A convent carved in rock

Composit Capuchos

The most poignant monument in Sintra is not a palace or a castle. It is the Convent of the Capuchos, also known as the Convent of the Holly Cross. Founded in 1560, it is a place where monks lived a life of frugality and contemplation.

Long before architects designed buildings in harmony with their surroundings, this convent was built to blend into the landscape of the Sintra mountain. Made primarily out of rock, its interior is lined with cork to offer some protection against the cold and dampness of Winter.

In 1581, when Portugal was under Spanish domination, king Philip of Spain and Portugal visited the Sintra convent and declared: “In all my kingdoms there are two places that I highly prize, the Monastery of Escorial for being so rich and the Convent of the Holly Cross for being so poor.”

We wonder how the monks experienced the passage of time. Did time pass slowly in tiny droplets of interminable minutes? Did their minds transcend the discomfort of the body to find richness in the life of the spirit?

Finding happiness in Sintra

Market products

There’s a farmer’s market in São Pedro de Sintra since the 12th century. Nowadays it runs every second and fourth Sundays of each month. It is a great place to buy local fruits and vegetables, artisanal sausages, olives and cheese. Wood-fired ovens bake chouriço bread, filing the air with appetizing aromas.

We saw a farmer selling a small capsicum frutescens tree loaded with little red peppers.  Five centuries ago, Portuguese navigators brought this plant from South America to Africa, where the Bantu people called its fiery pepper “piri piri.” From Africa, the Portuguese took the plant to India where it changed the course of Indian cuisine.

How could we resist bringing home this symbol of the first age of globalization? “Trim the tree in March and you’ll have piri piri peppers between August to January,” advised the genial farmer. We got into the car feeling ecstatic at this unexpected find. Who knew that happiness is a piri piri tree?

The São Pedro market is located on Largo D. Fernando II, São Pedro de Sintra.

Sweet gratitude

Casa do Gato Preto

The recipe for Sintra’s queijadas was created in the 13th century by friar João da Anunciação at the Penha Longa convent. We know that the voluptuously thin crust is made with flour, lard, water, and salt. And that the indulgent filling has requeijão (a ricotta-style cheese), egg yolks, and two ingredients added in the 15th century: sugar and cinnamon. Each pastry store in Sintra has its own secret version of the recipe.

What are the best queijadas in Sintra? We’ve been pondering on this question for years, but the answer still eludes us. When we try the queijadas at Piriquita, we think nothing can be better. But then we taste the queijadas from Pastelaria Gregório and we fall in love with the crispness of the shell and the sweetness of the filling. Lately, we went to Casa do Preto and were astonished by the harmonious marriage of filling and shell.

One thing we know: these queijadas lift our minds above everyday concerns and fill our souls with sweet satisfaction. Thank you friar João!

Casa do Preto is located at Estr. Chão de Meninos 40, in Sintra, tel. 21 923 0436.

 

Perfection at Adraga

Composit Adraga.JPG

When we were very young, our parents used to take us to an idyllic beach with crystal blue waters and natural rock archways sculpted by the sea. In the end of the afternoon, we often had dinner in a small restaurant right on the beach.  It was simple fare: “percebes” (gooseneck barnacles), grilled fish, and salad. But the flavor and aromas were amazing and so was the spectacle of the sun setting on the ocean. We forgot the name of the beach and that is just as well, for places change and fail to live up to our memories of them.

During a visit to Sintra this summer, we decided to have lunch in the nearby Adraga beach. As soon as we arrived, we realized that this was the beach from our childhood!  There were little kids playing in the same rock archways we once loved and bathing in the same blue waters we so much enjoyed.

We sat at the beachside restaurant and ordered “percebes,” grilled fish, and salad. We kept our expectations low. Surely, the food has changed. Then the seafood and fish arrived, fresh, full of flavor, meticulously prepared. It was as if we were going back in time, to a simplicity and authenticity that are so rare today.

We complimented Jorge Pimenta and his mother Suzette, the restaurant owners, on the quality of their food. They responded with modesty: “Everything we do is simple but we try to do it well.  The percebes were caught this morning right on the beach. The fish is very fresh. All we do is respect the ingredients that the sea brings to us.”

The reasonably-priced wine list has many great choices. But in a restaurant where everything is local, it makes sense to drink the magical wine produced nearby in Casal de Santa Maria by a Russian Baron who is 103 years old.

The same family has owned the Restaurante da Adraga for four generations. In the beginning of the 20th century, queen Dona Amélia used to come here to eat fish while the king hunted in the Sintra mountain. One century later, the Adraga restaurant continues to delight anyone who loves great food, whether or not they have royal blood.

Restaurante da Adraga is located at Praia da Adraga, 143, Sintra, tel. 219280028. Reservations are a must. Ask for a table near the windows facing the beach for a spectacular view.

Sweet temptations in Sintra

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Sintra queijadas from Pastelaria Gregório

The road to Sintra is paved with sweet temptations. We stopped for a coffee at Pastelaria Gregório and couldn’t resist eating one of their travesseiros (pillows). They were still warm, the layers of dough fusing with the rich almond cream. Our palates were so delighted that we asked for a queijada, another classic Sintra pastry. A plate with several miniature queijadas arrived and, although we tried, it was impossible to eat only one.

Gregório Ribeiro started producing and selling these wonderful queijadas in 1890. The business continues to be in the family. Gregório’s great-grandchildren work at the pastry store, making sure that the quality is exceptional, baking the pastries in small batches so that everything is fresh out of the oven.

There was a constant flow of regular customers who came in for their favorite sweet treats: almond tarts, bolos de amor (love cakes), broas de mel (honey cakes), and much more. We asked Teresa Matos, the owner of Pastelaria Gregório, whether they’re always this busy.

“Christmas is our toughest season,” she answered. “Customers love our traditional Bolo Rei (king’s cake) so there’s always a long line outside the store. We know it’s frustrating to wait for so long to buy our cake. But we don’t want to bake the cakes in advance because they lose their freshness.”

“Is the cake really worth the wait?” we asked. “You need to decide for yourself,” said Teresa with a mischievous smile. In December we’ll be waiting in line to find out.

Pastelaria Gregório is located at Av. D. Francisco de Almeida 33/35 in Sintra, tel. 219-232-733.

 

Our favorite restaurant in Sintra

Azenhas do Mar Composit

Our favorite restaurant in the Sintra region is not in Sintra. It is in a nearby beach called Azenhas do Mar. If you’re visiting Sintra it is worth traveling the 12 km to restaurant Adega das Azenhas.

Located in an old wine cellar, Adega serves Portuguese fare without a trace of foreign influence. Everything on the menu is simply great: fried codfish, hake fillets, codfish cakes, black pork chops, fried cuttlefish, grilled fish eggs. Some of the most delicious dishes have untranslatable Portuguese names: pasteis de massa tenra, rissois de leitão, cozido à Portuguesa.

If you go to Azenhas do Mar at night you’ll enjoy a great dinner. If you go during the day, you’ll have the added bonus of seeing the gorgeous landscape of the Colares region.

Colares is the plural of colar, a word that means necklace. It is a fitting word to describe this region that surrounds Sintra with beautiful views and delicious food.

Adega das Azenhas is located on the main road that crosses Azenhas do Mar (Avenida Comissão de Melhoramentos, 5), tel 21-928-1357.

Monserrate: a must-see palace in Sintra

Monserrate - ©mariarebelophotography.comSintra has many romantic palaces but each has something unique to offer. One of our favorites is Monserrate, a palace surrounded by luscious gardens built in 1856 by Francis Cook, a famous British art collector.

When the Portuguese government bought the estate in 1949, the palace was in disrepair. The costly restoration work started in 1999 and only finished recently. It was worth the wait. We now have the privilege of seeing how the palace looked when the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen visited it in 1866. Here’s what he wrote:

“Large white bell-flowers hang from one tree; pearl-shaped, rose-colored berries from another, juicy fruits and sun-filled colored flowers grew here. Down over the smooth velvet lawn rippled the clear spring water. Above this fresh green, the castle rose in Moorish style, a fit subject for the Arabian Nights or a romantic fairy picture. The sun sank into the sea, which became rose-colored; the brightness of the sea and sky was reflected magically upon the marble white walls and decorations, filling with light the large mirror-clear window panes. The air was so warm, so still, so penetrated with the perfume of flowers, that one felt carried away from reality.”