“ Address: Sintra / Portugal „
~Getting Out and About~
I love Lisbon and I'm lucky enough that my work gives me good excuses to visit a few times a year but I never get the chance to see very much. At the end of 2012 I decided to blow a stack of BA Airmiles and buy return flights for myself and my husband, my sister and her girlfriend. I told my colleagues in the Lisbon office and they all advised that we should take some time out of the city, get out to the hill town of Sintra and out to the beach at Cascais. This could all be done with public transport, they told me, but if we went by train we wouldn't be able to do both places in one day. However, if we hired a vehicle and a driver, we could get about more easily and see all we wanted in one day.
One of my colleagues lives in Cascais and she knew a couple of companies that might be able to help. She offered to ask around and get us an offer for a day tour. A few days later we received an offer by email and I booked for the four of us to have the driver and vehicle for nine hours, time enough to get to Sintra, out to the Cabo da Roca and back along the coast. It would cost us Euro195 for the day if we paid by credit card (via some complex paypal system) or they would knock off Euro5 for cash. Knowing that Paypal always seem to apply horribly poor exchange rates, I asked everyone to get cash so we could pay that way. I believe this was a small reduction on the normal price due to my colleague getting us 'mates rates' on the deal.
~On the Day~
I had sent our hotel address and asked to be picked up at 10 am. We were on holiday and early starts were not the order of the day, especially with custard tarts on the breakfast buffet. At about ten to ten we got a phone call in our room from reception to let us know that the driver had arrived and would be waiting outside. It was good to know he was there and I appreciated him letting us know.
The vehicle was superb - a big plush silver Mercedes minibus-type vehicle with six leather upholstered seats. These were arranged in two rows so that nobody had to travel backwards which was a good thing or we might have got into a fight. In the back of the van were bottles of waters and packets of tissues. The vehicle also apparently has WiFi but we didn't test that - we were more interested in looking out of the windows than peering at our phone screens.
The weather for our day out was awful. It looked grey when we set off and was soon drizzling. We made a short stop to look at a the outside of a pink palace in Queluz where one of the old kings sent his mad wife to live so he could get her out of his hair but this was really just a five minute 'stretch your legs' stop before we headed on to Sintra. It soon started to rain heavily in a way that's really not typical for this area of Portugal. Vitor the driver told us that he'd planned to make a prayer to St Peter for good weather but he'd figured that we were British and probably not too bothered by a bit of rain. He also told us that we should take advantage of this being a private tour and take as long or as short a time as we wanted at each place where we stopped because he was completely relaxed about when we moved on. Unlike fixed group tours where everything runs to a tight timetable, the day was ours to do with pretty much as we pleased.
~Where Portugal's Rich Loved to Play~
The first big stop was Sintra, the small town in the hills where Portugal's royals liked to stay and where the great and the good of Portuguese history had their holiday homes. Sintra is said to have its own microclimate which makes it cooler in the summer and an attractive place for those who want to run away from the searing summer heat. Sadly for us, the famous microclimate on this day was monsoon-like. It should be possible from Sintra to see all the way to the coast but on the day we went, you were lucky to see your hand in front of your own face.
My husband and I had been to Sintra before and had seen the palace in the centre of the town about ten years ago. I hadn't realised that there was a more impressive palace up on the hill, Pena Palace, and this was the one we were due to visit. By the time we arrived the weather was absolutely shocking. Vitor drove us right up to the palace gates, although we were quite delayed by some Danes in a camper van who got stuck on the road going up the hillside. If you do go to Sintra without a car and driver, I'd recommend not to walk up the hill to the palace as it's a lot further than it looks. We passed a lot of drowned rat pedestrians slogging soggily up the hillside. As we drove along, Vitor kept up a near constant chatter, pointing out important buildings, telling us about the history of the town and about how people today are selling up their villas and moving their holiday places down to the coast.
Pena Palace is worthy of a review of its own so I'll not go into the details here. It's a fairy tale building set in fabulous gardens - although on this occasion, fabulous but very wet gardens. As palaces go, it's fairly modest but it's well worth a view. It's the sort of place you can actually imagine living in, in a way that's just not possible in many national palaces. Just be aware that the entrance fees are not included in your tour and are quite high at Euro13.50 per adult. We added the little train journey to take us up to the palace for a couple of euros extra since the rain was so shocking that we really couldn't have walked it without dripping all over the palace when we arrived.
We just followed the standard recommended itinerary but if you want to see something else in Sintra, you only have to ask. It worked well for us as I'd have been disappointed to go to the other palace that we'd already visited but if you've been before and already seen something and don't want to see it again, just discuss it with Premiumtours when you book and they'll happily offer an alternative set of attractions.
After the palace, Vitor took us back into the town centre and told us where we could buy the local speciality pastries for which the town is famous. There are two types, trevesseiros and queijadas. The first is an oblong flaky pastry and the second is a type of cheesecake baked in a pastry case with a texture like cardboard. We found a small cafe where we hid from the rain, drank beer and ate enormous toasties.
~Nothing from here until you hit America~
After lunch it was time to drive on to the Atlantic coast and the most westerly point of Europe which is called Cabo da Roca. For anyone who loves visiting these geographically unique places, it's quite fun to stand on the rocks and know there's nothing but water between you and North America. Given the history of exploration that Portugal has, it's even more a place for reflection about the brave (or crazy) sailors who headed off into the unknown so many years before. Cabo da Roca has a photogenic red and white lighthouse, a monument that's ideal for photographs that you can use to prove to your friends and family that you really did go to the most westerly point, but it also has fabulous rocky coastal views which were the highlight for me. Cabo da Roca is notoriously windy but at least it had stopped raining by the time we got there.
My sister wandered off to look in the shop, my husband to look for a toilet and we all came together again at the shop only to find that Vitor had kept an eye on all four of us and knew where we'd gone. As we came out of the shop he and the van were parked up waiting for us.
~Sun, sand and sea~
From Cabo da Roca we followed the coast road back towards Cascais, stopping at a place called 'Boca da Infer' (that might not be spelled correctly but it means that mouth of hell) where the water erupts through a hole in the rocks. Then we were back in the van and off to Cascais, one of Portugal's most fashionable seaside resorts. We stopped at the western end of the city to look across the harbour and then got dropped in the town centre to go for a wander along the narrow streets and to walk on the perfect clean beaches. We took an hour or so in a bar with a well earned beer before heading back to meet Vitor and drive on to Estoril.
Estoril and Cascais used to be separate towns but have expanded into each other over the years. We didn't stop in Estoril but Vitor pointed out the sights as we passed including the hospital on the sea front where he'd spent more than a year flat on his back having his body rebuilt after a motorcycle accident. I can think of few places more beautiful nor think of anything more frustrating than being so close to the sea and unable to sit up and look at it.
We continued back along the coast road, Vitor telling us about everything we passed until we came to the outskirts of the city. At this point he kicked into full on tour guide mode and told us lots about the city, painting pictures of a past when the Belem Tower sat in the river on a rock and not right beside the land. He explained that the city had reclaimed land from the sea and narrowed the estuary accordingly. He pointed out museums, told us about places for wine and port tasting, took us along the waterfront road that had opened only a day or two before and eventually delivered us back to our hotel. We had booked 9 hours and that's almost exactly what we got, although I'm sure if we'd needed a little longer anywhere, he didn't seem bothered about taking a bit more time.
~Was it worth it?~
We were all really happy with our day out with Premiumtours. Vitor was charming, considerate and always stressed that it was our day to do what we wanted and that he'd fit around that. We are very easy going customers so we're no great challenge to an experienced driver. We appreciated his tips on what to do when we were back in Lisbon and we enjoyed his insights into the history of the area. He also told us about other trips he's done, taking people away for up to two weeks and covering most of the country. Some of these were pretty funny - especially the story of the German family who spent the whole time saying that everything was better in Germany, the food was nicer, the rocks were rockier, the sea was bluer and the weather was obviously superior. I can't imagine the self-control it took him not to take them back to the airport and send them home early.
Most hotels and tourist offices will sell you a tour of Lisbon or a tour of Cascais and Sintra and even our small hotel had tours on offer. We got a better and more personalised tour for just the four or us for less than the hotel was offering for a standard 'go with lots of people you don't know' tour. With Premiumtours the price depends on how many people are in the vehicle. I know we got a better price due to the connections with my colleague but an 8 hour day trip similar to the one we did (we got nine, but the website quotes for eight) can cost as little as 33Euro per person if you have a full vehicle with seven passenger. A tour for just two people is Euro108 per person. We were quoted prices of Euro195 for the four or us for 9 hours or just Euro150 for 5 hours.
We were pleased with the vehicle, enjoyed having a driver who spoke excellent English and was had guide qualifications, and the luxury of going at our own pace was very much appreciated. If you are in Lisbon and you want to get out of the city and see a bit more of the area, this is a really nice way to do it. I would certainly recommend Premiumtours both for value for money and for the quality of the tour.
They offer half and one day tours of Lisbon and the surroundings, as well as much longer trips throughout the country and are happy to design an itinerary to fit what each customer wants or to offer suggestions based on what previous customers have asked for.