Trouble and Enchantment in Portugal: Adventures in Lisbon and Sintra

Portugal, Studying Abroad — By on July 12, 2011 at 12:00 pm

By Kathryn Robinson
LG Intern

Portugal and I have a strange relationship.

When my friend Molly and I were planning our three-week jaunt across Europe before being launched face-first into finals at the University of Edinburgh, it seemed the perfect country to begin with. After months of Scotland drear and cloaking myself in sweaters, even my sun-phobic Irish skin was itching to get under the Portugal sun (and replace layers of clothing with even thicker layers of SPF 75).

We set up camp in a very hidden-away oasis called Kitsch Hostel in Lisbon, where we shared a room with a third mystery lodger (we only met him on the last evening and he turned out to be a 40-something from Dublin with extremely different sleeping patterns than us during his quest to write the next great novel).

I fell in fleeting love with the city during our first night out as we wandered the streets, sipped on some delicious caipirinhas, attempted and failed at speaking Portuguese, and tried to con our way into the V.I.P. line of some far-too-fancy nightclub. But yes, all good things must come to an end, and after the cab driver tried to swindle us out of correct change (OK, I’m stingy but it was €30 worth) I was left frantically chasing the cab down the street while my wallet sat inside of it on the back seat. I can’t absolve myself of blame in this awful losing-my-wallet-on-the-first-night-of-three-weeks-of-travel situation, but of course I do, and tell people it was stolen. Regardless of who’s to blame, it soured my Lisbon love and I knew we’d have to travel outside the city to get my Portugal love back.

I had my heart set on a trip to Porto, about three hours away, but in typical Kat fashion I overslept, so we asked our handsome hashish-smoking hostel concierge for advice on a closer destination. He directed us to Sintra, a must-see, so we set out on the train for about €10 each.

Within an hour we were stepping out onto the station platform, umbrella-less, into a downpour. It’s worth noting that this was the only day of rain throughout our three weeks of traveling. Still, it turned out to be hands down one of my favorite days, despite my attire being poorly suited for the weather (the flimsy canvas flats on my feet were soaked through within the first five minutes outside).

Molly and I joke that we spent almost the entirety of our travels talking about food, seeking out the best eats and planning for our next meal, and honestly, that’s not far from the truth. Once we popped off the train we walked about two minutes away before we were drawn in by a quaint little café advertising fresh, local food. No questions asked, we headed in. We had a glass of wine and split a piece of vegetable quiche, an organic salad and some other Portuguese meat pastries that were suggested to us. Then we wandered into town, which quickly became rainforest-like. Everywhere we walked we were surrounded by lush greens and landscape that stretched before our eyes for miles. We stopped at El Parque da Liberdade and wandered up and down the hilled paths, running into giant statues of strange animals. I felt a bit like I was in Alice and Wonderland or on the set of some bizarre film.

We skipped the National Palace because the entrance was inundated with school fieldtrips (it took me back to my childhood of fieldtrips to the coal mines in Pennsylvania) and instead set out in the direction of the UNESCO World Heritage site Quinta de Regaleira, a palace estate with a chapel and gardens. The palace itself is a marvel of five floors, each one more spectacular than the last. But the real highlight is the gardens. We spent hours just wandering around all the paths, making our way through fountains, statues, grottoes and caves. At one point, we apprehensively walked through dimly lit caves and at the end as we emerged into the light again, we had to cross a series of precarious stepping stones in a bright green lagoon to get to the other side. Just a typical day in Sintra.

After all this we finally wanted to take refuge from the rain and strolled around to small wine shops to sample different types of Port with the friendly Portuguese shop owners. Sintra is also known for sweet cherry liquor called Ginja, which comes in tiny chocolate cups. Neither of these things is typically appealing to me, but it won me over. Mmm.

Later that night we traipsed back to Lisbon, dried off and headed out to one of the city’s famous fados to hear traditional Portuguese music. Settling down into a booth to eat some flaming chorizo and bread, I realized that while I may have gotten my wallet “stolen” on my first night in Portugal, Sintra seemed to have had a sort of healing magic for me, able to turn any travel situation around for the better.


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