For 20 years, my friend Vicki Sullivan had been talking about the red roofs of Lisbon. She caught a brief glimpse of the Portuguese countryside on a one-night layover decades ago and had been determined to return ever since.
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.
I would have loved to linger in the cool shadows of the many royal chambers, but, too soon, the palace guards shooed us out.
An Inferno to rival Dante'sWe decided to spend our first evening motoring along the coast, and set off toward Cascais and Estoril, an area known as the Portuguese Riviera. The drive alternated between wooded hills laced with stone walls and long stretches of sandy beach.
Approaching the Bay of Cascais, we noticed gray clouds gathering — ideal weather for visiting Boca do Inferno (or "mouth of hell").
Here the sea rushes in under a rock arch, booming and crashing onto itself in an abyss formed by centuries of marine erosion.
At its haunted best with a storm brewing, watching it was mesmerizing. We were alone in the darkening drizzle, except for a row of fearless night fishermen. The narrowness of the ledge on which they perched, the violence of the sea and the blackening sky made our own rocky pathway feel all the more dangerous. Shivering, we climbed back up to the road.
Morning found us on a winding road climbing the highest peak of the Sintra mountain range. At the top is Pena National Palace, which is often shrouded in fog.
So it was that day as we walked the wooded path from the parking area. Turning a corner we suddenly faced the drawbridge to a mythical castle that loomed out of the mist.
With immense stone serpents and roaring lion's head, crenelated parapets and soaring Gothic towers washed in gold, this is the stuff of fairy tales. It was turned into a palace in the 1830s by order of King Ferdinand (Queen Maria II's Bavarian consort) and is said to have influenced King Ludwig II's German castle Neuschwanstein, which then inspired Walt Disney's version at Disneyland.
About 50 years after King Ferdinand, Pena Palace was a favorite of King Carlos I and Queen Amélia. After Carlos' assassination in 1908, Amélia lived at the castle almost permanently, and so it was here that she spent her last night before her exile from Portugal when the republic was proclaimed in 1910.
Everything within seems to have frozen at that moment. From the butler's pantry to the queen's bedroom and bath, each room is fully furnished just as it was when she left, as though awaiting her imminent return.
This is the lifeLord BYRON called Sintra a "glorious Eden"; Sir Francis Cook created his own natural paradise at nearby Monserrate gardens. He imported a mix of rare botanic species and installed waterfalls and lagoons. Sir Francis bought architectural pieces (including an Indian arch, the spoils of war from the unsuccessful revolt of a maharajah in 1857) and incorporated them into the design. The goal was to achieve an effect of uncultivated beauty.
Vicki and I quickly became accustomed to the trappings of royalty. We dined in palaces, wandered the queens' gardens and slept in rooms formerly used by the royal entourage. This was accomplished by visiting several of Portugal's historic pousadas, culturally significant properties now converted to luxury hotels and restaurants and run by the Portuguese government.
Spending a night at the pousada in Queluz, on the outskirts of Lisbon (10 miles from Sintra), was a particularly majestic experience; it's on the grounds of the royal palace and formerly housed the Royal Guard. Though our room was not as luxurious as that of Princess Maria Francisca Benedita (1746-1829), with her priceless antiques and crystal chandelier, it was lovely nonetheless.
We devoted one afternoon to exploring the grounds of the 16th century São Filipe Castle, above the town of Setúbal, an hour's drive southeast of Sintra and built to defend against attacks from the British. We spent most of the afternoon sipping tea under an umbrella on the terrace of this castle (also a pousada), watching as boats plied the harbor. How easily we had fallen into the leisured tempo of the playground of kings.
Cabo da Roca restored our democratic sensibilities.
Here the mountains of Sintra end suddenly, in a sheer cliff almost 500 feet above the sea. We stood on the brink. Directly below us waves pounded furiously, swallowing up rocks in a white froth, dashing royal pretensions and reminding us of our fragile mortality.
Yet as we watched from continental Europe's westernmost edge, a glowing sun slipped behind the ocean, creating a crimson spectacle. Kings and queens never dreamed up anything more glorious.
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A regal visit to Sintra
From LAX to Lisbon, Continental, Air France, Lufthansa, British and KLM offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $600.
We booked our car through http://www.portugal-auto-rentals.com , a company that represents Hertz, Budget and Avis and allows you to compare prices. It also offers weekend pickup and drop-off.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 351 (the country code for Portugal) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Casa Miradouro, 55 Rua Sotto Mayor, Sintra; 21-910-71-00, fax 21-924-18-36, http://www.casa-miradouro.com . Every window in this lovely 1894 manor house opens onto a beautiful view of the ocean and nearby palaces. It has been fully restored. There is no elevator. The Casa will be closed Jan. 9 to Feb. 19. Rates begin at $112 double.
Vila Marques, 1 Rua Sotto Mayor, Sintra; 21-923-00-27, fax 21-924-11-55. Though not as impeccable as Casa Miradouro, Vila Marques offers the same great location. Prices begin at $50 double.
Pousada Dona Maria I, Lg. Palácio Nacional de Queluz; 21-435-61-58, fax 21-435-61-89, http://www.pousadas.pt . On the outskirts of Lisbon. The royal family began using this country mansion as a summer seat in 1747, adapting and embellishing it over the next 30 years. Its opulence eventually rivaled that of France's Palace of Versailles. Today, the east wing is the official residence for visiting heads of state, and the government has opened one of the buildings as a luxury hotel. Rates begin at $230, which includes breakfast
WHERE TO EAT:
Confeitaria Nacional, Praça da Figueira, Lisbon; 21-342-44-70. In Lisbon's Baixa district and mobbed around lunchtime. The cafe, which was founded in 1829, is a good place for a chicken sandwich and, yes, fabulous pastries, cookies and desserts. Sandwiches $8-$10.
Cozinha Velha Restaurant, at Pousada Dona Maria I (see above). The restaurant occupies a wing of the palace and was originally the royal kitchen. You can still see the enormous open fireplace where meats were roasted, as well as the huge table where meals were prepared. Excellent food, formal yet friendly service (the wait staff includes a number of students eager to practice their English). Lunch for two (no wine) about $50, about double that for dinner.
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, also known as Pastéis de Belém, 84-92 Rua de Belém, Lisbon; 213-638-0778. This unpretentious cafe (established in 1837) serves creamy custard tarts worthy of a special trip. Don't let the crowds dissuade you; tables turn quickly. Prices begin about $1.
Piriquita, 1 Rua das Padarias, Sintra; 219-230-626. Right off the main square, across from the Sintra National Palace, this popular bakery and cafe has legendary queijada pastries (beginning at 80 cents), though I preferred the travesseiros, which have a crispier bottom layer and are about $1.25.
TO LEARN MORE:
Portuguese National Tourist Office, (800) 767-8842, http://www.portugal.org/tourism .
— Carole ChristieCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times