During the very early planning stages of this trip, I came across an interesting article on the MSN homepage (or more accurately, my dad did, since I’m a Google girl all the way). The article was about the top ten best cities in Europe to visit. Seeing as how now this article is well over a year old and many journalists tastes have apparently changed, I can’t track down the exact URL, but I can assure you that Lisbon was on that list. And, while it interested me at the time, I had no idea how I would get there since I had originally planned on leaving Spain out. I had consented to seeing Portugal another time, but then fate stepped in, and you know the rest.
Arriving in Lisbon at 6 am wasn’t exactly what I would’ve planned to do, had I had the time to do more thorough research, but it was the cheapest option at the time and (if I’ve said it before I’ll say it again) I’m a girl on a budget dagnabbit! So night bus it was. And while my hostel wasn’t far from the bus station, it was still dark. Now, I had no reason to fear, but that isn’t much comfort when you’re rolling a suitcase down the street during what feels like the middle of the night, trying to find the underground and some semblance of safety. But eventually the sun started to come up and I regained confidence in my ability to travel the streets alone.
Due to the quick fire nature of my current plans, I hadn’t planned to be in Lisbon long. The cheapest flight to Rome was flying out the next night and I had already planned on being on it, so with only one night in Lisbon, sleep was off the agenda for the day. Instead, I had planned on spending my one full day in Lisbon just outside the city in the little town of Sintra. Also, according to the last minute google searches I managed to accomplish before arriving, there was a quaint little beach town just a bit further down the coast by the name of Cascais. So I thought, “Two birds. One stone”. But again, at this point it’s early morning and my main concerns were finding the hostel and food. Luckily for me, the two were one in the same as my stay included breakfast which happened to mean waffles (the selling point for this particular place, I won’t lie to you). Since I couldn’t check in until the late afternoon, I stored my luggage and headed in to the kitchen to see what kind of friendly chaps I was staying with.
In a hostel, the kitchen is the place to be. Of course people want to boast about the common areas, but from what I’ve found, the best people are always hanging out in the kitchen. And it was once again true in Lisbon. Eating my waffle I got to talking with Courtney, a girl from Texas who was also on a trip around Europe. I asked her what her plans were for the day and, wouldn’t ya know it, she was heading to Sintra! So I asked if she minded the company (of course she didn’t) and we set off.
Getting to Sintra from Lisbon is quite simple, since it’s such a popular jaunt down the line. You go to the main train station, Rossio, and either stand in line at the ticket counter or self-service station and then get on the train. For less than €5, you’ll have roundtrip fare and the journey isn’t more than an hour, if that. Perfect. Once there though, things can be a bit more complicated. Since Sintra is most famous for its castles, there is a “tour bus” service that will take you to the castles in a loop of sorts and then drop you back off near the train station. It’s called the Sintra Tourist Bus 434. Getting to Cascais involves a similar process, but a different bus; Bus 403. Fare for each roundtrip ride is another €5.
Starting with Sintra, Courtney and I got on the 434 and headed up the hill to the Moorish Castle and the National Palace of Pena. The Castle of the Moors, while old and interesting, was not at the top of my list. They do boast an excellent view, but you experience quite a bit of it on your walk up to the entrance gate. To that end, before reaching the ticket-only zone, you can visit a neat little church, the Church of San Pedro de Penaferrim. What remains of this archaic chapel contains a lot of information about the castle and the site upon which it is built. Being however many thousands of years old, the castle obviously isn’t in its original condition. However, in what I found to be a very interesting architectural choice, they reconstructed the missing parts of the castle in a very modern style; when you’re inside, it’s reminiscent of your adolescence when you didn’t quite know if you’re old or young. Either way, I like it. Better than the ruin it would’ve been, I suppose.
Walking back down the hill to get to the Palace of Pena, we decided to take what we thought was a “shortcut”. Turned out to be a longcut, but it was an adventure and that’s really what this whole trip is all about. Just as we were about to give up and go the conventional way, we came upon the entrance to the Palace. Now, this castle is talked about the whole world over. Apparently in the running for the most beautiful palace in Europe, it was something Courtney and I were definitely going to see, budget be dammed!
Getting to the ticket counter, our initial fervor may have died down just a smudge. Turns out admission to the inside and outside of the palace, as well as the surrounding lake/garden area was €14, while entrance to the gardens and the outside was barely more than €10. We went for the cheaper option. It was really all about the outside anyways.
I didn’t know what to expect walking up the road to the castle, but it definitely wasn’t what I saw. At this point, I was beginning to get a little “castled-out”, but this was unlike any palace I have ever seen. Brilliant colors of red, purple, and yellow cascading over the hillside with more turrets than I could count; it was absolutely breathtaking.
Once we walked through the gate and were properly on the premises, I didn’t regret the choice to stick to the outside. I’m still convinced to this day that nothing inside that palace could’ve been more original than the outside. Hence, we took our time investigating the ins and outs. I swear, the more you looked at it, the more intricate it got! Moorish tiles and detailed stone carvings covered every wall, with vibrant colors and distinguishable personality. With every step came the familiar clamor of “Ooh, look at this!” or “Did you see that?”. And, chances were, I hadn’t.
Over an hour later, we started toward the illustrious Park of Pena that came with out ticket. Nothing too spectacular. Though of course, my standards had been heightened by my previous experience, I will admit. But overall it was nice, the sun was shining and it was a scenic route back to the bus.
Once we were back in Sintra, we still had a considerable amount of daylight to burn so I suggested we get on another bus and set off of Cascais. Having no opposition to a dose of beach time, we got another ticket and hopped on the bus.
The trip from Sintra to Cascais is about an hour or so on bus 403, as the route takes you along the coast rather than straight through. That said, we should’ve been more inquisitive when the bus stopped at the first place with an ocean view. It was on the top of the hill, but I figured maybe you get off and walk down the cliff in to Cascais. I was wrong. Cascais was still another 20 minutes away from where we got off. But the bus was only barely visible in the distance when we realized our mistake. Believing that since we had bought a one-way ticket from Sintra to Cascais we could get off anywhere along the way and hop back on, we made the best of our mistake and looked around trying to figure out just where we were exactly.
Thank god for signboards! It seems we had landed ourselves in Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in continental Europe. Unfortunately it was also super windy that day and we weren’t exactly dressed for the cold so we were hoping the next bus was coming very shortly! It did, but it wasn’t the free ride we had expected. Apparently, according to the bus driver, since we had gotten off the bus, our earlier ticket had now become invalid and we were responsible for yet another fare. This made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever, but when a Portuguese man is telling you that you owe him money, you owe him money. Begrudgingly, we gave him another €3 something to continue the journey to Cascais. Now, at this point, the cost of the transportation was overtaking the cost of the entire day! This isn’t necessarily an axiom for all people taking this trip, just for us. If you do it right, this is a very affordable day trip. So avoid my mistakes and probably avoid Cabo da Roca, unless its something that you really really want to see. It’s essentially a cliff, but hey, people gotta make money somehow, so now it’s the “westernmost point in Europe!”.
After finally getting to Cascais, we were more than happy just to plop down in the sand and relax a minute. Not gonna lie, I was still a little peeved about losing by three euros in an exchange that made absolutely no sense, but the beach made it all better. Something about the motion of the ocean makes all your problems infinitesimal.
The beaches of Cascais have a very familiar feeling; almost like a cross between those in California and those in Spain. It’s not tropical, but definitely luxurious. And, you won’t find as much open space as you will see ridiculously good looking Portuguese people. Let me tell you, it is true who they say! Portuguese people are some of the most beauteous people in Europe. Courtney and I were having more than enough fun just sitting on the beach people-watching, or I should say people-gawking. After we had scouted all the talent on the beach, we went walking along where the waves meet the shore and did the obligatory toe dip. As warm as it was climate-wise, I was expecting the water to be of corresponding temperature; it was not. It was frigid cold. Now, seeing people out there swimming in it, you wanted to congratulate them on their stamina because I couldn’t even graduate to my middle toe as a scurried back up the beach.
I probably could’ve stayed all day, laying on the beach, but it was getting late in the day and we were sure that we didn’t want to miss the train back to Lisbon. Especially not on a night where the hostel was offering free dinner!
So, in yet another rookie mismate, we forfeited the other half of our Lisbon-Sintra roundtrip ticket and had to buy an additional one-way ticket from Cascais back to Lisbon. It was a confusing day, transportation-wise and we seemed to catch on when it was literally too late. It probably would’ve been better to have had a plan before shelling out the euros, but if we had stuck to the original agenda, we never would’ve gone to Cascais and that is something I would not recommend missing. All in all, it was worth the few lost euros, in my opinion. And, hey, lesson learned for next time! Not to mention the advice I can now give to you fine folks, whoever actually reads this blog from start to finish.
But in all seriousness, go to Portugal. It’s beyond amazing.