Sintra – the hidden gem of Portugal

Have you had your fill of the Lisbon charm, with its hilly roads, narrow alleys and quaint houses? What if I told you that if you travel just 18 miles outside of Lisbon, you’ll be in a whole new world altogether? Sintra – a tiny piece of heaven on earth boasts of lush green hills, microclimate (Sintra is chilly even when Lisbon is blistering) and 5 royal palaces with acres and acres of luxuriant gardens. This little tourist destination is where the Portuguese Royals used to spend their summers.

Travesseiro

We opted for a guided day trip to Sintra from our hostel in Lisbon – Lost Inn Lisbon. This was the best decision we made, since the tour was totally worth every cent, and our guide Ruben was the best we could have asked for. He was a mixture of warmth, the typical Portuguese hospitality, kindness, and super-duper fun, and he made it a day that we can never forget, and one that cannot be matched up to so easily! The drive took us less than 40 minutes, and we were soon in a different world. Far from the bustling city of Lisbon lay a quaint old town with cobbled streets, amidst abundant forests, rocky cliffs and a mix of Neo-classical, Baroque and Romanticist palaces and castles. As we drove uphill, the air got chillier, and I felt like we were a whole continent away from Lisbon city. The weather, the buildings, the atmosphere and everything was in stark contrast to the bustling, colourful city of Lisbon.

Sintra town
Old town, Sintra – absolutely adorable

We had to stop for a bit at the old town, so that our guide, Ruben could get us some Travesseiros. I think I can safely say that no trip to Portugal is complete without visiting charming Sintra, and no trip to Sintra is complete without eating a Travesseiro from Piriquita. Made of puff pastry filled with an egg and almond cream, with sugar sprinkled on the top, these pastries are to die for, and taste like heaven especially once you’ve just completed a grueling hike up one of the many cliffs at Sintra. Travesseiros literally mean pillows in Portuguese, and yes, they do resemble the shape of a pillow. This sweet is so popular that it happens to be one of the most well-known and exported product of Sintra.

While we were walking around the town, looking for an ATM, we passed by several cafes and restaurants. The waiters in the café, often stand outside, luring customers to go try their delicacies or specialties for the day. One of the waiters saw my friend and me from India, and spontaneously yells out – “Who killed Bahubali?” We were so stunned, and tickled at the same time, and we definitely would have eaten at his café, had we not been part of a guided tour! Imagine walking in one tiny hill station in one corner of Portugal, and to find a local Portuguese waiter there who looks at you and asks you “Who killed Bahubali?” – Definitely a proud moment for Indian cinema, and Bahubali specially!

Enchanting gardens of Quinta da Regaleira
Enchanting gardens of Quinta da Regaleira

During the day, we visited the Quinta da Regaleira, which has been classified as a UNESCO heritage site. Doctor António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, the owner of this villa with a mystical and magical garden was very interested in Esotericism, symbolism, Freemasonry and the likes. The residence has small rooms, and nothing really to write home about, but what makes the place unforgettable is its enchanting garden, hidden tunnels and concealed symbolism. There are references to the Knights Templar, the Masons, the Illuminati, and dark alchemy all hidden within the grounds. The well in the garden symbolises the initiation ceremony for the Knights Templar. In the well there is a hidden passage that connects to a series of tunnels found throughout the gardens. The chapel in the premises too has the Illuminati symbols interwoven in the architecture if you look closely enough. An interesting trip indeed – one that takes you back into the world of Dan Brown’s books.

The chapel inside Quinta da Regaleira
The chapel inside Quinta da Regaleira
Illuminati symbol near the entrance of the chapel
Illuminati symbol near the entrance of the chapel
The well that was said to be used as part of the initiation ceremony for the Knights Templar
The well that was said to be used as part of the initiation ceremony for the Knights Templar

After the visit to the castle, a hiking adventure, and a treat of Travesseiros at the end of the hike, we went to have some lunch, and then Ruben took us to Cabo da Roca which is the western most point of continental Europe. With rough trails leading you to a rock cliff, the walk maybe hard, but trust me when I say, nothing can prepare you or compare to the spectacular view you get once you reach that point, or to the feeling you get when you look at the map and realise where exactly you are sitting at. There is nothing but the endlessly blue Atlantic Ocean for miles and miles to come. As my friend pointed out, I was sitting facing New Jersey some 5500 kilometers across the Atlantic Ocean! ( Thank you for that perspective Jugal Charles  )

The western most point of Continental Europe
The western most point of Continental Europe
An unforgettable feeling and view
An unforgettable feeling and view

It was evening by now, and time to head back to Lisbon. We entered Lisbon and stopped at Pasteis de Belem, to taste the famed Pasteis de Belem, a custard tart sprinkled with cinnamon, which they started making in 1837, following an ancient recipe from the Jeronimos Monastery, which is next door. This little café sells about 20 thousand Belem pastries a day, and on a good Sunday, 50 thousand! While we all ordered one each, Ruben who is the local expert, ordered five. One bite into our pastry, and we knew why he ordered 5  You simply cannot stop at one!

Pasteis de belem

We were back in our hostel by 8 pm, in time for the Sangria tasting ritual they had every evening.. More about that in the Lisbon blog that is soon coming up.

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