BootsnAll Travel Network


Sintra does not feel like Portugal. For one thing, it´s overrun with tourists, many of whom have brought their cars. There is gridlock so bad that the mounted police can´t even get their horses between the cars to direct traffic. The tourists are bad-tempered. Maybe it´s the heat. Maybe it´s the crowding. But I´ve seen people hit their kids, drivers shout at each other and curse and make ugly hand-signals, and lovers yell at each other and walk off in different directions. The gardens at the Regaleira Palace are magnificent, just as the websites I studied before I left showed them to be. My cold is going away, thanks to some magical potion I got at the Farmacia called Cêgripe. I´m back to being myself and full of good cheer and wonder, but the press of people around me is not a happy press.

There are reasons for this, both long-lasting and temporal. First, Sintra did not grow, like most cities, around work done by the people on the land. It is a green mountain half an hour from Lisbon, and it was built as a vacation-spot for royalty, and then in the 19th Century, for multi-millionaires who made their money by plundering Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, and Goa. Perhaps something of that history has sifted into the energy of the town. Second, this is early August, and everybody in Europe who can take a vacation has taken one, and far too many of them have piled on top of each other in this little hilltop full of run-down palaces and seedy mansions that are not what they once were. I wander around in silence, watching, looking, and observing the frenzy. Last night I ordered fish soup and was served an ugly, tasteless brown gruel with nothing in it but some very soggy macaroni. It was the first bad food I have eaten on this trip.

Everywhere I look, there are For Sale signs on places that would take a few hunded million bucks to fix up: places, I mean, with 50 to 200 rooms. I´d love to see Oprah or Bill Gates buy one (or more), hire an army of Portuguese workers to fix it up, and then turn it into a college for talented students from former Portuguese colonies to come study social work, trauma therapy, health care, and AIDS education, skills much needed in their home countries. The government has taken several of these palaces and renovated them (probably with EU money) so that they now belong to all the people. I approve of that. But there is more that could be done. Many old places have been bought by a new race of millionaires who have fitted them out with turrets, towers, and fanciful fripperies that reflect their self-indulgent tastes, just as the former versions of the mansions did before them.

I watch, I think, I observe, and I enjoy the touristic frenzy for what it is, even though it is not to my taste. The haze over Vigo was in fact smoke from all the forest fires, and there is smoke hanging in the air even here, miles and miles to the south. Last night the Castle of the Moors looked like it was a medieval hell-mouth: smoke swirling around the garish colored lights, the castle walls obscured by all the smoke. Tomorrow I am hoping to get to Cabo da Roca, the real end of the (European) world. What will that be? After that, two days in Lisbon and then back to Texas. I watch, I think, I observe, and I realize that this month has been more than all I had hoped for. I´m glad I left Sintra for near the end. Perhaps if I had not experienced Portugal as vividly and with as much love as I have, I would have fallen for its faded glory. But now, despite the magnificence of the gardens of Regaleira, Sintra looks to me like a woman who was loved for her beauty and not for her soul in her youth, who has not aged gracefully, who wears too much makeup and dyes her hair some color that does not occur in nature, and who depends on flatterers to convince her that she has not changed.

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One response to “Sintra”

  1. stephenbrody says:

    I’m afraid your reaction is all too correct, and you’re by no means the only visitor to say so. If it comes to that, you’re in elevated company, because Alfred Lord Tennyson and a friend felt much the same in 1859. They’d expected, they said, “a region little touched by man but rich in nature”. Instead it was much like Malvern or the Bois de Boulogne, crowded with people sauntering about pointlessly, and so they didn’t tarry. This is perhaps the mistake. The tourist business is concentrated right in the centre of the vila velha and around the more notable monuments, whereas a only a short walk from there will take you into much more bucolic and unpopulated regions – as I see you realised, from a subsequent entry, when you discovered what I assume to be the Miradouro de Vigia. It has to be remembered also that Sintra always was, and still largely is, ‘exclusive’, its more delicious aspects are carefully concealed behind high walls ands closed gates for those fortunate few who have the ‘entrée’, or these days just for those who have the cash.

    In the sense that Sintra was never anything but a resort town – it had no other purpose or use – it can hardly be said to be ruined; except, I might say snobbishly, by being made available to anyone and everyone. This objection was raised in the 1870’s (I think it was) when its aficionados protested that the proposed railway line would bring hordes of ‘day-trippers’ and other such undesirables. Indeed it has. Sintra is an obligatory excursion from Lisbon, and every forty minutes another trainload of undesirables is unloaded, most of them without a great deal of real interest in their surroundings and some not sure where they are. That’s not to mention the busloads of sheep on organised excursions who are not even in control of their own movements. And then there’s that greater menace, the independent motorist, who believes he has a right to hurl his machine into wherever he wishes to take it and leave it there while he stretches his legs for five minutes. These are the consequences of ‘democracy’, which I have as little hesitation in condemning as I’m perfectly happy to listen to contrary opinions. I’d go so far as to say that I think most people should be confined to their own houses, because although travel may broaden the mind for some few who wish to be broadened, for the majority the television does so more effectively and decently….

    Having vented that spleen I’ll try and be more reasonable: Sintra goes through ‘periods’, and at the moment it’s riding on the crest of a wave. Just a few years back it was barely more than a ghost town, and there were evenings when there was literally not a soul to be seen in the town. There were a couple of cafés and a grocer’s shop. The monuments were grimy with age and decay and most of the quintas were abandoned and falling down. Personally, I thought that was wonderful, because it was possible to wander around alone everywhere and lets one’s mind do the same. Had it stayed like that, of course, there wouldn’t be much left by now. Once Portugal joined the European Union, as I suppose it had little choice but to do, it was decreed by our betters that this country was to be devoted to tourism. Agriculture was forcibly stopped and enormous amounts of money were grabbed and utterly wasted or worse by politicians and others, although enough of it filtered through to pay for an extremely costly programme of refurbishment. The sums that have been spent on the national palaces here don’t bear thinking about, though it has to be said that the work was very well done. Now it has to be paid back, which means cramming as many as will fit of paying ‘visitors’ into each of the refurbished buildings – including the Quinta da Regaleira for instance, acquired by the local Council for just that purpose. One has to decide for oneself here which is better; should Sintra – and of course many other places throughout Europe – continue to exist at the cost of being little more than a museum object for gawpers, or should it be allowed to follow its natural course for a little longer for the benefit of the romantically-minded few? Well, it’s hardly worth the argument because the decision is inevitable. There were attempts, a year or so ago, to ban motor transport from Sintra at weekends. For those of us live here it was blissful, and for the first time for ages I could open my bedroom window and hear the birds in Wolf Valley below; but the proprietors of the rubbishy shops that prey on the tourists complained that business was ruined because no-one of course bothered to walk the half-kilometre from a parking zone in Portela. I think that makes my point: someone who is not prepared to make a small effort to actively experience what he’s come to see shouldn’t be there. The traffic-free idea was quietly shelved and the woman whose plan it had been ended up in jail for ‘corruption’ – no doubt richly deserved for other reasons, but we don’t have to worry about her because before long she was a delegate or whatever they’re called to Brussels and making more mischief there.

    After this it will hardly come as a surprise if I pick you up on one or two superficial things. There are plenty of houses for sale, but I think I can assure you none with two hundred rooms. One of the largest, which took years and years to dispose of for a relatively modest price considering, had fifty-one rooms including several semi-underground chambers and a lot of vague spaces. They’re difficult to sell because the upkeep is prohibitive. It’s not correct that new owners fit them up with “fanciful fripperies”, all that sort of thing is pretty rigorously controlled. The main crime is to make them too clinical and ‘tidy’. I’m afraid I disagree entirely with the idea of colleges for students from the former colonies, there are enough of those places elsewhere and all they teach to young people who should be doing something better is how to ‘get on’ in business. Finally, the “medieval hell-mouth” spectacle you witnessed is actually caused by the effect of the castelo illuminations through mist and low cloud; not smoke or artifice; myself, I think it’s better than the original stage settings for Götterdämmerung …..

    But that’s quite enough from you for one day, Brody ….

  2. stephenbrody says:

    Sticking my beak in yet again, because I can never resist any intelligent observation of this town (and how few they are!), I have to say something about this: “Sintra looks to me like a woman who was loved for her beauty and not for her soul in her youth, who has not aged gracefully, who wears too much makeup and dyes her hair some color that does not occur in nature, and who depends on flatterers to convince her that she has not changed”. I do believe, when I first came here, that I said to myself something similar. It’s not true. This ‘woman’ was loved, by the inhabitants anyway, because the external beauty was the outward expression of the soul. What matter now if she uses a little maquillage, and who doesn’t in one form or another? There’s nothing wrong with careful artifice if it makes things more pleasant, and even less if it’s employed to illuminate some idea otherwise invisible….
    One of my favourite Sintrensas, who once led a very grand life on an international scale, who must have been very lovely and desirable, is now as an old woman I suppose I have to say ‘reduced’ to inhabiting the ruins of her former splendour, to cutting her own hair, to staying all day in once gorgeous night-attire and ancient embroidered dressing gowns because she has no other clothes. Naturally she hates it, “it’s not amusing to be old”, and yet sometimes that face, only delicately painted if at all because she can’t afford the cosmetics either, reveals the bones and character that have sustained her through many difficulties and affronts – the scornfully pained downward twist of an aristocratic mouth, the raised nose, the immaculately straight back even in a collapsing armchair, the ability to say exactly the right thing for every circumstance, the self control never to be spiteful or resentful: no young woman can ever do that so well. “Ai”, she says in that Portuguese way, “my mind rambles, you must forgive me”. Oh yes, any mind at all rambles, the thickets it wanders into are what counts ….

  3. admin says:

    I click my heels together and bow deeply, with gratitude, in my best gentlemanly fashion: to you, and to your Sintrensa. Would that I were a quarter of the woman that Sintrensa is; your words bring her to life in my imagination and set her up as a model of dignity and grace, a star to steer by, so long as I continue aging. I’m glad I was so foolish as to say what I said, because what you have said in answer is more eloquent than anything I could have dreamed and enriches the metaphor far beyond its orgins. Please stick your beak in whenever you feel the urge. You will always be welcome here.

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