Pena Palace-Sintra Portugal

Pena Palace

Last Stop…Pena Palace Portugal

    Sintra is an ancient town about a half hour north of Lisbon. It is home to a number of castles and ruins which made it worthy of 2 days in our Portugal itinerary.

     My best friend Angie and I had been tearing around the Sintra area, visiting as many castles, ruins and sea cliffs as we could fit into two days. One of our last stops was Pena Palace, a brightly colored 19th Century palace atop the second tallest hill in Sintra. 

     We arrived around 6:45 pm and were told at the ticket window that we could explore the grounds, but they were closing soon so we couldn’t see inside the castle. This was fine, being that the castle was barely visible from the road and we wanted to at least see it. We were heading to Lagos the following day so it was now or never.

Walk to the Top – Uphill One Mile

    We set off walking on the mile long gravel path. It led to a dark lagoon and the ancient duck houses reflecting in the water. The stone houses looked like small versions of castles.

     “Oh watch out, there’s little crickets everywhere ” I warned. 

     “No look, they’re little froggies!” Angie exclaimed.

     We kneeled closer to the ground and saw that all along the path, what we originally thought were crickets, were actually tiny frogs, hundreds of them. The little hopping frogs had us weaving and dodging up the path, not wanting to squish any of them. 

    As we passed the lagoon, the frog population was less and we turned our walking to high gear, trying to get to the castle and back quickly. The path was on about a 45° incline, we puffed air and wound back and forth up the hill,  determined to get to the top. There were a number of “false paths” that we took, later to find they were not the actual path. The fake paths were mostly to showcase the scenery, but didn’t lead towards the castle and signs were scarce. A false path would lead us on a beautiful 5 minute walk that opened into a clearing with a bench, a view and a dead end. We needed to turn back to find the path we started from a number of times. 

     There were gardens and ponds along the walk, where we would stop for photos of plants and giant colorful flowers we had never seen before. We were breathing heavy and hearts pounding hard by the time we reached the top. 

To the Sintra Castle!

     With the castle in our sight, we headed under the keyhole shaped archway and followed the concrete path. We dragged ourselves up a series of steps and ramps, past a giant gargoyle and drawbridge, up to the brightly colored castle towers in oranges, reds and yellows. The palace was immense and it was easy to lose our bearings. We saw some workers get into a golf cart type vehicle and begin their journey down to the front gate for the end of their day.

     When we finally made it to the top, we stopped to look through the yellow arched columns out to the view of miles of landscape below us in the hazy sunset. 


     “Look with your eyes love, look with your eyes.” I told Angie, referencing a phrase I had heard said on a train ride in Alaska. A man was reminding his wife to stop and look, stop snapping endless pictures and to just be one with the moment. Angie and I stood, awestruck at the enormity of the scene and just, “looked with our eyes.”

The Most Amazing Chapel-Our Lady of Pena

    From the scenic deck, there was a few steps up to the 16th century chapel, Our Lady of Pena,  that sits at the highest point. Stepping into the chapel, which we were surprised was open, there was a sense of quiet reverence. My senses tingled as I moved silently, looking from the stained glass windows to the ornately decorated ceiling and the details of the carved wood, gold and mosaic pieces that made up the alter. My breath felt tight and my eyes filled with tears and I glanced at Angie who’s eyes were also glittering from the intensity of the ancient chapel. 

     Gathering our breath outside the chapel, we remembered it was getting late and we needed to start heading back down. We weaved through mosaic walls and carved statues. We found the start of a number of different paths leading away from the building. After a short debate, we went with the path we had come in on, being tricked again by several dead ends. We criss-crossed through the frog hopping area and arrived at the tall iron gate. 

Holy Moly – We are Locked in Pena Palace!

     We stared silently at the large black metal padlock wrapped around the chain securing the gate, not quite believing what we were seeing. I grabbed hold of the padlock and tugged, maybe it wasn’t latched. It was…Angie tried it too. Still locked.

     “Maybe there’s an “exit gate,” like a one way turnstile to get out.”

     “Yes, maybe over to the right.”

     We searched the paved areas along the tall concrete wall but found only wall. Trying the lock again, we stared at the pointed tips at the top of the gate.

     “Maybe we could scale the gate?”

     “There isn’t any footholds, and that thing is like 10 feet tall.”

     “This is crazy, we can’t be locked in, right?”

     ” They sold us tickets, they know we were up there, we just need to find the exit.”

     We looked all around us, hoping to spot an employee and spotted no one. We then headed over near the ticket window and to the gift shop, both of which were closed with bars in the windows, no people anywhere. We doubled back near the lagoon, taking the 1st “alternate path,” that led to another dead end hoping for a way out. This wasn’t looking good. We checked the gate again and waved frantically through the locked gates at cars passing down the road, arms flailing, voices yelling…


     The polite drivers passing our flailing arms, smiled and waved back to us, winding down the road away from us.  We tried again with the next car, who also waved happily at us as they passed our flailing arms. We were frantic, not friendly.

     “Maybe we could call someone, the police?” I suggested. 

     We both turned our attention to our phones.

    “I have 3% battery, and it says no wifi or service.” I announced with a sinking feeling.

     “I have 8%…no signal either.” Angie responded with the hint of panic in her voice.

      “Who would we call? We don’t have any numbers…or battery…or service. What is Portugal’s version of 911?” I inquired.

     We stared at the lock again, glancing up and down the 10 foot concrete wall for a hidden exit. The grass near the lagoon went uphill and into thick bushes near the top.  

     “Maybe there’s a spot up there where we can reach the top of the concrete wall” I suggested. 

     We trudged through the long grass and scraped through tangles of vines and thorny bushes up the steep hill, sky getting darker. The size of the looming wall remained a constant ratio to the ground, still 10 feet tall, even at the top of the hill with no sign of any breaks or low areas. Half angle footed walking, half butt sliding, we made our way back down the steep hill to the gate. 

     It was dusk and I began wondering if we would get out or have to wait till morning. I entertained ideas of snoozing in the palace or tucking in on some soft grass in a clearing. 

Up and Over the Pena Wall

     Angie called my attention away from my thoughts and pointed out a flagpole on the other side of the wall.

     “If we can get to the top of the wall, we can slide down the pole.”

     We wasted no time brainstorming one ridiculous idea after another, how can we scale this wall? Hands in folded form, hoisting the other person’s foot up and over, Stooges style? Running top speed and attempting ninja type wall climbing? Stacking random objects we find on the ground to climb?

     “Over here!” Angie shouted excitedly. 

     There was an industrial garbage can about 4 feet tall, about 10 feet down from the flagpole. She hoisted herself up to the top of the green rectangle. She used a move that looked like a jump/grab combo for pulling yourself out of a swimming pool unsuccessfully. I gathered up several empty cardboard boxes that were next to the garbage can and stacked them on top while she stood up there. I secured the boxes and Angie balanced on them and pushed her way to the top of the wall. She began shimmying and scooting sideways across the wall towards the pole while I clamored my way to the top of the garbage can. 

    I glanced over to see Angie flying, monkey style towards the pole, which was a couple of feet out from the wall. Arms and legs gripping the pole, she slid gracefully down, jumping a little in excitement at her success. Balancing the boxes the best I could, I shoved off with my feet and pulled to the top of the wall dragging my stomach across the concrete. I was able to scramble to sitting-position and scoot/ drag myself across the wall to a place in front of the pole. A slow bubble of laughter emerged from Angie as she tilted her head to look up at me, perched on the wall, trying to figure how I was going to launch myself to the pole.

     “Don’t make me laugh! I’ll fall” I laughed.

     “I can’t stop! This is so stupid…who gets locked in a palace?” She choked between wild laughter.

     A car approached and slowed as the passengers craned their necks to stare at the flip flopped girl on the wall. They waved and continued on their way as I waved weakly back.

     I then positioned my feet in several positions, testing the launch potential, not entirely confident in any of them. My stomach lurched, noticing the height of the wall I was perched upon and how the flagpole was at least a foot beyond my stretching arm.

Contemplating the flag pole from the top of the wall

     “Maybe you could put your feet on my shoulders and you could stand on them to tip forward and reach the pole?” Angie suggested, sensing my struggle.

     She positioned herself below me and I pointed my toes downward toward her, but they were still quite a distance from Angie’s shoulders. I didn’t want to jump on them, potentially knocking us both to the ground.

     ” Forget it,” I said. “Scoot back.”

     Clearly I had to suck it up and just do it. Taking a deep breath, I pushed hard against the side of the wall with one foot, arms outstretched and launched myself towards the white metal pole. The trajectory was good and I hit the pole hard with a thud and immediately gripped my arms and legs around it. The pole vibrated and Angie held her arms up to guide me down. 

     Safely on the other side, we looked at each-other and burst into screams of laughter. Eyes watering and doubled over, we recounted the crazy scene. Did we seriously just scale a Palace wall? Not 100% surprised based on our track record of ridiculous things that have happened in our travels, we headed to grab some dinner and back to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow’s adventures.

Pena Palace

Click here to read about when Angie & I slept in a cliff side cave

Click here to read about my Alaskan winter adventures

Click here for an adventure inside an Icelandic glacier


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