Portugal 2007 Part 3: Sintra and Lisbon again

Originally posted September 22 2009 on em411.com

The third and final instalment of my Portuguese trilogy…

Continued from Part One and Part Two

Sintra looked like some sort of fairytale place. I hadn’t heard of it before planning the trip to Portugal but after reading only a few paragraphs in a guidebook I knew I wanted to go.
The town itself is an UNESCO world heritage site and is only a 40 minute train ride from Lisbon. Pedro had told me that the main station in Lisbon (Rossio) was closed so I would have to use Entrecampos instead. The train line runs over the main road and when you approach Entrecampos from the south, there is a sign that tells you that the entrance is immediately to the right, which takes you to a dead end, walking under the tunnel and then taking a right turn I actually walked past the entrance and kept going until I came to a bridge that this time took me over the railway, from there I realised that I could see the platforms and waiting passengers back the way I’d came…retracing my steps I discovered that the entrance, a dark passageway, was clearly marked by the words “Water of Portugal”. So next time I’m in Lisbon looking for the bus station I will presumably look out for the Portuguese gas company!
Once inside there was a choice of escalators taking you to each of the four platforms, though I had no idea which to pick. I emerged on one of them but there was nowhere to buy tickets. I discovered through, that the escalators at the far end of the platform took you below to some shops and a cafe, and that going a further floor below took you to the ticket offices, where the main entrance was clearly marked on the opposite/northern side of the main road. I bought a ticket and returned to the platforms, looking at each departure board before realising that not a single one mentioned Sintra. My guidebook said take a direct train to Sintra, which is the end of the line, but according to the info on the platforms, none of the trains went there so I went back downstairs to discover that all I had to do was change at Agualva-Cacém. Returning to the platform I realised that in my brief visit to Entrecampos station I had already went RIGHT, UP, LEFT, DOWN, DOWN, UP, UP, DOWN, UP, DOWN, UP, DOWN, UP, DOWN, UP, DOWN, DOWN, UP, UP. So I did wonder whether the planners were addicted to Sonic the hedgehog when designing the station.

It cost me 3.40€ for my ticket and once on the train I realised that I could have topped up the Viva card that I had used on the metro and trams and the cost of my journey would have been slightly cheaper. Two American women sitting along from me used this option and despite procuring a map of the rail network from somewhere asked the conductor “does this train go to Sintra?” they then asked how many stops it was to Sintra. Clearly not Cartographers by profession, I wondered if they had struggled more than me getting this far. The conductor advised them to change in 2 stops and then get on the next train for 2 stops and he repeated this when he came to check my ticket. We got off 2 stops later and waited for the Sintra train. “Is this it?” one of the Americans asked as the clearly marked Sintra pulled into the station. After sitting on the train for 1 out of only 2 stops one of them said “Is this Sintra? I guess this is it?” While they were struggling with the basics of railway travel a Portuguese passenger leaned over and asked if they had trains in America. Well, he should have, he actually he just informed them to wait until the next and final stop.

When you arrive at the station you look up onto a hill and see the Castle of the Moors commanding a strategic location, walk past the modern art sculptures into the main part of town and you find the royal palace, walk past here and another hill emerges, perched atop this is the colourful
Pena palace, keep walking, past the beautiful Town hall and you come to Quinta da Regaleira, a mansion with massive labyrinth and grotto filled gardens and an eccentric history. There is also a modern art museum, the Seteais Palace (now a hotel) and surrounding the town is a nature park and mountains, where you can also find the Monserrate Palace and the Capuchos convent. I spent one day here but you could spend a few more, and it’s near the coast and the most westerly point of mainland Europe. Actually, I would advise everyone to spend a few days here because it is quaint, full of things to see and is a huge change to the bustle of Lisbon.

A “return” on the “sightseeing” bus was 4.50€ and you can buy tickets from the tourist info/ticket office in the train station. I had expected the ticket to be an all day hop on/hop off affair but now know that you need to ask for the more expensive Day Rover ticket. You can always walk, which you should do if you have the time and energy.
A sightseeing bus was waiting was just outside the train station but the driver was a sourpuss asking 2 eager passengers to get off the bus while he had a cigarette. The doors were open, but we all stood waiting while the driver smoked. When he finally sat down the same couple barged their way to the front of the queue only to be told that they had bought tickets for the wrong bus. They left dejected. The next couple were then faced with the same onslaught. “These are not valid! Where did you get these?” he demanded, “from the tourist info office inside” they replied, as if there was a massive counterfeiting operation taking place under his nose. He eventually took the tickets from them and apologised saying that he would be having words with someone later…

My first stop of the day was the Pena Palace . Admission was 11€ and I usually have a 10€ cut off for visitor attractions, however I couldn’t see the palace for the trees and wasn’t leaving without a photo! They did a combined ticket that granted entry to both the Palace and Moorish castle for an extra 2€. So I opted for that and went inside the gates, where there was a bus. 1€ each way, or you can walk up the hill for free. I walked.

The Pena Palace is a curious multi-coloured affair and I’d love to bore you on the history, but to be honest I can’t remember any of it! I spent at least an hour in the palace and then an hour or so in the grounds making my way to the
Moorish castle a short walk away. If you are afraid of heights, or have bad asthma then it probably isn’t recommended climbing to the highest tower. I finished my last bottle of water just as I reached the summit and luckily there was a rubbish bin there. I’d hate to be the person who has to empty it everyday.

After I’d returned to ground level I made my way to the Quinta De Regalia. Pedro from Test Tube had recommended this place above all the others in Sintra. It cost 6€ to enter and immediately reminded me of the Bomarzo monster park that I had visited in Italy, only more bizarre, bigger and better. I spent a good few hours working my way through the labyrinth-filled grounds photographing the ornate chapel, grottoestowers and half built wishing wells. While some of the tunnels are lit a torch is recommended and luckily I had one. The palace itself is very impressive, more so from the outside, with the intricate carvings and gargoyles, but inside there is a wealth of historical information, building plans and photos. You also get a good view of the Pena palace from outside the building. It was getting late so when I decided to leave I realised that the main entrance/exit was now, erm…closed and there was no sign of anybody anywhere. A sign suggested that an alternate exit lay to the left somewhere but none of the doors budged so I headed back inside the palace to find someone when I noticed the French, or possibly French-Canadian couple who I had met earlier heading to the exit. I watched as they went through the exact same routine as me. I came down towards them and they shouted over to me asking if I knew how to escape. Together we established that the door to exit was just up one set of stairs, down another and had a stiff handle. Some clearer instructions for tourists would’ve helped but who knows perhaps we were being recorded for Portugal’s top rated “Escape from Quinta De Regalia”, where the Portuguese laugh at idiots of various nationalities who are so close yet so far…

After escaping I debated where to have dinner. I walked past several establishments that looked enticing but Pedro had recommended a particular place in Lisbon so I hopped on the next train, Rossio bound (the main station was open after all!) and luckily the restaurant was near the station. I made my way there past eager waiters trying to lure me elsewhere but I brushed them aside and when I got to the door of “Casa Do Alentejo” (House of the Alentejo) there was no one touting for business. A good sign I thought as I walked inside. Apparently it was a former 17th century Moorish palace and it was very ornate but would fall under the category of “faded grandeur”. The restaurant was upstairs, along with a laid out dimly-litballroom, it too had seen better days. Pedro had told me that the Alentejo region was famed for its food and that this place served the best food from the area and most importantly, it was a place were the locals ate. It was a Friday night and I hadn’t booked, I wrote my name on the waiting list and waited behind a large group of Germans. The locals may eat here but so do a lot of foreigners I noted. I txted Sara, Hugo’s girlfriend and agreed to meet up after dinner.

When I was seated I decided to see if the wine lived up to the reputation described in my guidebook. The cheapest glass of wine was 4€ but the cheapest bottle was 5€. It was my last night in Lisbon so guess what I asked for? When the waiter took my order he gasped “bottle?” and mimed a bottle shape with his hands. I regretted this decision soon though as the wine was crap and I could only stomach 2 small glasses before giving up.

I ordered Dourada (grilled Dory) that came with garlic, grilled potatoes, courgettes and carrots, and while I waited for my main course meat and bread arrived, which I ate. Only later did I realise that this would cost me a whopping 7€ for the meat and a further 1,60€ for the bread! The fish, when it arrived, was actually pretty damn good. While eating it I was aware that the couple who had just arrived next to me were not very happy. They spoke French and it seemed that the Portuguese waiter also spoke French, or thought he spoke French. He was guilty of a mistake that surely even I wouldn’t have made. They had asked for a “rouge” wine, but a white one was opened and poured into their glasses. A discussion ensued that went something like:
“Oui, Rouge!”
“Non Rouge!”
“Oui Oui, Rouge!”
A finger was pointed in the direction of my white wine which made a change from the constant staring at my dinner. I felt like butting in to tell them that my wine was not what I expected either. In the waiter’s defence though, the couple looked about as much fun as a wet and windy weekend stuck with your least favourite relatives in a leaky caravan in a bog-ridden field in Wales in December during a power cut and bus strike. When their food arrived, things didn’t improve, they picked at their food cautiously as if expecting to find human digits, rat shit, or something equally repugnant inside and their chat, even though I didn’t understand much more than the occasional word was morose, managing to make the French accent sound as sexy as a scratched gramophone recording of a 40-a-day smoker with laryngitis impersonating a crow dying a slow and agonising death from bird flu. I got the impression that the basis of their relationship was that they both hated everything, including each other. They left before me, without tipping or pudding, whereas I went for Cecida (a slice of tart) with prune ice cream. It was lovely. I had a coffee to finish and my bill came to 28€. I left 30€ and headed out to meet Hugo and Sara, who had suggested meeting in ‘Crew Hassan’. Despite being on the same street I had trouble finding it and had to ask a waiter in a café for directions, he pointed further down the street and said “do you see the bins?” I nodded, “it’s there” he said, and it was, up a dimly-lit flight of stairs with no “water of Portugal” sign for encouragement. It was the sort of Bohemian place you rarely see in Britain, it looked like someone’s flat, actually it probably was someone’s flat but he’d left his doors open, bought a lot of cheap booze and spread the word. I hung about the bar waiting for Hugo and Sara and someone approached me and said something. I asked him if he spoke English and he said it cost 2€ to enter. It seemed unlikely that a random person who emerged from the crowd worked here and knew who hadn’t paid but hey, maybe this was someone’s flat after all and being a gatecrasher I paid him and got a beer served in a small plastic cup from the bar. I sat down at a table and a couple approached me. I thought it was Hugo and Sara but they just asked if the seats next to me were free, I gave them up and resorted to standing near the entrance again hoping that I wasn’t charged another 2€. Hugo and Sara arrived and we sat down and chatted. It turned out that neither of them had ever been here before, they just suggested it because it was on the same street as “Casa Do Alentejo”. They asked how long I had known Dan, who had given me their contact details and I truthfully replied that it was only a few days! Luckily this did not seem to scare them off so we had a few more beers. After a few visits to the bar the girl behind decided to teach me how night life worked in the place beside the bins, explaining that you get a discount for each empty cup returned, and we had already had quite a few beers. I looked behind and realised that someone had made off with our empties. D’oh! An acoustic gig started and finished in the room next door while a TV in our room played some awful art school project. If ever there was a contender for a future STFU venue this was it!

I had to go to the toilet and discovered that there was none. Presumably the only toilet on the floor was reserved for bar staff, so instead you had to make your way outside the building onto the street below and then into the record shop next door, which was held open so you could use the one-and-only toilet. I would not look forward to spending a busy New Year here!

We decided to head elsewhere and inspected a few places before ending up beside the river at an outdoor bar. Once again toilet facilities were a curious affair as you had to use the toilets belonging to the shopping centre next door (getting an alcohol license in Portugal must be much easier than in the UK). We stayed here until it closed and then headed to the nearby square to catch a night bus. Hugo and Sara kindly got off at the same stop as me and explained how to get back to the hotel and asked if I would be ok. All I had to do was walk straight down a main road, so I knew I’d be fine. I only saw a few people on the way back to hotel, mostly homeless people sleeping, and when I arrived at the hotel that’s what I did too, I slept straight away because in only a few hours time again I would be awake again.

I got up early and packed my belongings away. As I left the hotel I asked the owner about getting to the airport. He told me to buy 2 single trips at the metro and this would be valid on the metro and the bus. Like Porto, Lisbon uses a RFID chip in a credit card sized ticket for metro, tram, bus and regional train transport, as I discovered on the way to Sintra. Rather than purchase a new ticket every time you travel you can top up the same card, which costs less than a new card. The problem with this however, is that they can be easily damaged and once that happens whatever credit is on the card is lost and I had already bent my first viva travel card, so had put its replacement carefully in my wallet where I thought it would be safe. I topped it up with 1.60€ for 2 trips and the machine gladly took my money. On exiting the metro however I had a bit of trouble as the turnstile wouldn’t let me through as it claimed that my card was invalid. I had to scan it about 20 times before it eventually recognised that there was sufficient credit to let me escape.

I found my way around the corner to a bus stop full of waiting Germans. I was ready to ask if they were waiting for the bus to the airport in “Deutsch”, since this is one of the few things I know how to say in German but then realised I’d probably make an arse of it anyway, besides they all had lots of luggage, where else would they be going?!

The bus arrived and I got on first and scanned my viva card. The machine beeped and flashed, which it does when you have insufficient credit on your card. The rest of the passengers got on behind me and used the other card scanner without a problem, while the one I was using continued to beep. The driver said, “look at the message, your card has expired!” I told him that I had just topped it up with 2 single journeys and had only used one and explained that it had taken me 20 attempts to escape the metro and that if I just kept trying…beep….beep…beep…
With a bus load of irate passengers heading to the airport I finally relented and paid the 1.40€ standard rate bus fare.

Lisbon airport is very expensive, even by airport standards; I presume it is because they need to fund the building of a new airport further outside the city. The average price of a sandwich was 5.75€ and I kept looking till I found one at the bargain price of 3.50€ which I purchased from a woman who looked like she had never ever smiled. I smiled at her and thanked her with an “obrigado” as she gave me my change but her face didn’t twinge. They say you get what you pay for and my 3.50€ sandwich was rubbish. If only I’d paid the extra 2.25€, I might have got a smile.

My flight took off on time and I got chatting to the 2 women beside me. The furthest away woman had a hearing aid and couldn’t hear me, so the other one had to relay the conversation, but she struggled to understand me. I’m not sure if it was the accent or that I was just talking too fast but the conversation went something like:
“I was in Lisbon for 4 days”
“In Lisbon, for 4 days”
“I think he said something about Mel Gibson”
“No, I said I was in Lisbon”
“Oh, I think he said he is Mel Gibson”
So there I was 8 days in Portugal and I had conversed perfectly with many Portuguese yet on the plane home the native English speakers were struggling to understand me. The conversation soon turned to booze as it always does with Brits, the old dears had been introduced to Caipirinha while on holiday. None of them could pronounce it properly and none of them knew “what were in it” but they all thought that it was “nice”. I expected that after arriving home they would all sit down to a nice cup of tea and watch Emmerdale, and with that thought I touched down in a dull drizzly Manchester and jumped on the next train to Leeds where I would be performing later that day at STFU Leeds.

On the rail journey back to Glasgow from Leeds I had the misfortune of being chucked off the train in Edinburgh due to there being a “driver shortage”, even though the train was scheduled to terminate to Glasgow and presumably a driver had gotten us that far. We were all told to get off and get the next train, which everyone did and the train disappeared…in the direction of Glasgow. It was only once the train was far far away that we realised that there were no more Cross County trains and so nobody had a valid ticket for the remainder of the day’s trains. Most people got on the next train to Glasgow. Cue moaning from the conductor who knew nothing about this but accepted my invalid ticket anyway, luckily I was on the last carriage so got spared of the original arguing that would no doubt have taken place. I arrived in Glasgow later than planned wishing that I was still in Portugal.

The End.

A few final remarks on Portugal, If you can’t find what you are looking for in a supermarket, keep looking, they might have it in more than one location. Empty shelf for sunscream on the toiletries aisle? Try next to the dog food instead!
And very important – don’t forget to hold your nose when walking down back streets. They may reek of pee. Yes, I found plenty of these in Lisbon too.

Originally posted September 22 2009 on em411.com

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