Sintra

Sintra is just outside of Lisbon and was about a 3 hour drive from where we were staying in the Algarve. I figured a day trip would be sufficient to experience both the beaches and culture Portugal had to offer. I knew Sintra would be beautiful and I was still shocked by how instantly I fell in love with this place. Hilltops, beaches, palaces, castles and picturesque streets make Sintra a must see for anyone that appreciates beautiful views and history. A day is not enough time! A three day weekend would be perfect. Once we actually got there I felt rushed and stressed out because I immediately knew a day would not be long enough. This was partly because early September is still high tourist season in the area. October or May would be a good time to go when its warm but less hectic. While the drive to and from the Algarve was very easy; driving through the village and mountains of Sintra during high season is not for the weak. Most rental cars are going to be a manual and you will be making frequent stops and be parking on very steep hills. Ben is an excellent driver and we still had a couple scary moments.

Palace of Pena

A national monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pena is a must see when in Sintra. It started out as a medieval monastery but was transformed into a castle in the 1800’s by King Ferdinand. It is surrounded by forest and gardens that you can get lost in while exploring but we didn’t have time to explore anything other than the palace itself.

In high season parking is hectic. Coming up the mountain you will see cars parked all alongside the road and I started to worry that the parking lots were full. The problem with passing a full parking lot is that the roads are all one way. That means missing your opportunity to park would require you to continue up the mountain, head back down, drive back through the city and repeat. So when we came upon a parking lot across from a building with a line out front we pulled in and squeezed ourselves into a technically legal spot.

After spending 20 minutes in line and purchasing our tickets for the palace and the shuttle that takes you to the top of mountain, I asked when the shuttle would arrive. I was then informed that this was NOT the main visitor center and that we could walk 30 minutes to the palace or we could walk 15-20 minutes to the main visitor center and catch the shuttle there. Instead of walking back to parking, loading the kids back into the car and then searching for more parking up the road…I made the decision that walking 15-20 would be “lovely” and we set about our way. Terrible mistake. It was hot. It was humid. I had a child strapped to my body. And it was all uphill. I don’t mean your normal everyday hill. This was a very steep incline up the mountain road with cars whizzing by. We got sweaty. The kids got cranky. The adults fought. Good times.

When we reached the shuttle area we had to wait in another line in the hot sun about 20 minutes for a shuttle to get us. Then we were finally off to see the palace! Looking back I’m not sure how I could have planned differently. It was just crazy and hectic being high tourist season (even being a Monday), plus the ages of our children (wanted to be carried the entire way). This is why I mentioned going when the area is less busy if I have the opportunity to go back. The congestion was confusing but the moral of this story is make sure you park closer to the main visitor center.

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View of the palace from below

And in the end I felt the same way about this experience as I have in many other stressful travel situations. It was all worth it. I think the little girl inside of me was screaming “I’m on a mountain top… in an exotic palace!” It was at this point Carter decided to take a nap so I was able to take in more of the experience than I usually would. It was so architecturally intricate and colorful and unique. I regret not bringing a lens that could zoom out to show more of the castle.

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There was a balcony walk that allowed you to walk alongside some portions of the castle from the outside. Also a beautiful terrace that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean. This is where we stopped for a good while to enjoy the breeze. Ahhhhhhh

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Castle of the Moors on the left and Pena Palace on the right. Sintra is filled with history and beauty.
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This is another castle on the mountain next to Pena. Castle of the Moors is on my list of things to see if I ever get a chance to go back

After exploring the palace for a couple hours we had to get going to our next excursion. We drove back into Sintra and found a restaurant called Incomum. It ended up being perfect for us since it was on the fancy side but we were able to eat outside on a table next to the street which kept the boys entertained as we ate through our courses. They waved to all the cars and people watched. Beautiful little area! I got some FRESH grilled seafood that is seriously lacking in England. I cant express how much I miss shrimp, crab and scallops.

Quinta da Regaleira

Another World Heritage UNESCO site: Quinta da Regaleira is an estate that’s equal parts romantic and haunting. There is so much to explore here. Gardens, wells, fountains, grotto’s, tunnel’s and a chapel make up this magical and mysterious compound surrounding the main house.

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An unfinished well
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Portal of the Guardians. Twin towers over an undergound walkway leading to the Initiatic Well
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Terrace of the Celestial Worlds

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The entire reason I chose to come to this estate was because of a beautiful picture of a stairwell I found online when looking through photos of Portugal landmarks. I think everyone that visits this estate comes with the intent of getting a similar shot of this beautiful structure. What I didn’t realize is that it is actually a well. A subterranean tower that sinks 27 meters into the earth with a hallowed staircase. From what I understand the well had nothing to do with water and more to do with symbolism, philosophy, and the relationship between heaven and earth. There are 9 platforms that represent the 9 circles of hell, 9 sections of purgatory and 9 skies of paradise.

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We entered the well via the underground tunnel which brings you in at the middle. We let the kids get a look and then I asked Ben to take the kids outside to harass all the cats lounging in the nearby garden. Because 1.) That’s all they cared about anyway, and 2.) sometimes when I spend a lot of time planning something and countless hours daydreaming of a location…Mama needs to have a minute to appreciate it. This was one of those times.

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What made this well special for me is imagining the initiation rites and rituals that may have taken place there. I know some mysterious stuff went down here. And if you want to get a perfect shot up or down the well with no tourists visible in the shot you will need to have some patience. You may not see them here but there were about 20 other people wanting the exact thing I wanted. I ended up taking hundreds of pictures in order to get just a couple decent ones. While at the bottom you will look up and see heads poking out at every level. At the top you can see anyone in the shot that is walking up. PATIENCE. Also another reason to come outside of the summer!

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The inside of the main house was like being in a fairy tale. Probably my favorite interior of all the castles and estates I’ve seen thus far in Europe. The detail. The extravagance. It was all very creepy yet romantic at the same time. Unfortunately, I did not get many shots of the amazing interior as this was also the time Carter decided to blow out his diaper so badly that it was dripping down his legs. SO….we had to make it a quick walk-through out of there. That’s travelling with toddlers.

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We left as the sun was setting and it was a good way to reflect on the long, imperfect, yet faultless day.

One last thing I want to add: Portugal has playgrounds at their rest stops. Why is this not a thing EVERYWHERE? Thank you, Portugal. Not just for the playgrounds, but for being a gem of a country I never thought I would see.

The Algarve, Portugal

With the hubby gone all summer I was in need of some fun in the sun when he returned. I wanted a mix of beach, pool, site seeing and culture. Portugal has it all.

The Hotel

We stayed at the Be Live Family Palmeiras near Porches, Portugal. After landing in Faro and renting a car it was an easy 40 minutes drive to the resort. The roads in Portugal are well maintained and easy to navigate. Plus, we had perfect cell reception to plug our destinations into our phones.

I chose this resort because 1.) The price was right, and 2.) It looked very toddler friendly. We made an excellent choice. This resort is only a few years old and very clean. It is a ginormous compound with endless activities. Animal shows, kiddy discos- my kids loved it all.  They have a kids club where they had face painting, games, a bounce house, and more. There was a playground and two kid pools; one with slides and interactive water spouts. We had two beaches about a 5-10 minute walk away that provided water sports. All four of us hopped on a jet ski and Kellan got to drive while Carter fell asleep immediately.  Every single time that kid puts on a life jacket then gets on a boat he falls asleep!

Being all inclusive we could eat and snack whenever we wanted and we never felt like we were the loud table at the buffet because it was a very casual, relaxed atmosphere. I will say though that unlike a lot of resorts that have theme nights for dinner, this hotel put out the same things every lunch and dinner. So you would definitely want to venture out and eat at local restaurants to avoid getting burnt out on the same food daily.

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Bottomless slushies

Be Live caters to Portuguese and French tourists but did a good job speaking English when needed as they do have British visiting as well. We were actually surprised at check in when they told us we were the first Americans they had seen at the resort! But if they know an English speaking guest is in the crowd they will switch between the three languages to make sure everyone understands.

This was my first time being around so many French people and they are so much different from the people I normally interact with. I wouldn’t call them nice nor would I say they are rude. I would describe them as indifferent. The entire week at the buffet or at the bar no one ever said “excuse me” if they bumped into you nor would they acknowledge you if you said it to them. Being from the south I am used to a hello, a smile or a nod when you pass someone in a hallway or elevator. They basically just didn’t interact with us at all which is disappointing because I finally had a chance to practice those three years of French I took in high school! I did find the locals and the hotel staff to be very friendly. Kellan had a mouth injury playing soccer one day and the staff got us an appointment with  a dentist 5 minutes away very quickly. I am so thankful they were helpful in that situation.

Zoomarine

This was an aquarium/amusement park/water park close to our resort. It was expensive but it was well worth it being very toddler friendly. We saw a dolphin show and sea lion show– and again, they spoke English in portions of the shows. I didn’t get any pictures here because we were too busy having so much fun… but I would definitely recommend a trip here if you find yourself in the Alrgarve.

Ponta da Piedade

This was my number one “must see” attraction in the Algarve because this is the post card area. Every tourist spot has that one attraction that’s featured on magnets and postcards and this is it. About 40 minutes from our resort; the parking was free and you first walk around the top of the cliffs taking in the beautiful views. There is just something about cliffs and breath taking views that I love.. as you have probably noticed from our excursions in Europe thus far. Can’t help myself.

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This is not a beach area but a group of rock formations where you can catch a boat to explore the nearby caves and grottos. There are stairs that lead you down to the boat dock and you pay your driver after the tour is over. Very easy. There are constantly boats in and out dropping off and picking up passengers. 5 people allowed per boat. I believe we paid 40 Euro but the kiddos were free. Our guide was a rough around the edges grandpa-type; lauging and poitning out the nudists sunbathing..but he was sweet with the boys. Well, he was sweet with Kellan because Carter fell asleep pretty quickly. The ocean just calms him. We like when the honey badger is calm.

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Fell asleep clutching his popsicle in one hand and the GoPro in the other
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Camilo Beach
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Rock formation resembling an elephant

After our tour we did some more walking around the cliffs since my littlest little was napping. One day we are going to show him all the pictures of him napping in front of all these beautiful European backdrops and laugh. This kid has never missed a nap in his life and mama ain’t complaining.

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Praia de Marinha

About 15 minutes from our resort, we decided to spend a morning at this gorgeous beach. Agian, we had free parking (I love free), beautiful views and about a million stairs to walk down before reaching the water. Everything we did in Portugal involved cliffs, steep hills and stairs. It wasn’t exactly easy with a 1&3 year old in tow but its definitely doable. Going to the beach with toddlers on vacation you pack SO much stuff because its not an easy or quick trek back up to the car. So you would rather pack and lug everything down the first time. I am not complaining: this beach and everything else we did on our trip was well worth the effort. I just want anyone considering going here to know that many of the excursions we did involve climbing and walking which isn’t always easy when your kids decide they are too tired to walk.

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Praia de Marinha has some really great rocks formations to explore on its western side but about ten minutes into trying to reach them we decided it was too difficult with the kids. The current was strong and the waves crashed high on the rocks. If I was to go again I would check the tides to make sure I went at its lowest. Nevertheless, we still had a really great time exploring the beach and playing in the sand. I think the boys favorite part was chasing the seagulls around. Carter is obsessed with birds. He will follow one around as long as it will let him. Makes me want to take him to Venice because he would be that kid chasing pigeons and having the time of his life.

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Something else to note about the beaches we visited in the Algarve: the beaches do not have a steady decline into the water. There is a drop off just several feet into the water and the current is strong so your little ones need to be supervised at all times playing on the shoreline. So my kids weren’t able to do any swimming on their own but I held them so they could swim father out.

Praia Nova, Praia da Senhora da Rocha, and Nossa Senhora da Rocha

Just a 5 minute walk from our hotel you can take some stairs and walk down a hill to reach a small coved beach surrounded by cliffs. There is a tunnel built into the cliff that leads you to the neighboring beach, Praia Nova. Both beaches are great for playing in the sand, water sports and hunting for seashells. Kellan especially got a kick out of the long, dark tunnel and pretending there was a bear inside. We explored the beaches on several of the days we were in the Algarve and on the last two nights of our trip we walked out onto the edge of the cliff separating the two beaches. There is a restaurant and a beautiful, white chapel. The origins of the chapel is a complete mystery but many date is back to the 8th century. This is the perfect place to watch the sunset which is why we came back a second time.

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Porches Pottery

Porches is a village in the Algarve with a famous pottery shop. Every location I travel to I like to find a Christmas ornament, magnet, and then some type of display souvenir such as a vase or a wall art. In Portugal you have to get pottery. I spent a good hour in this store deciding what I wanted because I wanted it all. You can watch the women painting the pottery as you shop. Ben had to sit outside with the kids because I did not trust those crazies not to touch things. Thankfully they have a small fish pond and garden area. I settled on an ornament and a beautiful wall lantern.

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**Stay tuned for my post on our day trip to Sintra, Portugal!**