Memmo Alfama was so lovely that we ended up staying until the very last second before check-out. We then called an Uber (which is apparently illegal in Portugal but very cheap) to take us to our very last Portuguese home. Alas, the streets were so jam-packed due to the festival preparations that our Uber couldn’t even make it near the hotel. Fortunately, our next Airbnb was located just a 10-minute walk away. Not so fortunately, the handle on Anna’s suitcase had jammed back in Newark airport. We spent a comical hour at the gate kicking and yanking at the suitcase (and earning some suspicious looks) hoping to jimmy the handle free, but it never did give. For the first half of the trip we’d take turns carrying the suitcase on our heads, our hips, or just bumping it against our legs down the cobblestoned streets. Finally, Anna bought a pink rope which slightly remedied the situation, as she could at least drag it behind her when going uphill.
Under the hot sun, we headed deep into the maze-like streets of the historic Alfama district, which also happened to be the heart of the St. Anthony festivities. Besides its perfect location, our Airbnb apartment was also perfect for three. Two little twin beds for Anna and me, and a sun-flooded master bedroom for Dad (who wouldn’t arrive until the next day). Dad can sleep anywhere, but he sure appreciated this room with its balcony views. Our street ended at a square filled with restaurants and vendors celebrating the festival. The kitchen window looked down onto a residential courtyard where Portuguese boys played soccer during the day and Portuguese men from the festival would come to urinate at night. (Somehow, more charming than public urination in America.) From the living room couch, we watched people of all ages climb the old city steps. Truly a most perfect little home.
If I ever refinish a bathroom, I now know Portuguese-inspired tiles will be a necessity. It was slow-going leaving our apartment that first day, as everything was deemed picture-worthy: the front door, the bench in our courtyard, even drying laundry. Walking through the magical Alfama streets was a worthy activity in itself. (During our stay, oftentimes we’d look up a destination on Google Maps in advance, write down the directions clearly, set out to find it … and then somehow walk in a giant circle until we’d wind up literally back at our apartment door.)Even though both Anna and Dad are very good at directions, Alfama can stump the best of them. My only regret from Lisbon is that we never took a ride on the street cars. We definitely got to enjoy them from the streets, but kept saving the streetcars for the perfect time and never ended up finding it.Dad did ride the historic 28 tram line from end to end though, after we had left. Unlike most of our walks, on Thursday we had a real destination. We headed to the main train station and set off for a day trip to Sintra. Sintra is a charming town up in the mountains, where royalty and the rich built summer estates.Upon arrival, we first stopped for coffee at a cafe and got our bearings. It turned out that there were many beautiful castles to visit, and you could turn Sintra into much more than a day trip. First we explored the Pena Palace, which was a summer residence for Portuguese monarchs. Admittedly, I still don’t know much about the Portuguese royal family, but I do know I love touring their romantic homes. Can you spot little Anna? It took a lot of patience to procure a photo that didn’t have a tourist with a selfie stick in the background.At this point, Anna started to get impatient with being directed to stand in front of beautiful scenery for pictures. Woe is her. I, however, never tired of the rich primary colors and tiles of this castle. Just as the guidebooks had promised, mist soon descended on Sintra and enhanced the magical feel of the palace. I’ll spare you the pictures of fancy old royal bedrooms and tea rooms, but who doesn’t love a good kitchen?!Mmm imagine all the delicious pastries and fish prepared here. We were all prepared to head back to Lisbon after that castle, but our charming driver who took us down the mountain said we must check out a second castle and gardens with “underground caves.” We didn’t really know what he was talking about, but it’s best to just say yes when you’re on vacation. This castle ended up not taking credit cards and when we didn’t have enough cash I walked back to the town center, while Anna waited. It felt like I was gone for an hour and as it was the first time we had split up the entire trip, Anna was convinced I had gotten lost or taken. Would’ve served her right for being too lazy to go with me. Spoiler: I wasn’t gone forever and we ended up making it into the castle. After a quick castle tour, we headed out to explore the expansive gardens. At this point we were both pretty hungry, thirsty, and tired. Anna was starting to get particularly hangry and deemed the underground caves too far away. I couldn’t bear the thought of going all the way to Portugal, making it to Sintra and then all the way to this castle without going 15 more minutes to find this underground destination. I coaxed Anna on board and tried to find this very well-hidden spot. A happy Australian man we met along the way eventually gave us directions, giddily deeming it “more fun than Disney World.”The “underground caves” turned out to be a well that you could walk down via a spiral staircase. As we descended into the well, the steps became darker and wetter. With water dripping on our heads and mud sticking to our shoes, we chickened out and headed back up. Fortunately, the same Australian man was up at the top and said we really must go to the bottom. He explained that once you get there, multiple secret tunnels branch out from the bottom and deposit you outside in the gardens. To my surprise Anna said “ok!” and we headed back down. We didn’t know the purpose of the well because the official pamphlet just had a poetic explanation about looking up from the bottom and appreciating the connection between heaven and earth. I later looked it up though, and the well never served as a source for water, but was instead a site for initiation rites. We headed down through various tunnels, some of which were pitch black, using our iPhones for light. We finally came upon one tunnel lit up by fairy lights, which seemed promising … and popped out behind a waterfall!
After admiring the view and congratulating each other on our perseverance, we crossed the pond via a path of moss-covered stones—and realized just how right the Australian was. Sure I’ve never been to Disney World, but I don’t see how hanging out with Mickey Mouse could beat this.
I don’t normally take many statue pictures, but I liked how realistically this mother is holding the baby, not in your standard cradle pose. It may have even made me miss my babies back in the PICU. While it was hard to peel ourselves away from Lisbon for the afternoon, we left feeling very grateful we had made the trip to Sintra. Though touristy, it was well worth it.
That evening, we ended the day with dinner in the crowded, smoky streets surrounded by very happy Portuguese revelers. A satisfactory day, indeed.