No need to storm the castle
Royal treatment is easy to come by in Sintra, where visitors dine in palaces, sleep in luxury and enjoy the playground of kings.
Pena Palace was created in 1838 and is said to have influenced Neuschwanstein, the German castle copied by Disney. (Lee Snider / For The Times)
Now, with both our youngest children away at college, we saw an opportunity we couldn't pass up. We would rent a car and explore the coastal areas around Lisbon — whitewashed villages, lavish palaces and fishermen dragging in their nets.
We landed in Lisbon and headed for Sintra, a favorite summer residence of Portuguese kings, 15 miles from the capital. With fat clumps of wisteria hanging like fragrant bunting from fences and stonework and winding cobblestone passageways lined with ancient rose-colored stucco walls, Sintra is storybook Portugal, a good base from which to explore the region.
It was easy to recognize Casa Miradouro, the elegantly restored villa where we stayed. In accordance with a style popular in the 19th century, its exterior is wrapped in wide horizontal stripes of pink and cream.
The owner, U. Frederic Kneubuhl, invites guests to linger in the spacious sunlit parlors of the first floor, where one grand room opens gracefully onto another and high ceilings are embellished with intricate crown moldings and center medallions.
Our room looked out onto the Sintra mountains. From our small balcony, Vicki could feast on red roofs to her heart's content, while far up on the crest we spied Pena Palace. Putting that at the top of the next day's schedule, on our first day we wandered Sintra's historic quarter.
A few minutes' walk brought us to the main square, where our first bit of business was to find an Internet cafe and tell husbands and children that we had arrived safely.
Sintra's National Palace sits regally on one side of the plaza. In front, a tiered fountain gurgled under a brilliant blue sky. Shop windows beckoned, overflowing with pottery and textiles.
Music from a loudspeaker somewhere above filled the air. But something wasn't quite right. Louis Armstrong's gravelly American voice provided a curious counterpart to the murmur of Portuguese along the street.
Meanwhile, where the Internet cafe was supposed to be we found only an insanely crowded bakery. We couldn't get in the door, much less reach the counter to see what had drawn such a horde. With impatient customers lined up six deep, neither of us had the nerve to work our way to the front and then fumble with questions — in English. But I was curious; something irresistible must have been hidden inside.
Vicki began a door-to-door computer search, and I followed, noting that Satchmo had given way to a different, soulful song. Portuguese. I was pleased. The e-mail quest finally took us under an archway around the corner from the bakery and one flight up. Here we discovered Loja do Arco, a shop with books, music, handicrafts and, up more creaking narrow steps to the third floor, the Internet cafe. Here too, on the windowsill, was the loudspeaker piping music — now Eartha Kitt — into the square below.
I looked around idly while chatting with the friendly proprietress. She seemed convinced I would want to buy that CD, and I couldn't understand why. "Not the one playing now," I insisted. I was looking for something Portuguese. She lit up, nodding, pressing the disc all the more eagerly into my hand. Yes, very Portuguese! Look!
"Coimbra," read the title, and, in English, "April in Portugal." It was April. And we were in Portugal. Was this an omen? Still baffled as to what I was getting, I pulled out my euros.
What a stroke of luck. This CD included interpretations of Portuguese music by 20 artists over the space of 65 years, with vocalists including Armstrong and Kitt and Portugal's own queen of fado, Amália Rodrigues.
Stumbling across this treasure after less than three hours in the country seemed to portend the best kind of trip: one with lots of surprises.
E-mails sent and purchases complete, we prepared to head across the street to the National Palace. But first I had one more question: Would our new friend write down the name of the item that was drawing such throngs to the bakery below?
It is called a queijada and is a Sintra specialty. Of course, I had to try one.
Though the crowd had thinned, they were serving No. 23 — and I was No. 47. We inched our way to the counter. When our turn came, we ordered queijadas as well as another pastry called a travesseiro, our friend's recommendation. The queijadas were good, the travesseiros even better.
Finally, an hour before the doors of the National Palace were to close for the afternoon, we crossed the square and entered Portugal's only palace to survive from the Middle Ages. Despite having served eight centuries of Christian monarchs, the palace has many Moorish influences. It's known for its magnificent azulejos (terra-cotta tiles), but I also loved the distinctive painted ceilings.