Oh, how we wanted to visit Sintra! Who wouldn’t with the many historical sites that included a palace that looked like it was the set for a Disney movie.
We wanted to get the most from our visit so we did (lots of) research and had a (foolproof) plan for the day. So where did it all go so wrong?
The easiest part was taking an early morning 30-minute bus from Cascais to Sintra. The bus stopped at the Sintra train station, and, as we started to get off, a local man told us to stay and get off at the next stop. We waited there for bus 434 which would take us up to the Palace of Pena. The bus approached – and passed us – a few minutes later. Why didn’t it stop? The bus was already packed full of people. We walked back to the train station, the bus’ first stop, and realized the problem: people were waiting in a line that snaked back so far that the end was never in sight. How many hours would we have to wait in line to get on a bus that comes once every 15 minutes?
Since the choice was waiting for a bus or walking, we chose to walk, straight uphill for 30 minutes. Steep. Our walk ended with relief – only to find us at the end of a line to buy tickets. (Yes, we tried to purchase them online the night before but it refused my credit cards.) Tickets in hand, we joined the line to enter the grounds. We were elated to have finally walked through the gate!
The palace is at the top of the mountain, and the crowds surged forward up the path and steps. Before we arrived at the palace, we found ourselves at the end of a long line (again?!). We were close enough for glimpses of the palace, and one of us would save our place in line while the other darted out to take occasional photos.
The original monastery, dating back to the early 1500s, was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. The monastery, rebuilt and remodeled in 1840 by the royal family, was painted red. Five years later an extension was added and painted yellow. A German architect, Baron von Eschwege, designed this “most notable example of Portuguese architecture in the Romantic period”.
Finally we entered the Palace of Pena. Almost five hours had passed since we had left our house in Cascais. We thought this would be the end of the line, but even inside the line continued to snake at a maddeningly slow pace – faster when we went by a room to view or placard to read, and slow when there was nothing to see. Finally the line stopped. We waited and waited. YET. AGAIN.
A staffperson walked by. “Excuse me,” we pleaded. “Can we leave?” She was flustered. Finally, after saying she could get us a dispensation based on our age, she escorted us out of that wing of the palace.
Oh, to be free from the endless line!
Would we visit the Palace again? NO. We struggled to figure out what went wrong or how the day might have gone differently. We had read a great deal before going but nothing prepared us for what had happened. Certainly visiting during high season contributed to a higher than usual number of tourists. Neither the buses nor the Palace of Pena were able to accommodate so many.
We remembered fondly another trip that we made to a different castle and palace in Portugal – at Guimarães.
In the very late afternoon we had to wait in line again but caught a very crowded bus back down to Sintra where we hopped on to a bus that would take us to Cascais. We had missed the 30-minute bus but managed to get on a very crowded bus that took a longer route to Cascais. In the 60-minute swerving ride through the hills and along the coast, Joe felt miserably carsick.
Despite one day gone wrong, we’ve been lucky as we travel to have had so many really wonderful sightseeing experiences. Sometimes, we remind ourselves, no amount of preparation before you go can always prepare you for the experience you’ll have.