23 Aug - Palaces and promontories
We were joined on our day trip to Sintra by our new Kiwi friend, David Williams. He had said goodbye to some passengers masquerading as crew and was at a loose end for a few days until reinforcements arrived from somewhere unpronounceable on North Island. We collected the hire car from a slightly spooky Portuguese ‘Silicon Valley’ complex on the outskirts of Oeiras. It reminded me of MOD Abbey Wood or one of those empty high tech industrial estates you see in American B-movies. The taxi driver had never been there and clearly not many other people had, either.
The trip to Sintra barely got the car (a very satisfactory diesel Opel Corsa) warmed up. It’s a hilly place with the usual collection of anti-vehicle streets, cobbles and ceramics, but considerably enhanced by some seriously impressive stately homes, ancient woodland and a couple of very fine Royal palaces. That’s why we went there, along with half of Lisbon, so it seemed. The Portuguese don’t like to pay for parking, so abandon their vehicles wherever the road might be wide enough to get away with a minor scratch. After a while, we found just such a slot and headed off on foot to find the action.
‘It’s up there, Mate’
Whilst Julie queued at the Tourist Information, David and I settled into a café next to the National Palace to watch the natives and (in his case) replenish solids (well, a sticky cake or two). We then queued for a bus to take us up an improbably steep hill, but after twenty minutes I was despatched to hijack a Tuk-Tuk. The last time I rode in one of these environmental disasters was on a night out in Bangkok, when we raced the little machines from the nightspots back to the dockyard, with the Gunnery Officer driving, the Thai driver sat in the back and the rest of us hanging off the sides to keep the ship upright in the corners. How we got back onboard without killing anyone I can’t remember, but I do remember drinking whisky in my cabin with the survivors and listening to John Lee Hooker to calm down…
The main square in Sintra, overlooked by the Moorish Castle
This journey was rather more stately. We shared the passenger seating with a Belgian couple who spoke good English, so we exchanged positions on Brexit, Lisbon, sailing and high-achieving offspring. Ever modest in such company, nonetheless let the record show that the Farringtons are well ahead on the latter: Lizzie has just landed a really good promotion and pay rise at work, catapulting her from Graduate Trainee to Middle Management in one fell swoop; whilst Anna completes her formal Chartered Accountancy qualifications this week and is off to work and live in New York for a couple of years. Ah, the glamour and excitement of youth!
The main reasons why the journey was stately were (in no particular order) the inability of the Tuk-Tuk engine to cope with the steepness of the hill and the weight of its International cargo; the life expectancy of the clutch which was probably measured in minutes rather than months; and the sheer volume of traffic – tour buses, Tuk-Tuks and private cars all jostling for space on a tortuous, winding lane. We were glad we had decided to go up under power and descend on foot! Half an hour later, the driver relieved us of five gold coins each. This compared very favourably with the Gosport equivalent: we have found the taxis here are very cheap and driven by local people who speak English. Whereas in Gosport, the taxis are eye-wateringly expensive and driven by overweight Turkish men who speak no English…
The Palacio de Pena isn’t the main Royal Palace, as far as I can tell, but it’s in the most spectacular position on the top of a hill, overlooking everything else – including Lisbon in the far distance. There are strong German influences in the architecture, which reminded us both of Gothic fantasy castles in Bavaria and left David unable to think of the Maori word for it (for once). Colourful, kitsch, impressive and rather incongruous, it is actually a semi-detached palace, being blistered on the side of an old monastery.
Palacio de Pena – a cacophony of colours and styles
We didn’t go inside as the queue was as long as the road up there, so instead we set off on foot for the Moorish castle which dominates the adjacent hilltop. All that’s left of this are the walls and a few bore holes where the defenders stored food – plus the small church built by the Portuguese when they eventually defeated the Moors in the 11th century. The walls are impressive and the views spectacular. New Zealand has nothing like it, apparently.
The Moorish castle. More my thing…
We descended through the beautiful woodland, passing some impressive homes of cloying courtiers into the town, where we imbibed a welcome lemonade whilst overlooking the National Palace with its two ‘oasthouse’ towers. We decided that we did not have time to give it the attention it deserved and instead, picked our way back to the car and headed off to the seaside.
Cabo de Roca, to be more precise, which we had seen briefly through the fog a few days earlier. About 20 minutes drive from Sintra, it claims to be the westernmost tip of Continental Europe (I think that the Blasket Islands off the Dingle Peninsula are actually further west) and we peered out to sea to catch a glimpse of the New World. Nothing seen except some vicious rocks and that wonderful sense of fascination one gets wherever the sea meets the land, so we set off for a small fishing village called Azenhas do Mar.
Navigator gets a fix
This place is literally clinging to the clifftop. Down a steep path, there’s a small beach with one of those saltwater swimming pools refreshed by the tide. There we found a beach bar tucked under the cliff and took welcome refreshment whilst watching the local kids braving the rollers on the incoming tide which threw up great curtains of spray when they hit the swimming pool. Funky jazz playing, the warm evening sunshine, people relaxing. We decided to investigate supper in the restaurant just above the bar and suddenly found ourselves in a dining room that would not have been out of place on the Queen Mary. A fantastic view out over the beach, the pool, the ocean and the setting sun; we settled in and instead of a couple of tapas, ended up with a full-scale meal. We restricted ourselves to two courses and just the one bottle of Vinho Verde. After all, I had to drive back to Oeiras. A classic case of ‘mission creep’ (there’s probably a Maori word for that too) but who cared?
Aaaah! Sunet at Azenhas do Mar