The stories of a couchsurfer

Sintra: A majestic wonderland

Main House, Quinta da Regaleira

A great deal of travellers live and breathe off of their travel guides. The Lonely Planet has become the largest and most successful of these, but each country has it’s own. Regardless, the fact is that they have seemingly become a necessity. The holy bible of the traveler and tourist.

So what happens when, god (the Lonely Planet’s team of writers, apparently) forbid, one travels without such a reliance? When one frees themselves from the shackles of the standard itinerary and expectations now held by every traveler that sets foot on the land?

This is something that is being tested. A Lonely Planet is in my possession, I will admit. But in all honesty there is a strong urge not to rely on it. To rarely even open it. There’s the preference to instead rely on the knowledge of the local Couchsurfers. Perhaps when sites without Couchsurfers are being visited, the Lonely Planet in possession will come into use, but up until now it’s had very little benefit.

There’s a number of things that can happen when traveling this way. One can, quite miraculously, stumble upon a monument or site that they had never heard of before, just by pure chance. The one that the Lonely Planet diehards will immediately point out is the risk to miss that monument or site and then in the future regret not having planned beforehand. The final scenario is that the locals will just point out the obvious (and the not-so-obvious too) to you.

The latter happened in the form of Sintra while Couchsurfing in Lisboa. The Couchsurfing host suggested that a trip would be made together the first day that I was there. He insisted that it was quite a famous place, though I had never even heard of it.

What followed was a remarkable journey of discovery through some of the most beautiful countryside of Europe that has been witnessed to date.

Sintra lies some twenty kilometres north west of Lisboa. It is actually a town, but the region and surrounding forestation has become synonymous with the name of Sintra. Sintra is situated on rolling hillsides. These can become quite steep but never high enough to call the region mountainous. The village itself is gorgeous, with its antiquity evident on every corner.

It was full of people – tourists. Whether they be international or Portuguese, there were loads of them. It soon became evident that this site was of some significance. How had I never have heard of it?

While Sintra the town is attractive enough, it’s not really enough to attract all of these tourists. No, they come here for the multitude of palaces that are scattered throughout the hillsides besides the township. This is what makes the region so famous and it’s later learned that the area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Wikipedia cites seven different palaces in the region. I only managed to visit two of them. In former days, these palaces were the abodes of Portuguese royalty. Today, the majority (if not, all) of them have become major tourist sites and a great source of income for the Portuguese tourism sector, so there is a cost to enter.

The first that was explored was called Quinta da Regaleira. This is a four hectare estate that contains a palace, a chapel and a fascinating park that hosts many attractions to explore. It cost around ten euro for entry but literally took a couple of hours to explore.

The palace itself is charming. It’s quite small given the images that would be conjured up for a palace, but there are still plenty of rooms to explore. The great thing here is that almost every room is open to the visitors to explore. There are rarely any bounded areas that are restricted from the public and it means that you never leave the palace wondering what could have been. The highlight of the palace was climbing to the rooftop where you can appreciate a stunning view of the rest of the estate and the surrounding area. The palace isn’t the tallest of buildings, so don’t expect the view to be of the entire region, but it’s a nice view nonetheless.

What the palace has to offer, the gardens outnumber tenfold. This is where the majority of the time was spent exploring and in actuality not everything was able to be fully explored in time. There are small constructions to see every fifty metres in this parkland, with many old, stone constructions being complemented by water features or ponds. The vegetation is thick and dark in the Sintra region, and this garden is no exception, though the paths are clearly well maintained and spacious for the visitors.

The gardens of Quinta da Regaleira has a very fun to explore cave network below. Tunnels have been carved out of the stone leading to a multitude of entrances and exits. The most popular of these is the Initiatic Well, which burrows down twenty-seven metres into the ground via a spiral staircase. The tunnels here are well advertised with appropriate lighting leading the way, and it kind of kills the joy of exploration. Elsewhere, in the south west corner of the park there are more tunnels that are lesser known and these can descend you into pitch black darkness. These give you much more the sense of exploration and were actually preferable.

Quinta da Regaleira was an exceptional estate to visit and the cost of entry was well worth it. Yet, the next site was going to blow it away. The Palácio Nacional da Pena and it’s associated parklands. There are a variety of entrance costs for this site. One can pay for the park and palace terrace fee or pay slightly extra for entry into the palace. I opted not to enter the palace, instead much more excited about the prospect of exploring the two-hundred hectare parklands. This cost ten euro.

As good as the Quinta da Regaleira was, this exceeded it in almost every facet. The area was larger which not only meant that there was more to explore and be amazed by, but that there was less tourist density. In Quinta de Regaleira, it was impossible to visit anywhere in the palace or gardens without being accompanied by other tourists. Here in the park of Pena, no such problem due to it’s enormity.

This area of the world would be worth visiting for a forest walk even if these estates didn’t exist, but the scattered monuments were an added bonus. The park of Pena contained some main, paved walking paths that led to various monuments but it also contained loads of “off road” walking tracks that allowed you to explore all of the parklands. This really gave the sense of excitement and discovery while walking through, as you never knew what might be encountered.

Walking along a path alone, a shadowy figure was observed standing at the apex of a hill roughly seventy metres or so in front. This was the Statue of the Warrior, a large stone warrior that overlooks the park.

The dense vegetation of the region means that it has it’s own microclimate and while Lisboa can be clear, sunny and hot, Sintra may be shrouded in mist and cool. It makes for an amazing ambience. A mythical situation where the mist flows past the legendary Statue of the Warrior and only the birds can be heard.

Well, in fact, no. Chainsaws spoiled the moment, as their loud buzzing roared into the natural silence. The park was undergoing some renovations, and the chainsaws could be heard from almost everywhere. This was one downside to it, and there was the feeling that, because the park was so large, there would be works like this ongoing almost all year.

Another highlight is the High Cross, a crucifix positioned on the highest point in the park. The climb is relatively easy, with a main access path leading there, but the monument is relatively far out of the way in comparison to the other sites that not many people bother to make the effort. It’s a satisfying sensation when the top is reached. On a clear day you can see out very far from here, but the mist was so low that all you could see was a blanket of grey. Again, it added to the romanticism of the place and it is a perfect site to sit down and reflect for a while.

This park could be adventured for hours upon hours, but ultimately the palace had to be explored before leaving. My entry level meant that I couldn’t go inside the palace, but was free to walk around it’s exterior on it’s many terraces.

The palace itself is much larger and more impressive than that offered by the Quina da Regaleira. It is painted in reds, yellows and purples and as such presents a welcome difference to the standard grey, white and gold palaces of elsewhere. Here though, is where the tourists converge, and it creates a stark contrast to the sparse forests below. It’s near impossible to take a photograph without capturing someone else’s head in the shot or to just sit down on a bench to reflect and admire the situation because they have become a seemingly permanent photo booth.

Still, the terraces are fun to walk around. At this time there were many renovations happening on the palace and it didn’t look like the interior of the palace would be able to offer anything of substantial value, so I was glad to take the entry fee that I did. The fog had started to clear by now and the palace terraces offered some stunning views of Sintra and the surrounding regions. Unfortunately though, contrary to that displayed in the palace of Quinta da Regaleira, there were many sections of the terrace that were not permitted to be explored, whether because of renovations or other reasons.

Ultimately though, this site, in combination with the Quinta da Regaleira, made for one of the most enjoyable days of the European trip so far. Other travellers reading their Lonely Planets will always visit this part of the world, whereas there was always the risk that I may have missed it due to not looking in the guide.

But would I have felt the same enjoyment and excitement of discovering something completely unknown to me? If I had read about it and all that it offered beforehand? If I had looked up photographs of it on the internet? I don’t believe so, no. So being “prepared” can sometimes take much of the enjoyment away from traveling. Those moment of sheer amazement when you see something for this first time, in a real world environment.

As always, the Couchsurfers are there to save me and they will always ensure that I see and experience what needs to be seen and experienced. For now, they are my Lonely Planet, and one that remains updated to the very minute.

Portugal continues to impress.

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