Sintra, Portugal: Big Castles and Small Cars

Grey and muscular Moorish Castle, Sintra, Portugal
Grey and muscular Moorish Castle, Sintra, Portugal. NR Venkatesh photos.

Discovering Sintra, Portugal in a toy-like electric vehicle!

By N.R. Venkatesh

Portugal has a lot to offer with several destinations vying for touristic honors, be it Lisbon, Porto or you name it. One destination that probably deserves a brighter spotlight is Sintra, a magical city 33 kilometers from Lisbon.

Hidden passages in Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal
Hidden passages in Quinta de Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO, Sintra is a magical place in a dream-like setting. With lush green rolling hills on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, it is a short drive or convenient 40-minute train ride away from Lisbon.

Situated at an elevation of 574 ft. with a salubrious climate and gorgeous views, Sintra has been a favored destination of royalty and aristocracy for centuries.

The Moors built a medieval castle there around the eighth century, the Portuguese conquered the city the 12th century and more recently, the Portuguese royal family made it their summer residence.

Sintra is chockful of stunning castles, palaces, museums, gardens, water fountains, chapels and mansions, some of them very Disneyland-like. A surreal kaleidoscope of history, geography, and legend. With many of the structures reflecting Moorish, Gothic and Manueline styles.

The Twizy

As my wife and I planned our trip to Sintra, the main question that we grappled with was how to cover the various places of interest, spread out across very steep and mountainous terrain, in one day and without hurting our knees or backs.

We were relieved when we came across the GO2Cintra.com website touting the sub-compact electric vehicle, Renault Twizy, as their smart rental option to explore Sintra.

Exploring Sintra with my wife, Nirmala, in an electric vehicle
Exploring Sintra with my wife, Nirmala, in an electric vehicle

The Twizy weighs just about a thousand lbs., with a fifth of the weight in its lithium-ion battery. It has a single-charge range of 100 km. and it can attain a maximum speed of 50 km an hour.

When we saw pictures of the sub-compact vehicle, we had some concerns about its safety and road-worthiness. However, some research and a chat with the friendly staff at the rental company allayed many of our fears.

We were assured that we would receive a phone with wi-fi and GPS and a pre-programmed itinerary. The rental company would be able to track our vehicle in their office and they would also speak with us every 30 minutes, to see if we were doing fine.

In the unlikely event that our vehicle broke down or we ran into other trouble, they would arrange to come and get us. Customer testimonials about the company seemed to back up their claims.

This sounded as foolproof as was reasonably feasible and our level of assurance with Go2Cintra.com played an important role in our decision to visit Sintra. We are happy to report that the team at Go2Cintra.com lived up to their promises notwithstanding that we lost contact with them, briefly, during the return leg of our journey to their office.

GO2Cintra

Hewing to instructions from the GO2Cintra team, we took the train from Lisbon (Rossio station to Portela de Sintra station, a 40-minute ride) to arrive at the rental company’s office at Avenida Doutor Miguel Bombarda Nº 37, Sintra train station, by 9 am. After completing the vehicle rental paperwork using my Canadian driver’s license and checking out the phone and GPS, we were given a short demo on operating and controlling the vehicle. Operating the vehicle was quite straightforward. One challenge was squeezing into the tight space, closing the Lamborghini-style door (swinging up and down) and stowing our backpacks.

Manicured gardens in Palace de Seteais, Sintra, Portugal
Manicured gardens in Palace de Seteais, Sintra, Portugal

Sintra Sights

You would need several days to properly explore Sintra. We managed to visit just a handful of places on our day-trip and that too, with some difficulty. Starting with the Quinta da Regaleira, a one-of-a-kind estate built by a wealthy Portuguese businessman.

It appears to have been influenced by secret societies replete with caves and hidden passages. The place boasts a museum and sprawling gardens, which can only be covered on foot and demands considerable walking. The estate is dotted with indescribable structures requiring scholarly reading to make sense of.

We then proceeded to Palace de Seteais, a palace-turned-luxury-hotel located nearby, where we were impressed with its manicured gardens. We then made our way to the impressive Palace of Monserrate set within delightful gardens lush with a variety of flora.

The dome on the palace was apparently modeled on the Duomo in Florence and the palace was once owned by Sir Francis Cook, a British merchant, who was also the first Viscount of Monserrate. The rooms within the palace exude delicate and stunning beauty testifying to masterful architecture, centuries back.

We next drove with much anticipation to Cabo de Roca, a jagged cliff plunging 460 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. Considered to be the most westerly point of Western Europe, it was also considered by locals to be the end of the world until the 1500s.

The afternoon that we visited, the place was teeming with tourists many of whom were standing on the edge of the granite windswept cliff, admiring the breath-taking grandeur of the vista and busy taking selfies.

Cabo de Roca, Sintra, Portugal
Cabo de Roca, Sintra, Portugal

The wooden barriers around the cliff are not the sturdiest or the safest and you would do well to take extra care to avoid plunging onto the rocks at the foot of the raging ocean.

Besides boasting a functioning lighthouse built almost 250 years back, the cliff also has a cross erected on it bearing the words of the famous Portuguese poet, Luís Vaz de Camões stating “Here…Where the land ends and the sea begins…The westernmost point of the European continent”.

We took a much-needed break at Cabo de Roca, using both its restaurant and washroom before we continued with our exploration of Sintra.

We next headed to Capuchos Convent, which we missed because we had lost satellite contact on our GPS. We were unable to reach the Go2Cintra office by cellphone too. This resulted in us heading in the wrong direction, briefly, before we consulted with other tourists and got our bearings right.

Leveraging our limited knowledge of the Portuguese language and confirming directions every now and then, as we came upon locals, we finally made our way to the Pena Palace driving with some concern on narrow and deserted roads through desolate wooded areas. Could we get lost?

This is where the relative overall safety of Portugal as a tourist destination was reassuring. Doing such a journey in parts of Latin or South America could have posed a variety of challenges from robbery to kidnapping.

Gargoyle at the Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Gargoyle at the Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace

Even as we approached the Pena Palace, we spotted the eighth-century Moorish Castle, standing atop a tall hill. We pulled over and admired the castle from a distance, not having the time or energy to visit it up close.

Colorful and quirky Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Colorful and quirky Pena National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Close by loomed the Pena Palace. If the grey Moorish Castle appeared rugged and muscular, the colorful and quirky Pena Palace appeared magical and inviting, almost as if it were one of the attractions at Disneyland.

Finding a parking spot, we trundled up the castle quite gob-smacked and incredulous as to how the castle had been built in the first place, almost 180 years back. It is a fascinating structure made up of different sections, including a drawbridge, turrets, ramparts, and domes. Not to mention iconic gargoyles.

Each section seemingly incongruous with the other. But the totality of the castle somehow seemed to come together, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It is widely regarded as one of the most fantastic palaces in Europe, competing with the best in Germany.

It is easily the most photographed sight in Sintra with its bold and bright colors and distinctive structures making it stand out. The perimeter of the palace is lined with impressive gardens that we did not have time to take in, despite having paid to visit them.

Beautiful Monserrate Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Beautiful Monserrate Palace, Sintra, Portugal

Obtaining directions to Sintra train station from a policewoman on horseback outside Pena Palace, we made our way to the Go2Sintra rental outlet.

Even as we arrived there, one of the team was awaiting us, flagging us into the reserved parking spot and concerned about having lost contact with us. He apologized for the loss of satellite GPS. We were keen to return our Twizy before the rental company closed the shop so that they could plug in the vehicle for charging overnight so that it would be ready the next morning.

It would be accurate to say that we enjoyed our visit to Sintra both because of the sumptuous sights on offer as also the thrill and adventure of zooming around the mountainous terrain in a toy-like electric vehicle.

Thanks to the Twizy, we were able to cover considerable distances, take in quite a few sights and avoid steep and painful treks. The pre-set itinerary and the phone and GPS kept us on course. The compact size of the vehicle facilitated parking and the loud horn helped keep straying pedestrians safe. The excellent customer service of the Go2Cintra team made a huge difference.

It is Greg Anderson, the American personal trainer, best known for his work with baseball player Barry Bonds, who is believed to have said – “Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.” As we reflect on our visit to Sintra, that nugget of wisdom couldn’t have been truer.

If you happen to visit Lisbon, do try and fit in a visit to Sintra equipped with comfortable walking shoes. Sintra is a must-see destination.

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