Portugal Diary, day 8

Saturday, 18 May, 2019. 21:47, Chalet Saudade, Sintra

We slept in this morning, not getting up until a bit after 07:00. We went for breakfast close to 08:00, and the breakfast room was busier than we’d seen it earlier. I tried eggs again, getting my selection of onions, ham, and cheeses made into an omelette today, while M. had a couple of fried eggs. After breakfast we packed our luggage, being careful to check the room and make sure we’d left nothing behind. Then we checked out and walked south a block to Entrecampos railway station, for heavy surface rail as opposed to the underground metro system.

Here we recharged our Viva Viagem cards with more money, then tapped onto the system and ascended to platform 2 to wait for a train to Sintra. One must have just left, because they run every 20 minutes, and according to the indicator board we had a 19 minute wait. We wondered how full the train would be and if we would get a seat. It arrived a minute or two late and turned out not to be full at all. We got seats easily enough and relaxed for the journey up into the hills surrounding Lisbon.

Most of the trip was through sprawling suburbs of the city. It was only really in the last three or four stops that any countryside became visible, as we slowly climbed up into the hills and the buildings finally petered out. We pulled into Sintra station a bit after 10:00. From there it was a short walk, down a steep flight of steps to the parallel street down the hillside below, and then across a bit to our accommodation for the next two nights, Chalet Saudade.

Chalet Saudade
Chalet Saudade

Chalet Saudade is a lovely blue painted house sitting in a beautiful garden. It’s so nice that people walking along the street stop to take photos of it; we saw several do so. We buzzed the intercom at the gate and a recorded voice said something in Portuguese. We tried again and said “hello”, but then I realised we should try just pushing the gate, and it opened and let us into the garden. Then a man opened the door of the house and ushered us in to a reception area where a woman sat behind a desk. We were too early to check into our room, but they did the paperwork and said they’d mind our bags while we went out to explore. The woman gave us a map and scribbled all over it indicating the attractions, the amount of time we should expect to spend at each, and the walking times between them all. She said the Pena Palace was at the top of the hill and we could either catch a bus or use a Portuguese Uber-like app, which would be cheaper. I asked about walking there and she said it would be about 45 minutes, uphill, and said don’t walk along the road, there is a walking path through the forest which passes a place called Vila Sassetti.

We also checked out the ground floor of the house, which had a common lounge area and a sunroom out the back, overlooking a garden with fishpond below down the hill. The room was decorated with a fox motif, and there were lots of knick knacks everywhere. There were a few miniature furniture sets at ground level next to miniature doors attached to the walls. The house looked as beautiful inside as outside.

View from Chalet Saudade
The garden at Chalet Saudade

With our luggage left behind, we went out to explore Sintra. It was a 10 minute walk along a winding road to the old village, and when we arrived it was clear that this was a touristy spot, as dozens of tour buses were jostling for position and disgorging hundreds of tourists into the narrow streets. There were many narrow paths up and down the hillside, filled with shops and cafes and restaurants. There was also the National Palace of Sintra nearby, which is a stark white edifice topped by two huge and distinctive conical chimneys, visible from all parts of the town. We explored for a little bit, until just before midday, when M. spotted a good looking cafe where we sat inside to have some lunch.

Sintra National Palace
Sintra National Palace viewed from afar

The cafe was named Vila Velha and was nestled into a corner on the steep street. Part of it was on a small mezzanine floor to accomodate the slope of the hill, and we took one of the tables up there. They had a selection of quiches as well as pastries. M. got me a cod quiche and one of the same sort of vanilla slices as from Pau de Canela in Lisbon, and herself a spinach quiche and a slice of chocolate salami and a cappuccino. We sat for a while, taking it easy, while two groups of loud young American woman came in and had some lunch as well. After eating and resting and using the toilets, we left to go check out the Sintra National Palace.

Pasteleria Vila Velha
Cafe Vila Velha

To get there we headed down another steep street towards the tourist information office, where the lady at Chalet Saudade had said we could buy tickets for the various attractions, in fact recommending strongly that we do so to avoid the queues at each one. I bought tickets for the National Palace and Pena Palace. I also wanted tickets for the Quinta da Regeleira, but the woman said they didn’t sell those, and you could only get them at the site.

Sintra National Palace, entrance
Sintra National Palace exterior

Equipped with tickets, we walked over to the National Palace, where there was no queue whatsoever to either buy tickets or get in. This was an older palace than the one in Belém, dating from the 16th century, and this was evident in the craftsmanship and style, being more rustic and heavy. Many rooms were decorated in tiles, but rather than the delicate painted tiles of later periods, these were heavy moulded tiles with three dimensional patterns and each one unique due to the hand making and painting. The floors were worn stone. The layout of the place was an intricate maze of rooms and levels, and it would have been easy to get lost if not following the tour route. We visited several areas twice, coming in different directions, with the paths separated by ropes.

Swan room
Swan room, Sintra National Palace

One room, the Coat-of-Arms Room, was an amazing square chamber with a high domed ceiling covered in gold decoration with insets showing 72 different coats-of-arms of Portuguese noble families, and with white tiles painted with various hunting scenes in blue on each wall. There were also Moorish and Chinese rooms, and several other things like tiled grottoes and so on. The kitchen was amazing too, gleaming white with unpainted tiles, and huge rows of cooking areas, and the two white chimney interiors gaping far above, with the sound of the wind echoing in them. Although this palace was older and less ornate than the one in Belém, it was definitely well worth the visit.

Azulejo room
Coat-of-arms room, Sintra National Palace

Leaving the palace, we spent some time exploring more of the narrow, steep streets, discovering how they all connected together, sometimes in surprising, almost Escheresque ways. Tourists packed the streets, often stopping to take photos looking up or down particularly steep and narrow ones. It was difficult to take photos without other tourists in them, or indeed to avoid being in lots of photos. We tried to find a good place to come back to later for dinner, but most of the places had very limited and uninspiring vegetarian options.

Cantinho Lord Byron
Cantinho Lord Byron, on the narrow sloping streets of Sintra

Leaving the palace, we spent some time exploring more of the narrow, steep streets, discovering how they all connected Before going back to our accommodation, we wanted an afternoon snack, so walked past it down the street to see what was there. We walked past a cafe and I saw the name Ekvilibro in the window, which I’d seen earlier when searching for vegetarian food in Sintra. This place had come up as one of the top recommendations, but it was only a cafe, not a restaurant, and closed at 18:00. So it was no good for dinner. But it was open now, and after stopping M. to mention all this, she decided we should go in and check it out. It turned out to be a very trendy health food type place, with an attached yoga and pilates studio. They didn’t have a whole lot to eat in, but there was a wall of health food products for sale. They did have a very luscious looking chocolate tart, which had a crust made of dates rather than pastry or crumbs. We had a slice each and M. had a cappuccino. The tart was as delicious as it looked, and the date crust added a nice sweet, fruity taste to the bitter chocolate.

Chocolate tart
Chocolate tart, Ekvilibro

We headed back to Chalet Saudade to check into our room. A youngish man we hadn’t seen earlier was there, and gave us lots of information about the house and Sintra. The house had been owned by a dentist, and they’d spent five years renovating it to operate as a guest house. Although it looked small from the street, the rear was built down the hillside and had three levels below street level, plus three above, making it a total of six storeys. It overlooked the Fox Valley, hence the fox decoration theme, and he said the views of the sunset from the sunroom were spectacular on a good day, though unfortunately today looked to be too cloudy. Our room was on level -3, with direct access out the French doors to the garden, which has a square of grass and a kidney shaped koi pond, with tables and chairs for sitting and enjoying the ambience and birdsong in the forested valley.

Chalet Saudade rear
Rear side of Chalet Saudade

At the reception desk we saw a printed notice that there would be a train strike across all of Portugal on 20 and 21 May. This was disconcerting as we planned to travel to Porto on the 20th, catching a train from Sintra to Lisbon, and then the long distance train for which we had booked seats to Porto. If no trains were running, then we’d be stuck in Sintra! But the lady said that she’d heard the strike had been called off. When we said we were planning to travel to Porto by train on the 20th, she said we should check with her tomorrow for the latest news.

We asked the man about vegetarian food in Sintra and he started saying there was not a lot of choice as most of the places did very traditional meat-heavy Portuguese food. Then the women we’d seen earlier chimed in and said someone had recommended a new place in the new town area near the station. They had postcards from it. But this was also a place I’d found in my research for vegetarian food, and it was also a cafe and health food type place, not open for dinner. So instead the guy recommended a restaurant named Incomum, just across the street from the guesthouse. He said it was his favourite restaurant and they had some vegetarian dishes.

Asparagus, salad, dried tomatoes, and Azores Islands cheese
Asparagus and Azores Islands cheese, Incomum

So when we were ready for dinner we left and crossed over to Incomum. The place actually advertised itself as “Incomum by Luís Santos“, who I presume is the head chef. It is situated next door to a wine bar of the same name, evidently operated by the same owner. When we got there, M. decided to check out a shop a couple of doors down, and I decided to go in and see if I could get a table for us and wait inside for her. I think this was a good idea, because I got what seemed to be the last empty table, and they turned away several people arriving after us, saying it would be about a 1.5 hour wait for a table.

Duck with anise and strawberries
Duck magret with strawberries and anise

After perusing the menu, we ordered the bread and olives, a single appetiser dish of green asparagus, salad, dried tomatoes, and Azores Islands cheese, to share between us, and then M.’s main dish was sweet potato, vegetables “al horno”, and spinach, while I ordered the duck magret with strawberries, anise, pumpkin, and ginger. We also ordered a glass each of a local Pinot noir wine, which was nice and fruity, matching well with my duck dish. The bread and olives came with another small bowl of what turned out to be a hot compote of vegetables (carrot and celery), plus some mysterious blobs that resembled the outer shell of a large olive with the seed removed, or perhaps a lychee, but on tasting they had a chewy texture like some sort of organ meat. At first I tried not to think about what they were, but then decided they were mushrooms, and then later changed my mind to think perhaps they were baby octopus. I still have no idea what they really were.

Roast vegetable stack
Sweet potato, vegetables “al horno”, and spinach

The asparagus dish came out split on to two separate plates for us. I wondered if they’d misunderstood and given us two serves, but it was listed as one on the bill later, so that was nice. It was a good dish too. Besides the sweet potato and spinach, M.’s vegetable dish had purple potatoes, eggplant, zucchini, and tomato, all stacked in layers. It looked impressive and M. said it was all delicious. My duck came with the pumpkin and ginger mash on the side, topped with parmesan cheese. The meat went well with the strawberries. During the meal M. finished her wine and the waiter came around with a bottle and offered her another glass, which she accepted. Then after he poured hers, he topped up mine as well, despite me gesturing enough, and said that I had to have a full glass to match M. again. They didn’t charge for the top up, so that was good!

Monkey with after dinner port
Relaxing with a glass of port back at Chalet Saudade

We were full enough to skip dessert. So we headed back to our room to shower and turn in for the night. We managed to get in early enough to relax a bit and do some reading (M.) and typing (me) before bed.

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