Today, our last full day in Portugal, Boris and I are taking separate tours. Boris is headed to see the lines of Torres Vedras. I am going to see some of the most popular sites near Lisbon on a small group tour. We will stop in Sintra and its Pena Castle, Casa de Roca, and the beach at Cascais.
Since I am on my own, I selected a tour that included a hotel pick up rather than going to a meeting point; it does cost a few euros more that way but I wasn’t familiar with the tram and bus system around Lisbon. Every time I looked the lines for public transportation were exceptionally long.
I was the first to be picked up. We have a van that seats 8+. The driver invited me to sit in front since I was on my own. We had a bit of trouble at the second stop. The rest of the group were young doctors who had just finished their training at a medical school in the Caribbean. They had had a long night in Lisbon (got in at 7 am) and weren’t ready to be picked up at 8:30. We shifted two independent tourists from the other vehicle into our van and the three of us headed out with Igor, our guide.
Among the tour participants were two young professionals, a 32-year old Indian gentleman who now lives in Manhattan and a Korean woman in her mid twenties who lived in the US during high school. I was delighted everyone spoke English. We all loved to take pictures and got along really well, although I am much older than the other tour participants and our guide.
We drove to Sintra and then on to Pena Castle to be in the tour group line before the castle opening at 9:30 am. There is a steep climb up to the castle from the point where you park. Be prepared for the hike. I did have to stop briefly a few times while my generous companions waited for me. You can make the 50-minute climb from the train station in Sintra, but it is not recommended. Catch the tourist bus up from the city and know that you will still have the climb I did and also need reserve energy to walk and climb around the castle itself.
Set in the beautiful Pena Park Forest, the castle is fairytale-like. It reflects a mix of architectural styles and different cultural and religious influences. In some places you have to get closer to notice the details, but the lovely Portuguese tiles are found throughout the structure. This is my second visit. The first time I only saw the exterior of the castle.
The basic admission charge is 7.5 euros (in 2019) and almost double that if you want to also see the interiors. There are reduced rates for children age 6-17 and for families. If you are booking a tour check to see if the palace tour is included. Sometimes it is and sometimes companies do not include it to make their package price appear lower. The circumstances for our group varied depending on who each of us booked our tour through.
On a weekend and throughout the busy season, the castle is packed with tourists. You will want to arrive early and be one of the first ones through the gates. Tour groups go in a separate line. By 10:30 am the castle was stuffed with visitors. You will be tempted to walk around the amazing exterior, but instead (if you chose the full ticket) head straight to the interior tour line so you can walk around inside while there is still room to see things and take pictures.
I knew Boris wouldn’t believe it, but the two other members of our tour group actually took more pictures than I did. They also took a lot more pictures of themselves and of/for each other. Ah to be young and beautiful!
Some of my favorite parts of the interior include the wonderful ceilings and the state rooms. The dining room is one of the few spaces that was not damaged by the earthquake. The castle has been restored to the look it had in 1910 when the Portuguese royal family had to flee to Brazil.
By far my favorite part of the interior tour was the chapel and the wonderful stained glass. Like the dining room, this space miraculously was spared in the earthquake of 1755. If you take a close look at the stained glass window, you can see the king holding a miniature of the castle. Look closely at the chapel window and you will see the stained glass window represented.
The palace was a pilgrimage site in the middle ages to see the chapel of Our Lady of Penha. Priests would trek up the mountain daily to say mass. Later, a residence structure was added. The structures served as a monastery until the monasteries were nationalized in 1834. The monastery was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1755. “In 1838, German Ferdinand Saxe Coburg-Gotha (1816-1885), King Consort of Queen Maria II, bought the ruins of the monastery, the woods and the Castle of the Moors… and initiated the construction of a road that would link the palace to Sintra.” Portugal Virtual. Ferdinand began remodeling the monastery in 1840 and in 1845 added another complex of buildings.
Today, those buildings painted in red are the remodeled parts of the monastery. Those buildings painted in yellow are part of the “New Palace” inspired by the palaces and castles of Bavaria, Ferdinand’s homeland. It was Ferdinand that chose and directed the color distinction. The family used the palace as their summer residence.
After our interior tour, we enjoyed the views from the Queen’s terrace (where you will find the steps up to the chapel) and then went up to walk around the castle’s purely decorative battlements. From this vantage point, there are excellent views of the parkland, city, and the Moorish Castle. This walkway can be tricky. The walls are low and the pathway is narrow at certain points. On particularly crowded days with traffic going both directions, passing other tourists could be hazardous.
The castle is a photographer’s dream and I was fortunate that my fellow travelers felt the same way. We were a bit behind schedule when we left the castle probably due in part to our delay in Lisbon with the late participants and partly due to our desire to photograph the castle (and us with it) from every angle. Igor was most patient.
A portion of our group caught up to us at the castle. They were with the other guide. Leaving Pena Palace behind, we went down to visit the city of Sintra. Like the castle, the color of the older historic buildings is dictated by the government. In Sintra, Igor dropped us off and gave us free time to walk around, take pictures, shop, or get a snack.
I used my time to walk around and take pictures. I wandered briefly by the shops, but only went inside a bakery and purchased some treats. Due to our late start and the fact that some of the other participants were going to join us in Sintra, we are eating lunch rather late. Any excuse for a pastry.
The rest of the graduating medical students joined us in the two vans in Sintra. They could have taken the train to meet us, but since it required a transfer and they are pressed for time, they decided just to UBER. Unfortunately, they missed the highlight of the tour and had the added transportation expense. A few still looked a little green around the gills (in fact, one guest in the other van required a few special stops), but the others in the group were very friendly. I was old enough to be everyone’s mother, but still felt included in the conversation.
We passed the original group lunch spot (which would have been Dutch treat) and pressed on to Cabo Da Roca so our new participants would get to see something before we stopped for lunch. The westernmost point of Europe is actually in the Azores which we visited last week. However, today I am visiting the westernmost point in Continental Europe, Cabo da Roca. The site is off the beaten path, but there is signage. There are no entrance fees. The parking lot was very crowded on this holiday weekend.
There is a lighthouse at Cabo da Roca that dates from 1772. It is actually the first purpose-built lighthouse in Portugal and is still operational. The lighthouse is not open to the public. Also, there is a monument at the lookout point. On a crowded day like today, you’ll have to wait your turn to get a photograph.
The views at Cabo da Roca are breathtaking, but that was not what first captured our attention. In route, Igor told us about the many deaths that occur at the site because people get too close to the edge. He said if you see emergency vehicles, there has been a death. It is not an infrequent occurrence, but none of us thought that was just what we would find.
Fortunately what we saw on arrival was actually a rescue operation underway (not a recovery operation for a body). Around 2 am, a man had fallen off the cliff and was injured and trapped on the cliffside. About 10 am when visitors starting arriving to the site, tourists heard him yelling. When we arrived about 2 pm, the complicated rescue operation was still underway.
It took a bit for me to mentally regroup and go off to enjoy the views and mark the occasion of my visit to this point. I enjoy my treks to the ends of the earth. Check out my post on my visit to Cape of Good Hope (often mistakenly thought-including at one point by Natasha-to be the southern tip of Africa). I have also been to Cape Horn (southern tip of South America).
The pathway is a little rough and in spite of the rescue operation taking place on the opposite side, some people went past the fence line and headed out onto the rocks. I wandered back to the van while enjoying the views and the coastal grasses and flora.
Cabo da Roca is about a 40 minute drive from Lisbon, but we have more places to see along our return route. We stopped for a peek at the beach before heading into the popular seaside town of Cascais for lunch and free time.
Igor dropped us off at the police station at the port. From that spot I wandered into town to get some lunch (more mussels and a cider) and to do a bit of shopping. I found some scarves that were patterned like Portuguese tiles and got them for the girls-mom, myself, Maggie, and Emma. It is Mother’s Day here and I will share them with the girls on Mother’s Day back in the States. I did go down to see the small beach in town, clearly a popular destination on this holiday.
We made one final stop before our ride back to Lisbon. We went to Hell’s Mouth, the rock formation at Boca do Inferno less than 2 miles from Cascais, Portugal. According to Cascais-Portugal.com, “[t]he ceaseless pounding of the Atlantic Ocean on the cliffs chiseled out a small cave, which subsequently collapsed forming a small bay and natural arch. In the summer these waves merely splash around in the open cave, but during winter storms the full force of the ocean is funneled into the chasm which gives rise to the name of the rock formation.”
This was a great spot for picures. Afterwards, we headed back into Lisbon. Because my hotel is closest to the office, I was the last one dropped off. Igor was not only a great guide but I really enjoyed talking to him. And come on, Igor and Natasha…the names go so well together. I had to get a picture.
What a great trip in Portugal. I’m coming back.