Monday, January 11, 2010

Way Out West: Sintra

The train left the shed at Rossio, the suburbs passed in high-rise blocks painted orange and yellow and grey, washing lines from fifth-floor windows, the loping slate-grey arches of the Aqueduct of Free Waters, graffitied platforms, building sites and vandalised stations with metal bins covered in marker pen scrawl. Only the tourists were left by the time we got to Sintra. There was a whitewashed station building with orange-red roof tiles, done out in colonial style but marred by a Pizza Hut where the ticket office should have been. The centre lay on the other side of a valley, white-spired and gleaming in the sun.

It was a long, not quite as steep as you would have imagined climb up to the Moor Castle, on cobbled streets past a lemon-coloured church and a house where Hans-Christian Andersen stayed in 1866, then stone steps between moss-covered boulders and, finally, a soul-crushing assortment of stones raised at irregular height from the ground. I was aiming for Sintra's highest point, the peak of Cruz Alta, but the semi-friendly guard at the Pena Palace assured me that the only way to reach it was through the park, which like the castle used to be free. In Sintra nearly everyone is semi-friendly: even the maps cut off right at the most useful section.

It was one of those places that seemed to exist solely to suck euros out of tourists' pockets: souvenir shops, cafes with pratos da dia in every major language laminated to the door and the tourist office handed out a sheet of paper listing admission fees along with their photocopied map. The only things that didn't cost five euros were the places that charged more.

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