Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sintra

Oh Sintra. How you break my heart. Sintra was our major fail of the trip. And I say this as someone who left her son's entire suitcase on the dining room floor.

Let me provide a few definitions of Sintra:

a) a beautiful mountain town of ancient castles about a 30 minute train ride away from Lisbon
b) the reason we left for the beach Tuesday instead of Monday, so we could spend the day there
c) the place Kara was most looking forward to visiting in Portugal
d) why Kara will not be buying any more Rick Steves travel guides

When talking to people who had been to Portugal about our trip, almost all of them highly recommended Sintra and got somewhat dreamy eyed in describing it. I pinned some amazing photos of the castles/palaces on Pinterest and could. not. wait to see them in person.

I have usually consulted Rick Steves' books when traveling and until recently found them to contain good advice. I've been somewhat disappointed in his London and Great Britain guides, especially the sections on the Cotswolds. But I had read that England was not one of Rick's favorite countries, so just attributed it to that.

However, I found most of his advice on Portugal to be poor and/or not conducive to family travel. The advice on Sintra was so bad, I can tell he hasn't been there in person in years. So I'm done with Rick.

Rick's primary piece of advice was to go to Sintra on Monday. Sites are closed in Lisbon and it's just the best day to go he said.

It was so clogged with tourists on the Monday we went (which was not even high season) that I guess either other guides have repeated this advice (not many of the tourists were American, so I don't think it was due to his book) or it has just become such a hot tourist destination that congested is the new normal there. Another reason that just occurred to me is that people were there as part of cruise excursions that they booked.

At any rate, Rick usually warns his readers about towns that are particularly touristy. That's why I think he hasn't visited in a while. He made it sound like this serene, relaxed, easy day trip. Which is why he is now on my "bad" list.

To start our day, we waited close to an hour at the train station in Lisbon to buy our tickets. There are four automated machines that are so confusing to use, the train station assigns agents to help each person who uses them. It was just a giant mob of people all trying to get tickets - no lines and no order.

The only good part about the train station for us: there was a Starbucks, Brad's lifeblood.

The train trip was fine, but it was full and they drop people off every 30 minutes, so you can do the math on what that translates into for a small town. We walked with the mob from our train to the town in about 15 minutes and started looking for a way to get up the mountain to the two major attractions: Pena Palace the Castle of the Moors.

We waited in line for a while for the bus, but every bus that came by was already full and could only allow a few people on it. It was going to take quite a while to get a ride. It's a very steep climb up the mountain and I doubt we could have made it with Charlie on foot.

The taxi drivers wouldn't even talk to us; they all said they were on break. Same with the horse drawn carriages. Every once in a while you would see someone negotiate with them in Portuguese about what it would take to come off break. I shudder to think what the fare was.

While waiting for the bus, we heard a few people who came back down the mountain talk about the line to buy tickets to see the palace or castle. Apparently those were quite lengthy as well.

Finally we waived the white flag. Brad and I agreed that none of this was fun or a good experience. We decided to walk around the town and then get some lunch.

The owner of the apartment we rented in Lisbon recommended a restaurant called - and I'm not joking here - The G Spot Gastronomia. We never could find it for all the throngs of people in the narrow streets, but I think Brad was really hoping for a t-shirt to take home.

We settled on a touristy patio restaurant that served mediocre food, but had beer, wine (whine?) and a milkshake for Charlie. We relaxed and I pouted.

Sintra had some shops and we checked a few of them, but they mostly had the same touristy junk we'd been seeing in Lisbon, but the prices were higher.

After lunch we took the train back to Lisbon and called it a day. We all took a nap and went to dinner near our apartment.

I'm still feeling quite pouty about Sintra. But I guess you can't win them all. Maybe I'll get another chance some day.

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