Everyone -- and I mean everyone -- says the one excursion you must make when in Lisbon is to visit Sintra. The guidebooks are quite insistent about it. So we did. And so, it seemed, did everyone else; it was very crowded.
Now, I don't mean to be a terrible inverted snob, but the doings of royalty and aristocrats both bore and mystify me. These, after all, are the people that gave us gilt-with-everything decorative styles like rococo, not to mention any number of dynastic wars. Confronted with a concentrated efflorescence of aristocratic folly like Sintra, with its compacted layers of fantasy castle building and queasily intertwined family trees, you can only stretch your eyes and wonder. This is not "taste" or high culture; this is freakin' Disneyland, right there in real life, perched on a rock.
Portugal is all about tiles, tiles, tiles
As we had limited time, we only managed to visit the Folly of Follies, the Palácio Nacional da Pena. A bus from Sintra town takes you up an awe-inspiring series of hairpin bends, and deposits you at the entrance, some 400 metres higher up the hill. It's hard to convey the sheer artificiality of the place. Everything looks like a stage set, and you wouldn't be surprised to see a couple of stagehands effortlessly pick up some mighty boulder (of which there are many artfully left lying around) and reposition it somewhere more eye-catching. Outside, it's quite enjoyable to gawp at Pena's tacky towers and decorative tilework, and walk around the windy, fun-sized battlements, declaiming Hamlet ("Look where it comes again!"). But inside it is pretty dull, made even more tedious by having to shuffle along a prescribed route through an endless succession of rooms containing four-poster beds and bad portraits, coralled into a slow, one-way queue of fellow tourists.
That wind, though... The whole point of Sintra is that its elevation and westerly aspect gave Portugal's rulers some cool, moist relief from the blazing summer heat of Lisbon down at sea-level. Unexpectedly, we got a first-hand demonstration. From the battlements we watched a bank of cloud approaching, which gradually enveloped us in a damp and cold embrace that was distinctly Welsh in its chilliness. The magnificent views disappeared behind dense white fog. The wind gathered strength. Being dressed for heat, the chill factor of the constant buffeting became truly unpleasant, and we quickly abandoned the place, catching the next bus back down the long and winding road to the baking plain.
Up here we freeze, down there they bake...