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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scintillating Sintra

Trains leave Rossio station in Lisbon every 20 minutes for Sintra, a UNESCO world-heritage town blessed with stately manors and hillside palaces and castles. There's just not enough time in a day to see them all.

Even in October, the crowds were as thick as a bees in a hive. The best way to avoid them is by walking, although if you don't want to climb straight uphill, hop on bus #434 and take it all the way to the Palacio de Pena.

Home to final kings of queens of Portugal, the palace is a heady mix of styles from Arabic to Victorian. Walking across the draw bridge, you can imagine visitors arriving in carriages for grand parties on the palace's sweeping terraces that offer views of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

While it's interesting to tour the private chambers of the royals (smaller than I imagined), the best part of the visit is to wander through the gardens surrounding the palace. The paths wind past church ruins, duck houses, grotto and underground passages that lead into the surrounding hills. I brought my flashlight for this purpose, but the passage narrowed and I couldn't get through with my backpack on.

The main path eventually leads down to the Castelo dos Mourros where King Joao III liked to paint. By the time he lived at the Palacio de Pena, the 9th century military fortress had long been abandoned.

In 1839, a complete restoration of the fortress was undertaken. Archaeological research within the stone walls have found objects that pre-date Arab occupation.

After exploring the site, you can walk down the hill to Sintra or ride the bus. If there's time in the day, there are several museums in town, plus good eats and pricey gifts shops. I also recommend the Quinta de Regaleira, at one time an elegant summer retreat for the Baroness de Regaliera, which has intriguing gardens that beg to be explored. The Initiatic Well is a subterranean tower that sinks 27 meters into the earth, made accessible bya spiral staircase that leads down to a series of underground walkways. This structures, as well as others in the garden, are linked to the Knights Templar.

TRAVEL TIP: Buy a two-day pass to visit the four major sites (Palacio Nacional de Pena, Castelo dos Mouros, Monserrate and Convento dos Capuchos) for 20 Euros or a pass to vist to two of the sites for 11 Euros (but you must decide which two at the time of purchase). Tickets can be bought at any of the sites.

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