Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Pleasures of Off-season Travel; No Crowds, No Traffic Jams: The Portugal Diaries, Part Three (Sintra, Mafra, Alcobaca, Batalha)

Praca da Republica, Sintra

During our trips to Mexico and South America we never rented a car. My husband’s general rule of thumb: don’t rent a car in a country where you don’t trust the legal system. This was our first car rental outside the U.S. since a 2002 trip to Holland. The expressways were sometimes practically empty—-no doubt a consequence of the recession as well as the season. When we used to travel to Europe in the summer there were always traffic jams and it seemed as if all Europe was on vacation and every European family on the road.

I love the freedom a car brings, but I worry about an accident in a foreign country. It happened to us once in Sicily when a crazy driver careening down a hill at break neck speed ran into us and almost knocked us off a very steep cliff. It took awhile to get over that near brush with death.

We go about our daily lives repressing thoughts of all the horrible things which could happen to us. But when a scary accident occurs all those potential vulnerabilities rise to the surface and it takes awhile to get back to normal.

So despite my worries (Rick unlike me is no worrywart), I was eager to rent a car—-the only way to see some of the magical small towns of Portugal. There are some towns which can easily be seen by bus/ train as day trips from Lisbon—e.g. Sintra and the Palacio National da Pena The castles at Sintra and Pena are examples of those wild amalgams of styles the Portuguese specialize in—-usually referred to as Manueline style after that manic builder King Manuel I. We spent many hours taking in the delights of Sintra.

The downside of our “slow tour” style is that we arrived at the Palacio National da Pena a half hour before closing time and barely had time to take in the astonishing views from the terraces. Trade-offs. Trade-offs.
Palacio National da Pena

Although Sintra and the Palacio National da Pena can be easily reached by bus/train, for most of the magical small towns of Portugal you need a car. We left Lisbon with a plan to stop at must-see Mafra, Olbidos, and then Alcobaca. Unfortunately, we forgot to check the possibility of a mid day closing at Mafra. (always a must do in Southern Europe,) and we arrived right at mid-day closing time. So we hung out in cafe for awhile and began our very slow tour of the amazing palace and monastery of Mafra.

The towers of Mafra

Again we paid the price of our slow tour and had less than hour for the beautiful walled town of Olbidos. And then the fun began. We had planned to get to Alcobaca before dark. It’s not so easy to find a hotel in European old towns with their maze of narrow, winding (and often unmarked) streets.

Rick had refused to rent a GPS. He prides himself on his seriously good sense of direction and views reliance on a GPS as something for the spatially impaired. Unfortunately, finding our charming little B&B in Alcobaca proved to be a challenge even Rick was not up to. I bought a 25.99 data plan for Portugal and I tried using my iphone GPS. I learned that using a phone as a GPS uses up many megabytes and I went way over my plan, ending up with a colossal phone bill.

The iphone GPS didn’t do the job, so in desperation, we drove into a police station to ask for help. Incredibly the police officers offered us a police escort to our hotel. The Portuguese kept living up to their reputation for being among the nicest people in Europe.

The hotel in Alcobaca, Challet da Fonte Nova, was delightful and we had one of our best--and least expensive--meals at Restaurante Antonio Padiero, a small restaurant near the gorgeous town square. Alcobaca is definitely worth an overnight stay to see the the 12th century monastery and square illuminated at night.

The Monastery at Alcobaca

Rick and I share a passion for the architecture of medieval /Renaissance Europe and can spend hours wandering around a complex like the Monastery at Alcobaca. I especially love cloisters and the ones at Alcobaca and nearby Batalha are two of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

One of the great advantages of off-season travel is that we had the cloisters pretty much to ourselves without the high season crush of people and cacophony of tour guides marring the tranquility of the cloisters.

The Cloisters at the Monastery at Batalha

Next installment: Coimbra, Tomar Evora


  1. The cloister photo of Batalha is so beautiful, Karen. The towns you're describing sound captivating, but so far the single most alluring site is the monastery. I too love a cloister, and can imagine serenely walking surrounded by chant. (Actually, the Met's Cloisters offers that experience!)Here's another link, to the UNESCO World Heritage site, which offers further information: http://whc.unesco.org/pg.cfm?cid=31&id_site=264
    I'll look forward to the next part of your journey.

  2. Reni, Thanks for link! You would love Portugal!

    If you have any Fado CD's bring them next Saturday

  3. I may have transferred everything to my laptop and given away the CDs, but if I saved them I'll bring them, Karen. I can't wait to hear more!

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