Finding magic in Sintra Hills.

Where Lisbon is gritty, lively, and and a little rough around the edges, Sintra is magical and picturesque, both being different versions of the same Portuguese culture.

You must plan a day trip to Sintra if you are ever planning a trip to Lisbon anyways. You can take a commuter train to Sintra from just about any train station in Lisbon, and depending from which one you leave from, you can get a return ticket for rather cheap, being under 5€. The commuter train does stop at every station, making it about a 50 minute train ride, however, you get to see the different parts of Lisbon along the way.

We arrived in Sintra between 10am and 11am. We accidentally got off one stop too early and ended up being in the outskirts of this small city. Not having a very detailed map on hand, we just starting walking, in hopes of finding a map on the street or signs that point towards the monuments that we were looking to see, winding along roads in the Sintra Hills not being completely sure of the direction we were heading. It took us about an hour to an hour and a half to finally get to the top, following the views of the most beautiful palace along the way, the Pena Palace.

Being a World Heritage UNESCO site, the Pena Palace first started off as a chapel in Medieval times. Then, it was converted into a convent and then later a monastery, where it suffered some damage during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Then, lastly, it was bought by Don Fernando II in the 19th century, when it was converted into the beautifully colored palace that it is today. The palace was converted into a museum in the early 1900s, with UNESCO listing it as a World Heritage site in 1995.

Though the Pena Palace is the gem of the Sintra Hills, it’s not the only historic building that one could come across. There isn’t just one more beautiful place to see, nor just two more. No, there are 7 different historical buildings that you can wander through in these beautiful hills! 7! Isn’t that absolutely amazing?!

So, if you are really looking for an adventure I’d advise to hit up all 7.

  1. The Pena Palace, of course
  2. The Moorish Castle
  3. National Palace of Sintra
  4. National Palace of Queluz
  5. Capuchos Convent
  6. Monserrate Park and Palace
  7. Chalet and Garden of the Countess of Edla

Now, unfortunately, our day trip to Sintra was kind of last minute and our wallets were running a little low, as it was nearing the end of our trip. So, we didn’t actually go into any of these historical buildings. However, I did do some research, and if you are feeling really determined, you can buy a combined ticket with as many of the historic sites as you’d like. You can use this online price simulator to see how much it would cost to go see all of the sites of interest to you: http://www.parquesdesintra.pt/en/plan-your-visit-en/price-simulator/

For just one adult, it would cost around 60€ to see all 7. That seems like quite a bit of change! However, for 7 historical sites where you can learn about the rich history of Portugal, I would consider it worth it. Plus, I’m pretty sure that getting a combined ticket ends up being cheaper. Another great thing about getting a combined ticket is that you don’t have to see all the sites in one day. You can use it two or even three days in a row. That way you don’t have to feel rushed to see each place.

However, if your personal wallet is running quite a bit low as well, there is a respectable, much much cheaper alternative option: visiting the Pena Palace Park. The park itself is only 7.50€ for an adult entrance. Though you can’t go into any of the palaces with just a park entrance ticket, you do get the glorious opportunity of at least seeing the outside of a handful of them as well as enjoying one of the biggest and most beautiful parks that you’ve probably ever seen.

You get a free map of the park with your ticket purchase. The main entrance is near the Pena Palace. So, you can walk up and at least admire its beauty from the outside. Just staring at it made my soul happy because how well built and colorful it is.

After you’ve gawked at that for a few minutes, I advise continuing climbing the path up towards the left. You’ll come across the Temple of the Columns, which is gives you a fantastic viewpoint of the Pena Palace.

As you continue, you’ll come across the Statue of the Warrior. Now, this statue is atop a massive mound of giant rocks. I don’t think you’re technically suppose to climb them, however, we did anyways. I advise you to do the same. Not only is it a fantastic workout, especially if you really enjoy hiking, but this is where you can get an even more amazing view of the Pena Palace. Plus, I felt like a cool kid for having conquered my fear of heights and gotten all on up in those giants things.

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After you’ve had your fun there, feeling like a kid again, keep going up and up and up and up to the highest point in all of the Sintra Hills. Now, as gorgeous as that Palace is, and as much as I would’ve liked to explore it, hands down the highest point in these beautiful hills was my absolute favorite part of my entire trip in Portugal.

I’ve seen many beautiful places in all of my travels, but never have I ever felt so at peace, so in love with the world, than when I was sitting there, overlooking the Atlantic ocean, Sintra, Lisbon even, and the cross right in front of me. It also really helped that the sun was shining brightly with no shame and with no cloud in sight. This is where I found magic in Sintra.

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Though the Cruz Alta was my favorite part in the park, there are still many other beautiful points. It is a massive park after all.

There are trails upon trails that lead to places such as greenhouses, gardens, fantastic outlook points, and where we ended our hike, the Valley of the Lakes, a small valley with about 5 small ponds, where you can sit and watch the ducks as they flap about from the duck house in the middle of the largest one.

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So, really if you think about it, just one day won’t properly suffice for exploring all that Sintra has to offer, especially if you continue down out of the hills to explore the beautiful town below, where I had the best coffee of my life, a Portuguese café au lait (who knew a café au lait could be so delicious), while waiting for the train back to Lisbon, at the most adorable café right next to the train station (the correct one that you should get off on, the one at the very end of the train line).

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Sidenote: Don’t forget to pack your lunch to save yourself from having to spend ridiculous prices at the cafés inside the park and allowing yourself the opportunity to enjoy the beauty while enjoying a meal.

For me, I really enjoyed the juxtaposition of the roughness of Lisbon with the picturesque beauty of Sintra. I felt I saw different sides of Portugal, reminding me that all countries and all cultures have many sides to them. They are just one specific thing. They don’t just claim their respective stereotypes. There is a lot more than what is just in front of you or what you find on the internet (My blog included). Do your research. Use those blogs as guidelines, but don’t always go in with expectations. Open yourself up to being surprised by what you might discover. You will always leave those places feeling more knowledgeable and more accomplished if you just allow the places to show you what they have to offer rather than you choosing to see what they have to offer.

This is part of what traveling is all about.

Lisboa, Lisboa

As I looked out over the city of Lisbon from the Sao Jorge Castle, the sunshine blanketed mon visage with the warmth of complete and utter happiness. There is nothing like this city, filled entirely with colorful homes for miles, resting upon hill after hill. The world never ceases to amaze me, and Lisbon did not disappoint.

After our adventures in Sevilla, Spain, my travel companions and myself decided to pop over to Portugal for a hot second. After all, you cannot visit the Iberian Peninsula without putting at least one Portuguese city on your list.

When we initially arrived, it was 5:30am, too early to check into our Airbnb, too early to look for a café, too early for anything really. So, what did we do? Why, we slept in the freezing cold bus station, because what’s travel without a little bit of a struggle? After about an hour and a half, we walked the 40 minutes to our Airbnb, where able to set our bags down and nothing more until later that day, and thus began our journey into the city of Lisboa, looking rough and all.

The day continued roughly, with rain pouring down on us for the first hour or so, but hey, we were in Portugal after all and thus decided to stay positive. I think that’s why the sun eventually chose to come out from hiding for us. Thus, from then on out, you could be convinced that Spring had arrived.

Our first stop in this unique city was the Praça do Comerico, primarily to acquire a map from the visitors center, but this square proved a great first stop because the view: the bay on one side and the hills of Lisboa on another, as well as a fantastic opportunity to people watch. 12733517_10207500697609536_4189311094160840799_n

Afterwards, the Sao Jorge Castle was calling our names from atop its high point in the hills of this beautiful city. If you enjoy a good hike, then I suggest you meet this castle by way through the many streets of the city, however, if you want to go back in time ever so slightly, take the well-known Lisbon tram. It’s an experience like non-other. Plus, if you obtain a day pass for city transport (I believe it was about 6€ for a day pass), you can ride this tram up and down the city streets as many times as your heart desires all day long.

It’s super old school, about a quarter of the size of a tram of these days, with old school pulleys to hold onto and old school manual doors. Looks like something straight out of the 30s to 50s.

The Sao Jorge Castle is not, unfortunately, free to visit. However, you can get a reduced fare with your student ID if you are under the age of 25 (they’ll probably also ask for your passport for proof of your age): 8.50€ for adults and 5€ for students. It’s worth the euros spent to get a glimpse of what the old Lisbon citadel looked like in Medieval times. At one point being a Moorish fortress, this castle displays a lot of history in its walls, many of which were either destroyed completely or damaged during the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Its brokenness give it its charm though, I think. With your ticket, you receive a free brochure that explains each part of the castle, how it used to function in Medieval times. So, you learn a lot about the city’s history, if you have a great interest in history, and not to mention, you catch a glimpse of the most breathtaking view of the city.

 

While you’re here, you must absolutely put strolling through the city streets on your list of things to do, because not only do you get a glimpse of the culture of the city but also it’s FREE. There’s also a handful of street art and graffiti that you might appreciate.

Unfortunately, we only had one full day in Lisbon, for the next day we spent exploring Sintra, a small town about an hour train ride west of Lisbon, and our last half day we spent exploring Belem, a suburb of Lisbon.

So, after exploring the streets and catching a nap at our Airbnb, we ended the day with a quick dinner (sidenote: food in Portugual is actually rather cheap compared to many other countries in Europe. Just don’t eat the bread that they put in front of you at the restaurant, you know, the bread you think is free with the meal, because you will get charged for it), and by watching the sunset down by the bay.

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Of all the cities thus far on our Iberian Peninsula journey, I loved Lisbon the most because it was a complete shock of cultural experience. I had no expectations of what Portugal might look like. Lisbon has an edge, a liveliness, a roughness, that gives it its character. The language alone is enough to surprise a person. Many people might think that Portuguese is similar to Spanish because of the way that it’s written. However, don’t judge too soon, for once you hear it spoken your previous notions fly out the window. It sounds more rough, more abrupt, and less fluid than Spanish, with much variances in the emphasis of words and syllables. I would also say that the Portuguese are the kings of a good cup of coffee. The best coffee that I’ve ever had during my entire time in Europe was while I was in Lisbon (or maybe that was just due to the fact that having traveled for a week and a half already, anything tasted absolutely amazing). Unfortunately, we did not come much into contact with the locals themselves, except for our Airbnb hosts, whom, even then, we did not see much at all. Tant pis.

I suppose that means that I just have to go back some day.

Crawling on club floors: my many adventures in Sevilla, Spain!

Sometimes, you find yourself on your hands and knees on the floor of a random club in a city in Southern Spain at 4am trying to look for your friend’s lost phone. Sometimes, in cases such as these, you are given weird looks by the locals and asked different questions in a language you don’t understand, so you have to awkwardly mime while trying to shout the words of what you are doing while music blasts in your ears. Sometimes, you have adventures such as these, and then you wake up at 11:30am later that same morning and all you can say to yourself is  ”Was I really crawling on a club floor?” Why yes, Lindsey, yes you were. Thankfully, I did find my friend’s phone. So, I guess it was worth it…?

Sevilla, Spain took me by surprise. Being a city with such vibrancy, such diversity, it really was unlike any others I had ever seen before, pleasantly so.

We arrived in Sevilla on a Friday afternoon. It wasn’t rainy, but it wasn’t quite sunny either. That’s fine. I’ll take partly cloudy over rain any day.

My travel companion, Sara, and I decided to stay in a hostel while our other travel companion, Henry, chose to stay in an Airbnb. I think it’s a wise choice to mix it up a bit. Though Airbnbs are quite nice, especially if there are more than two of you traveling together, hostels really are a vibe all their own. So, Sara and I settled in Sevilla Inn Backpackers, (I highly recommend staying here if you are ever in Sevilla.) with it’s extremely perfect location just a two minute walk from the Réal Alcazar and the Cathedral.

Our first day consisted mostly of just exploring the city and enjoying everything that there was to see. Sevilla is beautiful, if not for the colors alone then the monuments, the buildings, the palm trees, and even all the tile work for which it’s known. I found great joy in wandering the streets with Sara, coming upon beautiful street after beautiful street. I highly recommend just letting yourself get lost in this beautiful city.

The downside of Sevilla is that it is a very touristy city. There is a university there, so it has a lot of university students and also attracts a lot of university students from elsewhere for weekend trips. Though this gives the city a really young vibe, it also makes it extremely touristy, which means that basically everything costs money, and the tourist spots are a bit pricey as well. However, if you don’t want to spend too much money, then fear not, there are still a few things you can do to continue exploring. Firstly, the Plaza de Espana is a beautiful representation of the tile for which Sevilla is known. It’s also surrounded by a park that has beautiful tiled fountains as well. It’s FREE to walk around outside of the palace, being a wonderful place to sit, to relax, and to people watch. You can pay money to row a boat in the moat that surrounds the Plaza, but it’s best just to opt of this and just enjoy the view. Also, there’s also a giant fountain in the middle that’s fun to walk by. Warning though, it will drench you. It is huge, the water blasting with full force.

When you are in Sevilla you must also make it a point to go and see some Flamenco dancing, for which Sevilla and, all of Spain really, is known. A great place to see some Flamenco for FREE is a bar called La Carboneria. I had never before seen Flamenco performed. In addition to a type of dance, it’s a style of music as well. The small group started off singing quite slowly and passionately. At first, I was very confused, not understanding why there wasn’t any dancing going on, but then after a few minutes of slow, intense, and passionate music, a man started dancing. When most people think of Flamenco, they think of women dancers, but men do it as well! I can only describe Flamenco as a very passionate, intense, and slightly aggressive dance. It involves many quick and tight movements with the hands and the feet,with some stomping as well. Though I really enjoyed the dancing, what I enjoyed the most was the passion. You could really feel it from this man, putting all his heart and soul into this art form. It was quite the experience, and it really made me appreciate Spanish culture even more. (Also, just a side note, it is considered very rude to take pictures or videos while they are performing. So, just put the camera down for a moment and just enjoy the experience. If you really must have a picture or a video, do it very quickly and on the sly. However, I recommend not doing so, as I did and got many a dirty look.)

We finished off Sevilla the next day by paying a visit to the bullring and the Réal Alcazar. You can’t visit Spain without going to at least one bullring, even if you don’t support bullfighting, at least just to learn the history about all of it.

To be honest, I was very ignorant of much of Spanish culture, bullfighting in particular. I honestly thought that it was one bull with one matador and that they kind of just spent the whole fight kind of dodging the bull. No, I was completely wrong. If you are unaware of this cultural piece of Spain, then here is a brief synopsis. The bullfighting season begins in late April/early May and goes until about the end of October. During a fight there is one matador, but there are other people, the title of whom I forget, that help the matador. Also, there is not one bull, but six! Six for one single bullfight! Also, no, they don’t just dodge the bull, they actually fight the bulls, with no protection no less, striking them until they finally execute them, each and every one of the six bulls. On the plus side, if there could be a plus side, the bull meat actually gets sold in local markets. At least it doesn’t go to waste, right? To be honest, I was shocked, slightly appalled even, but I am thankful that I decided to pay the bullring a visit so that I could learn more about this part of Spanish culture. I’m still deciding how I feel about the whole thing, but I think it’s important in trying to understand a bit more about Spain and its people. Plus, it was only 4€ with a student ID card and only 7€ for an adult entrance, and how many people can say that they’ve been to a bullring?

 

While in Sevilla, Spain you must also pay the Réal Alcazar a visit (aka the Royal Palace). Our hostel was conveniently located about a two minute walk from the palace. This had to be one of my favorite things in all of Sevilla for many reasons. Firstly, it is a beautiful display of Moorish architecture. It is absolutely stunning! There are really just no other words for it. This palace is quite large with displays of differently designed tiles, with blues, greens, yellows, and oranges, with beautiful gardens on the interior, decorated with many an orange tree. Unfortunately, the gardens were closed due to the intense wind that was occurring that day, however, you can still overlook them while enjoying the view of the Mercury fountain. Now, because I’m a huge nerd in general and because I am a huge fan of Game of Thrones, I highly recommend going to see this palace, not only for it’s astonishing beauty, but an episode of the fifth season of Game of Thrones was actually filmed here (the water gardens of Dorne in case you are curious)! Needless to say, I was totally fangirling the entire time we were exploring the palace in addition to enjoying the atmosphere. Also, if you have your student ID card on you, it’s extremely worth it, being only 2€. It is kind of pricey if you don’t have your student ID on you, being about 9.50€, but regardless, I still consider it a must if you ever plan to visit Sevilla!

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Mercury Fountain, which is seen in the background of the Game of Thrones episode.

The cathedral is also a point of extreme interest. Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit it, but with a student ID, I believe it only costs about 4€ and 9€ for an adult admission, which seems like a lot for a cathedral. However, it is considered one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe. It also has a garden filled with orange trees, and a tower in which you can climb.

Sevilla is definitely in the top ten list of cities that I’ve visited in Europe thus far. It’s a hub of beautifully rich culture. I learned the most about Spanish culture while visiting this city with the many different historical sites and monuments.  Plus with the young vibe due to the presence of the university, it’s a great place for young people to go and vacation due to its many bars, restaurants, and night clubs.

I thoroughly enjoyed learning much more about Spanish culture and getting the wonderful opportunity of seeing so many important monuments and buildings that played an important part in the history of the city. However, the thing I enjoyed the most about my time in Sevilla was meeting new people.

Our first night in Sevilla is the one from which my small anecdote comes. As I mentioned briefly, I highly recommend staying at Sevilla Inn Backpackers because it has a fantastic atmosphere, welcoming staff, a fantastic location, and is a hub for fun and interesting people to meet along your travels. The hostel offered a few events that we could participate in, one of which was unlimited sangria on the rooftop terrace for only 2€. So, of course we decided to participate, because firstly, who gives up cheap sangria? Secondly, because of this we were able to meet some really fun and outgoing people that we ended up going out with afterwards.

It is thus during our outing that Sara dropped and lost her phone in a club at 4am and thus why I was crawling on a club floor at said time. BUT, I had the time of my life. I felt young, alive, and free. I felt like I was getting to know the world and other global citizens, learning about their lives and enjoying every second of mine. This is traveling to me. Traveling is about getting to know the world, not just seeing amazing things and doing amazing things. It’s about getting to know different cultures and different ways of life. I will probably most likely never see any of those people again (a Brit, an Italian, a Dutch, an Argentinian, and a handful of other Americans), but I’m glad to have met them and to have known them for the length of time that I did. I know a little bit more about the world now.

These are the stories that you look back on, realizing how crazy it all was and laughing about it. I don’t think I’ll tire of telling people about my crazy adventures in Sevilla.

 

Wonderment in Andalusian hills: my brief but well appreciated stop in Granada

After our time in Valencia, my fellow assistants and I made our way down to Granada. First things first though. Despite the long 8 hour bus ride, we were able to enjoy a gorgeous view the entire way down of both the mountains and the Spanish countryside, 8 hours of constant beauty. Though a longer bus ride means less time in the city, I really value the time spent catching a glimpse of what the smaller parts of a country look like.

Granada was simply this: unlike any other city I’ve seen before. To be honest, I did not know much about Spain and its history before embarking on this two-week adventure, but I was eager to learn. In this, Granada was definitely not a disappointment. Tucked away in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, this city was nothing but breathtaking. I fell in love immediately, getting lost in the city streets near the Airbnb in which we were staying.

The quarter we stayed in is known as Albayzin, and it is the epitome of a picturesque Spanish village. Of course, it’s not a village. It’s just a neighborhood in the city, but it has the feel and the look of a village. The winding, cobblestone streets joined along with the beautifully colored and quaint homes allowed me a small taste of what southern Spanish culture looks like. Another plus of this neighborhood is its location. It rests on a hill that is not only beautiful in and of itself but has the most well known and most gorgeous view of La Alhambra, a beautiful piece of Moorish architecture that is the gem of the city.

Granada has a very rich Moorish history, and you can definitely see the influence it had on the culture. Firstly, La Alhambra is a prime example of its influence. This fortress and palace is a beautiful display of the warm and bright colors, arches, and tiles that exist in many southern Spanish architecture. Though it was later renovated, in some parts, after the Christian conquest, many of the previous features still exist.

The park surrounding La Alhambra is also a great place to see all of the beautiful plants and fountains that exist on the grounds. Unfortunately, this breathtaking palace is not free to go into, being around 14€, and with tickets being booked solid three months ahead of time, we, unfortunately, were not able to go into it. However, it is FREE to walk around parts of it and the park that surrounds it. Here, you can still catch a glimpse of the gardens, the fountains, the beautiful architecture, the tiles, and the cobblestone designs that exist around and on the outside of the palace. I’m sure that it is definitely worth the 14€ to go inside, but if you are thinking of putting this on your list, don’t forget to book your tickets well ahead of time. Also, don’t forget to check out the view from Albayzin either. From there you can get a complete panoramic view of the entire palace, which is definitely worth the long climb up into the hilly quarter, especially at night, when the palace is completely lit up.

If you are already walking around the La Alhambra, I would greatly advise you to continue walking up the mount so that you can see more and more of the city as you get higher and higher as well as provide you the opportunity to stumble upon a trail that will take you into the Sierra Nevada mountains themselves. If you love outdoor activities, I would highly recommend that you go hiking on this trail. I love mountains, and I love hiking. And I especially loved hiking through these mountains. Unfortunately, it was rainy and foggy the one day that we were actually in Granada, but we still decided to enjoy the nature that was so close to where we were staying. What I loved the most about these mountains, in addition to the amazing view of course, was the color of the mud and the rocks. Everything was various shades of reds and oranges, even the rocks themselves. It was beautiful. Maybe to some people this seems like a lame thing to appreciate, but when you aren’t used to seeing so many bold colors just within something as simple as mud, then you tend to really enjoy the view. Plus, hiking in these mountains was great exercise and a FREE activity to fill up our time. Plus, the fog gave the mountains a type of peaceful stillness that I greatly enjoyed.

We also made it a point to venture on the other hill across from La Alhambra, into the gypsy quarter that is on the outskirts of the city, Sacromonte. Even though it was a bit of a hike up the mount to this part of the city, it was well worth the view. This quarter consisted mostly of completely white homes surrounded by windy, tiny cobblestone streets, and tiled mosaics all over. One house that we stumbled upon even had tiled plates displayed on the outside. I’m sure this neighborhood is quite lively at night, for we saw a handful of bars and restaurants throughout. We even ventured into what appeared to be an abandoned convent at the very top of the hill on the edge of even Sacromonte itself, which lent itself to a complete over view of the city down below.

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Lastly, we spent the rest of our time just exploring the city, its tiny streets up high and down below, admiring the quaint beauty, and the many various colors and types of architecture. This is what I loved most about the city. The buildings and the streets themselves tell the history of the city, the many different cultural influences it’s had along the way. The city itself tells its own story, and even though we only spent one full day here and even though it rained the entire time, it was still one of my favorite cities that we traveled through during our trip. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Plus, if all of those beautiful views weren’t enough to convince you, ending the day sipping on a drink overlooking the view of La Alhambra at night while a street performer plays traditional Spanish music should definitely give you that final push. That was the perfect way to end such a great day of discovery.

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