we were to hear a lot more about poor King Sebastian during our tour.
Rossio train station. The empty niche at the front is where the statue of King Sebastian was.
The train ride took forty minutes and gave us a chance to talk with our guide and the other guests. We sat on the left-hand side of the train and had a good view of the aqueduct on our way through the city.
It was partly sunny when we arrived in Sintra, and the Castelo dos Mouros was playing hide-and-seek in the clouds. The vendors were still setting up their wares by the side of the road as we walked to the Palacio Nacional. One man selling vinyl records was playing David Bowie’s “China Girl” as we passed by. Two elderly local gentleman were just behind us, and our guide translated what one of them said:
“It’s funny, I don’t understand a word of English. But some of these songs just stick in your head.”
I noticed a few minutes later that he was whistling “China Girl” all the way up the road.
Palacio Nacional de Sintra
Our guide had passes that allowed us to skip the small line at the Palacio. As she led us through the palace, she narrated the history of the Portuguese rulers, bringing to life figures like João I and Catherine of Bragança, while also pointing out architectural details. Some of my favorite rooms in the palace were the magpie room, the chapel with its beautiful tiles and wooden ceiling, and the kitchen, where we could stand directly below one of the two enormous chimneys and look up to the sky above. It was hard to imagine what those kitchens must have felt like to work in when the fires were blazing.
The Magpie Room
After the palace, we all wanted a short break and needed some water, so we stopped at Piriquita and had some travesseiros, which are light and flaky and filled with a type of almond cream. I think I preferred them to the pastéis de nata! In fact, I am craving one as I type this.
Our second stop was the Quinta da Regaleira. There was a much longer line here; fortunately, our guide was again able to get us in without waiting. The sun was out now, but above us, the Pena Palace was sometimes hidden by mist and then suddenly visible, which only added to the surreal quality of the grounds. Here, our guide told us the history of Carvalho Monteiro’s fantastic construction and led us through the house and grounds, including the Initiation Well (thankfully, I did not slip on the stepping stones). The whole time we were there, I had the eerie feeling that I was in a not-quite-real place, moving through someone else’s dream–not surprising given the architect’s history as a set designer and the owner’s Masonic beliefs. I found it both entertaining and a little unsettling.
Quinta da Regaleira
Our guided tour ended in early afternoon. The other couple returned to Lisbon right away with the guide. D and I spent another hour exploring the grounds, and then we took stock. We could have extended our visit to go to Pena Palace. But I think we both felt that we had absorbed so much that we wanted to just reflect on what we’d seen and heard without trying to cram more in. And by that point, the coach tours had arrived, the vendors had multiplied, and the serenity of the morning had vanished.
On our return, we swung by the Mercado Baixa again, where by now, the vendors recognized us. D and I speculated that locals probably roll their eyes at these markets the way we do at street fairs in New York, but we didn’t really care if we were being typical tourists. We had a couple of cups of refreshing white port sangria and split another Açores cheese sandwich, this time with blackberry jam. We took a roundabout route home, taking the Elevador Castelo up and then winding our way down through Alfama once again. We stopped to revisit the Roman Amphitheatre, which we had just quickly passed through on Tuesday. And I did a little bit of shopping on impulse when I saw some nice pillow covers. Then back to the hotel to freshen up.
I had made a reservation in Bairro Alto for dinner and fado. We walked all the way there–there was only one really steep part–and found a bar where we sat in the window and had a drink, watching the street outside. It was still fairly early, and I had a sense that the neighborhood was just starting to rouse itself for its Friday night party.
A mural in Bairro Alto
We made our way to the tavern, a tiny room with just a few tables. Having read reviews, I had low expectations for the food, but I was also ravenous after all that walking in Sintra. We had the option of ordering a prix-fixe fado menu or a la carte; we went with the latter since neither of us usually takes dessert. We started with some sheep’s cheese and prosciutto, and I had cod cakes with tomato rice while D had a pork and rice sausage with salad. I thought the food was fine, nothing spectacular, just hearty, simple food.
As with the previous night, we didn’t really know enough about fado to have an informed opinion about the performances, but we enjoyed ourselves. Sometimes it’s just pleasant to sit in an intimate venue and listen to live music. There were two singers that night, both men, but as unlike in appearance and voice as could be. The first fadista was older, with long, flowing hair, black shirt open to mid-chest, and a weather-beaten face with large, limpid eyes. He had a powerful voice, a little raw at times, and he seeemed to use his whole body to express emotion. The second fadista was a younger man in a t-shirt, with close-trimmed hair. Where the first man had looked romantically piratical, this one had a nondescript appearance and seemed even a little stiff and uncertain in his posture. Then he began to sing, and we realized that this fellow who looked like the cable repairman had a sweet, pure tenor with a lovely vibrato. I couldn’t understand a word, but, as the gentleman from Sintra said, it stuck in my head.
I was so glad we had gotten the chance to hear three such different singers, in two very different venues, over the two nights. When the singing ended, we slowly made our way back to the hotel, stopping at a port wine bar along the way for a nightcap. We’d had a nearly perfect day, and I was already regretting that we had only one day left.Written on September 19th, 2018 by smallfrog