Day 6: Sintra and Lisbon

So, this is the day when we really start to make the most of our unlimited mileage clause on the car hire! Lisbon is a good 260km away from Albufeira, but most of it's on motorways or main roads, so we were looking at a two and half hour drive, possibly three. With that in mind, and to make most of our day trip, we were out of the house and on our way by 8am, a couple of Red Bulls at the ready just in case.

To begin with, the drive was very easy. I had gotten used to driving on the right, and changing gear with my right hand was now fairly intuitive. The problems only really started once we got nearer to Lisbon. The roads started to clog up as we got near the city, eventually turning into three-lane jams, but that didn't stop the drivers impulsively changing lanes to get a tiny advantage. While I may be used to driving on this side, making impulsive decisions is more difficult for me, so I often found myself stuck in a slow-moving lane, not feeling brave enough to pull out. It took two and a half hours to get to the outside of Lisbon, then another hour to fight our way into and through the centre then beyond to Sintra, our first destination today.

We didn't know too much about Sintra, other than it had a very Disney style castle on top of the hill, and the whole of Sintra itself sits high above the rest of Lisbon. I dropped Manda off by what seemed to be the centre of activity (in the old town) and found a convenient parking space before walking up to join her. We spent a little bit of time walking around trying to work out what we were looking at, what we should be looking at, and as I looked at a tourist book in one of the kiosks I realised there was no way that the castle we'd seen in pictures was here – it had to be higher up. So, with that we tried to seek out a route up the hill. The problem was that the route was not clearly marked and there was a distinct lack of other people making the same trek up – not a very encouraging sign. Very soon we made a judgement call that we were doing the wrong thing trying to walk up, as we saw a procession of cars making their way up one of the roads. The clincher was when I looked up through one of the few gaps in the trees and got a glimpse of what appeared to be a castle wall – and it was very far up! There had to be an easier way to do this, so I traipsed back down the hill to the car and came back up, picking Manda up on the way, then continued up the twisty roads to the top.

But where exactly is the top? We found that every now and then we'd see parking spots and wonder "is this where we stop?" You'd think that you'd know when you've reached the top, but with the abundance of trees, you really couldn't tell if there were 20 feet or 200 feet further up to climb. This happened several times until we reached the main gate, but the parking there was full, so we continued on a little, as others had found spaces further down the road. It became clear that we'd have to get a space here or face the prospect of either a) a really long walk back up the hill or b) a drive around the circuit all over again. Given that the petrol was low (warning light on), I didn't want the latter, but I didn't want the former either. Thankfully, we found a spot just a little further on down the one-way road giving us a 5-minute walk back up a very steep hill to get to the gate.

Once through the gate, our ascent was not yet over – just inside the gate was a little shuttle bus service that took people from the gardens up to the national palace. Once again, the trees obscured the view to the top so we had no idea whether the shuttle service was sorely needed or totally superfluous. There was a big queue for the shuttle, so the longer I waited in the queue in the blazing sun, the more I pondered whether she should have just walked that last bit! After 40 minutes, we got our chance and we were both pleased to see that it was a reasonable climb that we'd saved ourselves.

The Palacio de Pena (as it was called) truly was like something out of a Disney cartoon – mosaics, domed roofs, tessellated walkways and turrets galore. Altogether too many possibilities for posing in photos! As such, it took us a while to work our way around the building checking out all the views over the lower levels of Sintra and Lisbon beyond. According to the Lonely Planet, you could easily spend a couple of days exploring Sintra properly, including the gardens, the lakes and the nearby monastery, but we barely scraped the surface, leaving early afternoon to investigate another part of Lisbon.

View of Sintra's Disneyesque castle.

Manda in one of the turrets.

The unofficial symbol of Lisbon is the Tower of Belém (Torre de Belém), so we had to go check that out. Satnav found us a nice easy route right to it, and as we pulled into the car park, a young chap there helpfully pointed us in the direction of an empty space and indicated how much clearance there was before dashing off to help someone else. We looked around for parking charges, expecting to see some expensive valet style rates, but there was no charge. As I got out, it was clear that this guy was guiding us in for tips.

The Tower of Belém.

Just down the river from the tower is another landmark of Lisbon, the 25th April Bridge. Now, I had never seen a picture of it before, or even heard of it prior to reading up about Lisbon over the last couple of days, but this bridge is the sister to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco but, get this, it's even bigger! And as if by magic, as I had my camera pointed towards the bridge, a whole fleet of sailboats made their way under the bridge, angled steeply as the wind caught in their sails. Any thoughts of taking pictures of the Tower could wait for the time being – this was a window of opportunity!

Sailboats in front of the 25 April Bridge.

Naturally, we got some photos of the tower once the boats had gone past, then we sped off to another Lisbon location. Well, I say 'sped off' but it struck me that part of the reason the traffic was tricky to negotiate was because we'd hit 5pm Friday traffic when, presumably, everyone was simultaneously trying to make their way out of the city. It was dinner time and our guide book map seemed to have a mass of eateries centred in one location, which turned out to be the Bairro Alto (the old part of the city), so we found a parking spot near there then set out on foot.

Inspecting the graffiti-daubed walls.

Crazy design on wall of Sneakers Delight shop.

Graffiti in the Bairro AltoWalking through that district, it was difficult to spot anything that was actually open. Despite it being the area for trendy dining (in amongst the downtrodden and graffiti-daubed streets – hey, it's all about character!), 'trendy' apparently doesn't start until 7pm. It was 5:30pm and nowhere was open. We did a couple of circuits, trying to find somewhere, then spotted an Indian Restaurant that looked open. They had the front shutters open but were still setting up. Thankfully, they let us sit down and kindly switched on the lights for us and took our order shortly after. I'm sure it's not the usual dining experience in this part of the city – the restaurant owner almost seemed apologetic that it was just us – but our body clocks would not allow us to wait any later for food. Besides, I had a parking limit!

At around 7:30pm there was still a good hour and a bit of sun left, so we drove into the Amalfa district and got hopelessly lost in the many one way systems that compete with the trams running through the steep streets. I did a few circuits attempting to find a parking space somewhere near to the castle so we could look over the city as the sun set, but those old streets were not built for today's car-owning populace and I was not getting anywhere, and slowly.

It had been a whistle-stop tour of Lisbon and we knew that there was probably more to see, but personally the driving was starting to tire me out. We were both ready to make tracks back south to the Algarve region and our temporary home in Albufeira. I'd still have to negotiate my way back out of the city along with all the other nutter drivers. As if to prove just how bad the drivers are here, as we reached the exit of a motorway, at a major intersection there was a three-car collision. We must have missed seeing it by only a short time, but really these people had chosen a fantastic location to cause tailbacks in numerous directions. The three cars had pranged into each other right in the centre of the intersection and they were all there wearing their hi-vis vests arguing the toss as to who was responsible, seemingly unaware that they were affecting thousands of people's journeys home. It was chaos – we saw a bendy bus trying to make a turn across that intersection but it had to back up then take a different route. Meanwhile, everyone around us was sounding their horns, even though it would not make any difference whatsoever. I came to the conclusion at that point that Lisbon drivers were, essentially, morons. Further reinforcing that were two more multiple car pile-ups along the next stretch of motorway exiting the city, which all seemed to be the result of impatient drivers and rash decisions. As we made our way back, there were numerous occasions where drivers would come up behind me (when I was travelling at 120kmh) in the fast lane, seemingly inches from my rear bumper, not even flashing their headlights asking for me to move out of the way, just expecting that I would eventually move. I could see exactly how these accidents happened and was so pleased to finally get back to the calm of Albufeira.