Monday 5th April 2009, Guincho, near Cascais, Portugal
We woke to sunshine as usual and temperatures registered 28 degrees during the day though it didn't feel that hot. Tonight it is actually rather chilly around the campsite and during the afternoon we experienced the first rain since leaving England over three weeks ago. Such a miserable coastal mizzle though that it can hardly be called rain. We just ignored it as we strolled along the seafront between Cascais and Estoril, two of Lisbon's local beaches.
As we were finishing breakfast this morning a German camper came across to ask us if we'd like the rest of his bottle of wine. He was using public transport and couldn't carry it with him and it was too good to waste. That's two really nice experiences we have had with German campers. It more than wipes out the unpleasant one we had back in Northern Spain.
This morning we decided to take the bus from the gates of the campsite into Cascais, six kilometres away, from where we understood we could take the train into Lisbon or the bus out to Sintra. The route into town was impressive, passing through high rounded sand dunes with the breakers rolling in from the Atlantic. It was all rather harsh and inhospitable though.
The bus station in Cascais is ugly and confusing. Indeed anything to do with public transport in Portugal seems confusing. The return fare for the two of us cost more than the campsite so we won't be using it again! Train fares though seem really cheap and once in Cascais we can get all the way into Lisbon and back for less than half the price of the bus fare! We think we are even entitled to half fare as pensioners but we need evidence to prove it. Apart from our wrinkles we have none. Unlike other EU countries Britain does not automatically give its geriatrics cards stating they are retired and in receipt of a pension.
We decided to leave Sintra and Lisbon for another day and explore Cascais. It has a pleasant old town along the sea front but the modern part is fraught with traffic and is rather uninspiring. We have obviously hit the tourist trail here and have heard English all around us. Groups of sunburned, overweight, balding Brits sit on the terraces of seafront bars talking loudly as they drink the local beer. As we pass seafront restaurants we are pestered by smart waiters to sample the rather expensive menus and several times we have been importuned by beggars.
Generally though it has been a very pleasant day. Having pottered around the port area we discovered some very attractive gardens with peacocks and cockerels as well as a small lake with ducks. They form the gardens to the Museu Biblioteca Conde Castro Guimarães overlooking the sea, closed today.
During the afternoon we walked along the seafront to Estoril, supposedly more genteel than Cascais. For genteel read boring. There were a few properties of decayed grandeur, a casino and some public gardens but we were happy to turn round and make our way back to Cascais. That too had insufficient to entertain us all afternoon and it was with some relief that we caught the bus back to the campsite. We won't be wasting any more time here at the touristy seaside resorts. We left a chicken to cook in the remoska in Modestine while we crossed to the campsite bar to use the free wifi. That's 21st century camping for you.
Tuesday 6th April 2009, Guincho, near Cascais, Portugal
It felt much cooler as we set off for Sintra this morning in Modestine. It's a bit of a fiddle packing everything up, loading the tables, chairs and bikes into the back and disconnecting the electricity, but no way were we going to pay the exorbitant price for the bus again. We drove off into the hills leaving the bus to return without us to the centre of Cascais.
Sintra is about 15 kilometres from the campsite and this morning we took the scenic and very hilly route. Once we left the villages behind and climbed slowly up into the wooded granite hills we never saw another vehicle until we reached our destination high above the coastal plain and the little town of Sintra. We passed through a landscape of giant boulders, pine trees, ferns and foxgloves, in many ways not dissimilar to Dartmoor though higher and very heavily wooded. Through the pines we could see right the way back down to the coast and even along to the estuary of the river Tejo on which Lisbon sits. Up here, deep in the woods, our narrow, twisting, rutted road passed a monument erected in memory of a dozen or more firemen and soldiers who died in 1966 attempting to put out a forest fire. Having seen the futile attempts of the helicopter to do likewise in Asturias we can well appreciate how difficult and dangerous a task fighting a forest fire can be. They were presumably cut off with nowhere to flee.
Sintra is an amazing place both for its natural landscape and for the varied and exotic buildings that have been erected there since the 9th century when the Moors started the trend with their crenelated fortress, its walls striding the hilltops, right through to the 20th century with several remarkable palaces of great architectural acclaim. Sintra and its immediate environs are justifiably included on the Unesco World Heritage list. They are to Portugal, what Meteora is to Greece in that each has a remarkable architectural heritage set in a bizarre natural landscape that is unique.
Walking up the steep, twisting cobbled roads that wind through the hillsides between Sintra's architectural gems is gruelling but the rewards are breathtaking. Ian was probably a dragonfly lava in a former existence because he seems programmed to head for the highest point around. At the Moorish castle we were grateful we'd opted to wear our hiking boots as we clambered gingerly over uneven steps, granite boulders, loose stones and tree roots, climbing ever higher until we found ourselves panting for breath on the fortified walls with views right the way back to the coast with the wind blowing in straight from the sea. It was freezing! The views though were sublime! From up here we could just about see Lisbon and the planes flying into the airport were lower than we were! We watched as they circled before coming down at the end of the airport runway.
Back at the road again we walked on to the Palace de Pena which stands on another of Sintra's imposing headlands, its orange and yellow palace dominating the skyline for miles around. Based on a disused 16th century convent, it was renovated and reworked during the 19th century so that now it resembles a Walt Disney fairytale castle. You expect to see Snow White on the top of one of the crenulated towers! The setting for such a castle is totally unexpected. Indeed the only thing about the castle that didn't surprise us was learning that it was designed by the royal consort Duke Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in the 1840s. The Germans have always had extravagant and fanciful ideas when it comes to building castles. This one reminded us of the fantasies of mad king Ludwig that we saw down in Bavaria. We found it great fun, particularly the eclectic combination of architectural styles with elements of Islamic, neo-Manueline and 19th century completely intermixed.
It was used as the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family. We duly shuffled round inside with the crowds and the furnishings were great fun. The rooms were decorated, frequently with Arabic or Portuguese tiles. There were vaulted ribbed ceilings covered in grey satin and frequent use of tromp l'oeil effect to emulate Arabic decorated stonework. In one room Dom Carlos himself had decorated the walls with naked nymphs and satyrs cavorting. Furniture was huge, heavy and highly Victorian in feel. There was also much Portuguese furniture made in solid, dark wood - chairs, bed heads, sofas, table and dressers all with "barley-sugar" twist decoration. Other rooms had oriental furnishings from the Portuguese colonies of Macau and Goa. In the midst of this there survived the tiny original monastery cloister, a tiled and arcaded gem. Photography was not permitted, hence the detailed description.
One of the lady attendants wished us a happy Easter and stopped to chat. She explained that the last real royalty of Portugal was Dom Carlos II and his French wife Emilie d'Orleans. When they married Emilie had hoped it would lead towards the restoration of the monarchy in France. Instead it led to Portugal becoming a republic. Dom Carlos and his older son were assassinated by the republican element in Lisbon in 1908. The queen, Emilie, was a determined woman however and declared a republic could not start with the murder of the monarch. Her son Manuel was crowned king but reigned for only a couple of years before being forced into exile in England. Since then the country has had a president to take the place of a monarchy but, like a monarchy he is little more than a figurehead. He has no real power and, according to our informant, costs the Portuguese people a great deal of money. There are those who would be happy to see the monarchy re-instated as has happened in Spain, but she thought it unlikely to happen, though there is still a royal line in readiness to return if invited.
Eventually we came out again into the chilly wind where we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the beautiful and varied castle grounds. They include the highest point in the Sintra Sierra, 529 metres high, where a huge cross has been erected. Ian dragged me unwillingly to the very top, where he gazed contentedly on the surrounding countryside, satisfied that at last there was nowhere higher he could clamber to.
Already wobbly with so much unaccustomed strain to my leg muscles the descent was almost as bad as climbing up! By the time we reached the lakes at the bottom of the gardens I felt decidedly weak kneed! Tomorrow I will be dragged all over Lisbon which is also extremely hilly. Lucky me!
After a day in Lisbon, which follows as a separate blog, we returned to Sintra.
Thursday 9th April 2009, Guincho, near Cascais, Portugal
Today we returned to Sintra, this time to visit the house and gardens of Monserrate in one of the valleys of the Sintra hills. Back in the 1790s the wealthy British eccentric builder and author William Beckford rented the property and undertook several projects in the gardens including the construction of a pretty waterfall, a pseudo-cromlech and a romantic archway.
Beckford was at the time the richest untitled person in Britain, having inherited several generations of family fortune made in the Jamaican sugar plantations. He constructed Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, a romantic ruin we pass regularly on our way to Salisbury. There he managed to squander his entire inheritance on a vast, neo-gothic hall with an enormously high tower. It collapsed twice before he'd finally spent all his money and was forced to abandon the project. It now stands as one of England's grandest follies to folly.
He was an author of merit and popular at the time, best known for his gothic novel Vathek. He also had an enthusiastic interest in young boys. An unfortunate incident with the sixteen year old son of the Courtney family at Powderham Castle near Exeter in the 1780s necessitated a very prompt and extended trip abroad, hence his presence at Monserrate on the wooded hills above the coast of Portugal.
Fifty years later Monserrate was turned into a summer residence for the family of another Englishman, Francis Cook. He developed the gardens, introducing trees, shrubs, ferns and flowers from around the world. He totally changed the style of the house, mixing mozarabic designs and tiles with features that come straight from the Prince Regent's Pavilion at Brighton! The property has long been owned by Englishmen and to us the house and grounds seemed more like an English National Trust property than a Portuguese estate! Once again, photography was not permitted inside the house.
Around lunch time we continued down into the old town of Sintra which was packed solid with visitors and cars trying to park. Being more prepared to walk than some we parked easily enough at the same place we have been using for the past three days and walked back into the town. On the way we discovered an amusing public garden with colourful animals amongst the flower beds all made from papier mâché. We've included a couple here to amuse our daughter Kate who used to enjoy making similar, but mercifully slightly smaller, zebras, giraffes and pigs.
Having explored the picturesque narrow streets of the town we crossed to the National Palace of Sintra and spent a couple of hours exploring this strange and rambling building, once the home of Portuguese monarchs, furnished with national treasures – paintings, furnishings, tapestries, ceramics and sculptures. First built in the late 14th century, it was progressively added to, its most distinctive external feature being the two massive beehive-shaped chimneys rising from the enormous kitchen. Inside were many rooms with early tiling and painted ceilings featuring swans, galleons, coats of arms and magpies, these last a satirical reference to the gossiping women of the court.
Finally, as we returned across town to rejoin Modestine we discovered an excellent free gallery displaying works in bronze, marble and plaster by father and son, Artur and Pedro Anjos Teixeira. Both were excellent sculptors but the works of the son, Pedro, in particular were powerful pieces expressing the harshness of life for ordinary people, the delicacy of the female form, and a sense of movement in the animals he created. They both came from Sintra and between them were active between 1940 and 1990.
Back here at the campsite someone had pitched a tent on the spot Modestine has been using all week. We'd not marked the pitch as ours as it has been so quiet until now, when the site is fast filling up with Portuguese campers here for the Easter weekend. We have found another pitch easily enough but it's surprising how being on the same scruffy patch of dirt starts to feel like home after a few days!