Why you need to visit storybook Sintra in Portugal

If you've ever wondered what it’s like to step inside a medieval fairytale, surrounded by Castles, verdant and abundant gardens and wild countryside, then I have just the place for you to explore. A place so magical that it looks like it has leapt out of a storybook or even better, Game of Thrones!
I mentioned previously that I spent some time exploring Portugal last year and that it had surprised me in just how diverse, culturally rich and exciting the place was. I had originally chosen to visit because I had heard a lot about Lisbon and wanted to check it out but I discovered far more than I expected and could have done more if there was time.

In between the exploring, we needed to find time for rest and relaxation, as this was our main holiday and coming on the back of a very busy and stressful year at that point. I felt we struck a happy compromise and I am so glad we decided to visit Sintra, which was a bit of an unknown quantity. We boarded a bus with the locals and drove for around an hour, stopping in quaint villages to pick up and drop off. On arrival, we were dropped at a central station in a pretty village with little information about where to go from there. We eventually stumbled upon a map outside of a tourist information office and made our way from there.
A hit with Lord Byron, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site so it was full of treasures, monuments and architecture that just blows your socks off! First on our list was to see some castles – I say some because there are so many to choose from and if you have time, you can go and explore them all. There is a shuttle bus running hourly to take you around the castles, for those whose legs are not up to a fairly serious climb. I’m not kidding, it is not for the faint of heart. This is where anyone with Bridget Jones climbers’ legs will come into their own!
We chose to visit Pena Palace which is magically and ethereally known as the castle in the clouds and oh boy it really was. We arrived in the midst of stunning and extensive grounds all set on a fairly vertical hillside. There were many woodland paths and garden routes to explore but we decided to make a beeline for the castle first. We craned our necks to see to the very top of the castle but all we could see were the clouds dominating the skyline with the occasional peek of yellow or red.
Deciding to walk to the castle entrance instead of taking the small bus loaded with passengers, we made a steady ascent to find a castle that belonged in a Disney book. I say this both because it was fairytale looking in appearance but almost ridiculously so. It almost didn’t look real and had clearly received a relatively naff paint job quite recently that didn’t quite capture its former glory. In fact the place generally looked a little run down, perhaps owing to the refurbishments that were going on around the site, but you could not fault it for captivating views and that was what we were there to see. We climbed up and up, exploring new terraces, balconies and medieval rooms until we reached the very top of the castle. It was enough to cause vertigo as it soared high about Sintra, up, up and over the clouds to see what felt like the entire kingdom of Portugal spanning out below us. As our breath was taken away by the amazing views in all directions and we made ourselves dizzy by climbing even higher onto the turrets, there was nothing else left to do but grab two beers from the cafe situated on the terrace and sit back to enjoy the view.

Eventually it was time to come back down to earth and we reluctantly descended down the steep stairs and pathways to explore the gardens. It would be easy to get lost in such a vast space but helpful markers helped us navigate our way. We couldn’t spend too much time because we had other castles to visit and time was of the essence.
Whilst the Castle of the Moors and Sintra Palace are both worth exploring, in the interests of keeping this post shortish and sweet, the other castle of particular note that we visited was Quinta da Regaleira, A meander through the village and down an attractive tree lined avenue, with monuments peeping out of various nooks and crannies, brought us to a fairly modest palace of Gothic looks. We explored the various rooms and learned about its heritage. Although charming, the real lure of this castle is the expansive grounds containing wells, follies, grottos, underground cave systems and gorgeous woodland paths, streams and bridges. I was in my own little fairytale heaven. We climbed turrets and threw down our hair a la Rapunzel, we explored behind waterfalls and balanced precariously on stepping stones across streams and we climbed stairs deep underground to find fairy light lit cave systems and grottos, leading to enigmatic mazes and surprising views.

I loved all of the surprises that awaited at every twist and turn, leading to some amazing photo taking opportunities. Don’t ask me why but I find ruins, secret doorways, bridges and stairways so very appealing and I can’t resist taking pictures. I think it must be my Yorkshire roots and growing up on a literary diet of escapist adventure novels set in the wild countryside of my home county. I love the great outdoors and always got a kick out of spending time in the garden as a young girl, letting my imagination run wild. The Secret Garden was always a pleasure to read and watch, and even now hidden doorways leading to enchanting and unknown green worlds beyond excites me. For this reason I was incredibly enamoured with Quinta da Regaleira. I’m sure it would make a fantastic place to get married, offering many fairytale, romantic places to take photos with your true love and your guests could explore to their hearts content. It reminded me in some ways of Old Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough and Hidden Corner, both Yorkshire day trip favourites.

Once we’d explored every inch, literally getting right to the edge of the perimeter at times, we made our way back to the village. Our appetite was enormous by this point and we just knew that we wanted cheese and port. After meandering the village finding quaint, winding streets with bunting hanging outside and enjoying a traditional nip of port out of chocolate cups (the chocolate brings out the flavours of the port) we settled upon a quaint looking tavern on the second floor, with a Juliet balcony overlooking the National Palace, an official but handsome looking building. We settled in with two enormous glasses of red wine and a slate board stocked full of cheese and watched people on the street below going about their business. Sintra totally stoked my imagination and I can honestly say we loved our day spent living inside a storybook. I can’t wait to go back one day.

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