Admittedly, six nights is dismally inadequate to explore Portugal. Here you have a country whose archeological history goes back some 30,000 years, a lush, varied, sun-drenched land settled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors-long-ago ancestors of the current Portuguese people. A month, really, should be a minimum, but for various reasons, Yolanda and I were limited to this short time before traveling in southern France.
There is an entire western and southern Atlantic coastline to explore, replete with isolated beaches, magnificent cliffs and ancient, languid towns. There are mountain ranges rising to the east with the Spanish border only 175 miles from the western coast. More than anything though, there is the Portuguese cultural heritage, a unique and sometimes fantastic conglomeration of Roman, Moorish, Spanish, English and Catholic influences that has survived and at times, thrived since the expulsion of Islam in the 13th century.
Lisbon is a bustling, cosmopolitan, capitol city. From its broad, tree-lined avenues, punctuated by monumental monuments to Portugal’s heroes and history, to the tiny, twisting, cobbled lanes of hilly Alfama, Lisbon is a delight to explore. Buy a four Euro day pass for its metro, busses and anachronistically, iconic trams and explore to your heart’s content.
Hop aboard Tram 28 for several hours of rattling up and down the hills of Alfama and the Barrio Alto. In the narrow street the tram misses by inches parked cars, people and the corners of houses. You can hop on and off to take in the magnificent viewpoints, eat at a street side café, experience the calm of exquisite centuries-old churches or explore the ancient castle sitting atop Alfama. Here, miradouros amidst a park-like setting of stone walls and parapets offer panoramic vistas of the city below.
From Lisbon’s vast Tejos River estuary, Portuguese 15th and 16th century explorers like Vasco de Gama embarked on their journeys of discovery. Facing what for them was the complete unknown, they opened the west and east coasts of Africa, the Straits of Hormuz, India, Ceylon, the spice islands of Indonesia and Malaysia as well as China and Japan. This brought European commerce and sometimes Portuguese domination to the regions.
At the same time, other Portuguese sailors happened upon the east coast of South America. They determined it was actually a vast continent rather than just islands as Columbus thought and established the huge holding that would eventually become Brazil.
For Yolanda and I though, the attraction of big cities pales to that of small towns, especially towns with an architectural heritage so interesting and fantastic as that of Sintra. Sintra is a short half-hour train ride from Lisbon’s centrally located Rossio train station. At less than 4 Euros round trip, the train is a bargain and makes an easy day trip. But with so much to experience an overnight, even two nights, is a must.
The small, historical center of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a romance of hills, narrow, cobbled lanes, lush vegetation and art. Tiny cafes serving the freshest seafood are tucked into its many corners. The ancient, stone, walls and towers of a Moorish castle and the fantastic palace of Portugal’s 19th century monarchs, Palacio de Pena, loom on hilltops high above the town. Parks, trails and roads rise into the verdant hills above the village. The forest reminds me very much of coastal Oregon.
For centuries, Sintra has been a summer retreat for Royalty and the wealthy. Incredible palaces and mansions, some now hotels, peak through the dense foliage of the hillsides. Yolanda and I spend one amazing afternoon exploring perhaps the most fantastical, the Quinta da Regaliera. Luigi Manini, a well-known Italian architect and opera set designer for his wealthy patron, Carvalho Monteiro, designed it around the turn of the 19th century. Manini devoted fourteen years to creating a mythical landscape out of the many acres of wooded hillside.
Paths wander throughout forest. Surprises lurk around every; fountains, caves, waterfalls, and towered, stone fortresses. We descend the circular stair set into the wall of the Initiatic Well eighty-eight feet to a mosaic floor. Dark caverns lead in various directions that eventually open onto other incredible scenes. I can imagine the pseudo-mystical ceremonies played out by torchlight operatically staged for the guest’s benefit.
Ponds, aquariums and elegant fountains are set amidst an arboretum type landscape. Statued terraces and a lovely chapel are staged among the greenery. Labyrinthine grottos twist their way through the rocks.
The Quinta da Regaleira is a masterwork of fantastic landscape and architectural design.