Saturday, June 28, 2014

[SINTRA] The Great Wall of Sintra


One thing you must keep in mind when including Lisbon in your itinerary is that it has many districts, usually within an hour away by train that you could visit on a day trip. Do you want to go sunbathing? Go to Cascais. If your thick wallet is becoming more and more of a burden, then you are better off squandering all that cash in the casinos of Estoril. Do you just want to chill by the river and see an ancient tower? Belem has exactly that. But if you want to see palaces and all things vintage, then Sintra is the place to be.


Sintra is one of those Portuguese municipalities where history and architecture junkies would have a heart attack. The abundance of Romantic architecture prevalent in the area was enough for it to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are two national palaces here: one named Pena; the other, Sintra. For nature lovers, the westernmost point of Continental Europe referred to as Cabo da Roca could also be found in Sintra. But let’s reserve that for another blog entry, because right now I’d like to focus on what I would like to call the "Great Wall of Sintra."


Technically, it is not really a wall, but rather the ruins of an ancient Moorish palace perched high above the hills. In case you have forgotten, Iberia has a rather long love-hate relationship with the Muslims of Northern Africa, and their influence is mainly seen through the architecture they had left behind after the Spanish inquisition. While the Pena Palace is magnificent in all its colorful glory, many tourists are bound to choose the Castelo dos Mouros as their favorite, for various reasons.


Before we tackle the specifics, though, perhaps it would be good to focus on logistics and transportation first. What do you need to get there? Chances are you would be visiting the castle halfway through your Sintra day trip. Unless you have your own car, you would have to take one of the shuttle buses, and the castle in in the middle part of the journey for most routes. Of course you could go there straight and skip the other tourist sites, but backtracking would be a bit complicated later on.


The hop-on hop-off bus ticket costs 5 euros. On top of that, you also have to shell out an extra 7.50 euros for admission to the castle. Yes, there are combination tickets if you are also planning to visit the other two palaces. Could you do a DIY of the area and snob the tour buses? If you start very early in the morning and you like the exercise, I’d say yes. Besides, the roads going up there are narrow but well-paved. Climbing a mountain is obviously harder. But hello, the bus is there, right? Better take advantage?


What immediately came to mind when I visited this tourist site was the Great Wall of China. Living in Xiamen for almost a year and being a frequent tourist in China, people are often surprised when they find out that I haven’t been to the Great Wall. I tried to go there once, okay? I got lost. In any case, I believe the feeling of nostalgia for a past you were never part of would be similar for both places. I mean, the setup looks eerily the same, and although some slight difference in nuance would be observable for those in the know, for the common tourist they would all look similar.


After all, weren’t these walls built for the sole purpose of securing the interests of their inhabitants? The Chinese built theirs to keep the Mongols away. There is reason to believe that the Moors also built one to keep enemies at bay. Somehow I find it weird, though. Those imperialists from the days of glorious past must have been that persistent to capture this land. I mean, it is located high above those hills! You’d like to think that mountain ranges would already suffice as natural protection, but no. The walls just had to be built.


While the ruins date back to God knows when, what you would be seeing nowadays are just walls, turrets, and tourists. Sorry to disappoint you, but there would be no Gerard Butler with 300 abs... Oh wait, was that set in Greece? Fine, but I think you get the point. There would be neither measly clad medieval soldiers nor fair maidens in tight corsets roaming around. The management probably thought that hiring actors to portray such characters would be rather tacky. This is not an amusement park after all.


Yes, the only living souls you would see there are your fellow tourists. Some of them are European; some Asian. Some are not tourists at all, but rather workers renovating the place. The sad part here is the fact that the place is a tourist site, right? In the name of capitalism and funds for the preservation of these historic grounds, one must also cater to the whims of the very people bringing in the cash. It does make sense. I might love a cappuccino after that exhausting climb, now wouldn't I, even if it costs double the normal price.


By the way, one thing you would be seeing there, which I think is rather weird, is a church. What the heck is a chapel doing in a Muslim enclave? Perhaps the church in question was built after the Moors left? Otherwise, it would not really make sense. Sorry, I was too lazy to read the description. Oh yeah, that is another thing. You would see some kind of information board for each attraction, giving a simple explanation in Portuguese and English.


The castle doubles as a botanical garden of sorts, with variations of flora spread out all over the place. That is just a bonus, though, because the real reward here is the view you get once you reach the top. Actually, you don't really have to reach the top to get awesome views. There’s already a good bird’s eye view of the town below at the very entrance of the castle.


The turrets are amusing and they just give you that Middle Earth kind of feel, like you would be seeing Orcs climbing the walls ready to attack you any minute now. But then that vision is ruined by the polished set of houses that comprise the town down below. But Middle Earth also has humans for inhabitants! Let your imagination fly. Or just enjoy the cool breeze slapping your face once in a while. Keep calm and enjoy the scenery.


While evidently difficult, reaching such heights and seeing the awesome scenery below after the exhausting climb just brings along a different level of fulfillment. Add the old world charm of the place and you get a unique experience, like somehow having visited the past without boarding a time machine. I imagine it would be more satisfying if you come to such a place armed with historic information. If so, what you just knew from history textbooks would then have a different meaning by visiting the exact site where history unfolded.


Anyway, another bonus would be unlocked if you brave another set of concrete steps and reach what seems to be the northwestern edge of the wall. Do not quote me on this because I really suck when it comes to directions. Once you get on the wall, head left and go all the way up. On one of the towers, you will be rewarded with a good view of the Pena Palace, that colorful citadel which is usually the next stop after this fortress.


There are around three Scotturb tour buses going around Sintra all day, each with its own planned route which could bring you as far as Cabo da Roca. What I suggest is start the day very early and do this Sintra tour until after lunch time. After that, you could then head to Cabo da Roca for a relaxing time before returning to Lisbon to call it a day. If this is not possible, don’t fret. You could always do Cabo da Roca in tandem with Cascais’ Boca do Inferno. More on that later!

http://s208.photobucket.com/user/ihcahieh/library/LISBON%20-%20Sintra
[SINTRA] The
[SINTRA] The Great Wall of Sintra
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