IR INTERRAIL 2003 > Day 12 > Lisbon - Sintra (Moorish Castle) - Lisbon

Lisbon - Sintra (Moorish Castle)

João and Fernando had given me a tip the night before. I was seeking somewhere interesting to explore for the day and they had suggested I take a trip to Sintra, a quaint old village which lay about forty minutes north-west of Lisbon by train. On another scorching day, I exited the hostel and dived straight down the steps to the Metro, which was a modern, clean system but no real saviour from the heat. A busker boarded at the next station and quickly waltzed through the carriage giving travellers his best shot at traditional Portuguese music, but he moved so fast that nobody had an opportunity to plant money in his hat or about his person. Perhaps he performed purely for the love of the music, or was employed directly by the city on a regular wage, or maybe he just had a sudden attack of incontinence. Whatever the reason he wasn't keen to hang around.

From the stop at Restauradores it was only a minute's walk around the corner to Rossio station, but that was enough to leave me dazzled and baked by the sun, and keen to stay out of it for the rest of the day if possible. In contrast to the fairly drab mainline station of Santa Apolónia, Rossio was far more grand, although it was in the process of restoration and much was under wraps. It was also located right in the centre of the city, and would have been a far better terminus for national services than any of the other run-down stations in Lisbon, but instead it served only regular suburban trains to Sintra via Cacém, and nowhere else. This meant I didn't have long to wait for my very sleek, modern train which charged its way through the outskirts of the capital and beyond, past densely built-up towns and clusters of apartment blocks, some of them gleaming new developments and some, nearer to Sintra, badly aged and covered in graffiti.

There was a splendid view towards the end of the journey, of the brightly painted Pena Palace sitting atop the hills which dominated the landscape, forming part of the Serra de Sintra. They rose steeply above the town, and I knew immediately that I wanted to make it my mission for the day to climb up and become king of the castle. The sun had been left behind in the capital, and looming clouds threatened to shed their load over the hills and saturate anybody foolhardy enough to turn up in just a t-shirt and climb them. Like me. But it was no problem, I couldn't wait for a bit of rain. So I might get soaked, but it would be a bit of adventure and the rocky hill face was also overgrown with trees which would provide good cover.

The hard part turned out to be just finding my way to the start point. I followed a series of signs for the town centre and old village, all of which took me around in circles and in the exact opposite direction. This was a very real tourist trap. It seemed we weren't wanted here, and all efforts had been made to leave us so confused that we'd end up back at the station and go home. My instincts told me to ignore official directions and just follow anybody with a backpack, which after half an hour of walking paid dividends.

I eventually found the old village, which contained a miniature labyrinth of passages full of craft shops and was decorated with flags and festive material. Coachloads of tourists descended on the area and unloaded their contents, most of them electing to visit the Palácio Real across the road, an odd looking building with two cone-shaped chimneys used as a royal summer residence. I consulted my travel guide, which advised me to ask the tourist office to mark up a map with the walking route to the top of the hill. They did this for me, but as I began ascending the shallow slopes of a long winding road around the foot of the Serra de Sintra, the route didn't seem to match the brief, vague instructions given in my guide. My new map indicated that I would eventually get to the top if I persevered, but I had no idea how far I might have to go.

Over an hour later I was struggling with my sack on my back to wearily keep climbing, again being hindered enormously by my trainers which were well beyond their useful life. Buses and cars came past me down the hill and beeped their horns, and I would occasionally hear the sounds of laughter inside the vehicles fading into the distance. They clearly knew something that I didn't. At one stage I took a rest by a small fort structure in the trees, only to gaze into the distance and spot the castle perched atop what seemed like a separate hill a long way from where I stood, and divided by a wide gorge. I was puzzled and began to lose hope, but having come this far there was no point going back. I finally passed the car parking area for all the smarmy sods who had overtaken me, and reached a fork in the road leading to either the Pena Palace or the Moorish Castle. The latter was the one I was most interested in; less spectacular to look at from afar, but with a moody image that was well suited to the gloomy backdrop of grey clouds, which now hovered only a short distance above me.

It had taken me a couple of hours to reach the entrance to the castle, and what the tourist office had neglected to mention was that there was a much shorter way up the hill via a zig-zagging footpath, which was the route roughly described in my guide. I had stressed three times that I was walking, and on each occasion the staff had replied with 'so you're taking the bus?' The long-winded trail I had followed was the vehicle route, and I should have been informed of the quicker alternative. Most sensible and/or lazy people took the regular shuttle bus service instead, and I wondered if the tourist office were determined to spite me for my choice of leg power because it would feed less money into their economy. I'm sure I caught a snide glint in the man's eye as I thanked him and departed the office. Regardless, I was here now, and the fee of 3 Euros to enter the castle was manageable, although I feared that all I might get to see was a crumbling brick wall.

I continued into the grounds surrounding the castle, and I realized that it was necessary to have bought the ticket after all, because there was no other place on the densely wooded path from which to admire the stunning views across the landscape. So had I been my normal stingy self the day out would have been a complete waste of time, as I would have walked over a hill behind thick trees and seen nothing of interest.

The walls of the Moorish Castle, perched atop the hill above Sintra The Moorish Castle was well worth the entrance fee. There were no extravagant courtyards or indoor chambers, just a dramatic exterior wall, turrets and battlements around the grounds, but these provided an excellent vantage point from which to absorb the surrounding region (left).

I began exploring the grounds and the long twisting staircases running along the ramparts (right). Peering over the wall usually provided a frightening view down the steep rocky hillside, from which invaders must once have launched their attacks. The steep steps forming the path around the edge of the castle, with the Pena Palace in the distance
A view from the ramparts of the Pena Palace atop a neighbouring hill On top of the next mound sat the exuberantly decorated Pena Palace, in a raised position commanding a superior status to the castle (left). This caused it to become invisible for some while, mysteriously cloaked behind the clouds like a mythical kingdom.

A fine image of the long line of ramparts seen on the opposite side of the castle

Some features which I hadn't expected to find in such abundance high in the castle in the sky, were cats. They were everywhere, guarding the gates and keeping lookout from the turrets. I wasn't sure whether budget shortfalls in the Portuguese defence ministry had called for this drastic measure, and I wondered what tasks they might have been trained to perform. Scowling at the enemy, weeing on soldiers' heads or taunting invaders with the smell of chicken and turkey chunks. It all seemed a bit lame and unlikely to spurn an army advancing with bows and arrows. At night, however, any attacker would be terrified by the sight of dozens of pairs of eyes lighting up amidst the trees.

It wasn't just here that I had discovered cats in strange places. All through my travels I had spotted them; in the busy city streets, in shops, in the middle of the countryside, on the train, aboard boats and now in a castle. If indeed they held a cunning plan to take over an unsuspecting society, this would be quite a good strategic location from which to launch their first attack. The residents of Sintra down below (right) could only wait and wonder. When I was satisfied that I had explored every nook and cranny like an inquisitive child, I pledged my allegiance to my feline friends, should they have noted me in their black book, and descended the hillside via the short route.

Looking down from the castle at the old town of Sintra, with the Palácio Real in the middle

Looking back at the Pena Palace and Moorish Castle from the footpath zig-zagging down the hill It was a much quicker walk than the road had been, and it saved me from tourists hurling smarmy remarks out of their vehicles. I passed a couple of sadly abandoned Renault 4s in somebody's back yard, and soon found myself back in the old town, glancing back up the hill to the feline fortress (left).

Sintra - Lisbon

It had been a pleasant walkabout, I'd kept cool and only been lightly showered on for a brief moment. The train journey back to Lisbon was speedy and I returned to the hostel with some supermarket treats. The city was still sticky and I felt like having a shave and shower, but the taps in the bathroom were dry, and there was no water to shower or flush the toilets with. I found my favoured sweet receptionist and enquired as to when I might be able to erase my stubble. She had been flirting with me before, and took the opportunity to suggest that I really shouldn't worry about shaving as I looked perfect the way I was. Whether this was astute professionalism in her job by diverting my attention from the crisis, or a straightforward chat-up line I wasn't sure, but I liked it.

Our romantic dialogue was soon cut short by a mass of other agitated guests in the busy hostel, gathering around and wanting to find out the same facts regarding the water supply. I only hoped that she wouldn't find all their beards as entertaining as my own. I was lucky, I'd been out of the sun for most of the day and had no urgent need for the shower, so I also abandoned the razor idea, believing the hype that I was now the talk of the town in terms of facial hair appreciation.

I scribbled a set of postcards for the people back home and pulled on my Renault 4 t-shirt in preparation for the meeting with João and Fernando. I was due to meet them at ten o'clock, and I hung around the reception area waiting. The girl was still there but facing a constant stream of enquiries from guests, some of whom amongst the male variety were trying their best to imitate my charm tactics, but were clearly failing to impress her on the beard front. I wanted to invite her out for a drink but she finished her shift at an awkward time - too late to hang around for her and too early to see her when I arrived back. Lord Sod was making himself known again. My companions arrived and we set off in the R4 around the cobbled streets of the capital. The car's suspension and high ground clearance was perfectly suited to the environment, as we bounced up and down and screeched up steep hills under the command of João's undaunted driving style.

We found another bar with some mellow grooves and funky sounds playing inside, and spent the balmy night outside by João's R4 talking about more of its many virtues (right). He insisted that I get inside and even drive it, but I thought this was perhaps an unwise move after the alcohol I had consumed. Fernando (right) stood with João and his white Renault 4

We were joined by one of João and Fernando's friends who owned a very flash classic sports car, admittedly not of interest to myself as nothing titilated me so perversely as the Renault 4. Our tri-language conversation was again getting the cogs in my brain into full gear, and by the end of the evening, and after so many occasions in the previous week being required to speak French, I was mentally exhausted.

As extra reward for my efforts to meet with two of the world's greatest R4 enthusiasts, I was presented with a t-shirt from their Portuguese club meeting earlier in the year, and some other goodies. The two get-togethers both here and in San Sebastián had injected streaks of diversionary entertainment into my travels, and I was glad to have included them in my plans. With a good deal more careful planning and arranging, I could have scheduled meetings with many other R4 owners around the countries I was visiting, and this would certainly be a consideration for any future trips.

João (right) stood with Fernando and his red Renault 4

Fernando's car was parked around the corner (left), and we used and abused each of the Renaults as convenient, oversized beer mats and annexed bar tables into the small hours, by which time we were all tired and facing a long day ahead. Thankfully, I was the only one not having to go to work.

The Renault 4 in the modern world would often be regarded as an oddity of a bygone era, but those people who elected to own one tended to think differently, and would revel in the alternative lifestyle and numerous rewards that the car offered. I had finally been able to confirm the physical existence of two of the car's greatest fans. They took me back to the hostel, and as expected the stubble-loving girl had gone, but I had enjoyed my stay in Lisbon and I would have to hope, as with so many other beautiful girls who came and went during a traveller's life, that someday somewhere we might meet again, however unlikely that may be.

HOSTEL REPORT: Pousada de Juventude de Lisboa - see day 11

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