Be it rain, sleet, snow, or in my case, volcanic ash, I was determined to take the journey to Portugal. I had been inspired by one of my Wellesley friends, who had remarked, “Portugal is a hidden, and relatively cheap gem that fews Americans frequent. Oh, also it has its own version of Disneyland!” Given her reference to my favorite childhood theme park, I knew that despite four rescheduled flights and an ominous Icelandic volcano threatening to challenge my travel plans further, I had to experience the Portuguese theme park.
However, what she neglected to mention was that said theme park was, in fact, a town onto itself– Sintra. And Sintra was a specific type of Disneyland– one for adults, not children. Despite this knowledge, Mike, my travel companion, and I had no specific expectations for the town, except that it involve a degree of spontaneity and adventure. Taking our cue from our lovely hostel hosts, we ventured to the less popular tourist attraction–Quinta da Regaleira, a breathtaking UNESCO World Heritage site.
Known as the “Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire,” named after its first owner Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, it offers a romantic palace, marked by distinctly neo-classical gothic architecture, as well as luxurious gardens, parks, lakes… and wait for it: secret passageways. Yes, the Disneyland for Adults site, has several caves beneath it– connecting the palace to a variety of wondrous towers, ponds, and labyrinths. In said caves, there are rocks, which if manipulated correctly, give way to magical doors that can be shifted to reveal surprises on the other side.
Honestly, Mike and I felt like kids in a fully-stocked candy store, climbing and shifting and leaping, as we attempted to uncover every mystery within the palatial grounds. Though, I think we both agreed that the biggest highlight was navigating through a cave mirroring the effects of blindness, only to discover what can be described as the Tower of Babylon at the end of it. It was as if we were characters in the cheesy Nicholas Cage film “National Treasure” (2004); only this was not some computer-generated cinematic visual. It was real life. Well, sort of.
Said tower appeared to extend beyond the heavens, giving new meaning to the Led Zeppelin song, “Stairway to Heaven.” Though a bit tired from all the aforementioned leaping and climbing, Mike and I took the tower as a challenge. And, slowly but surely, we weaved around the entirety of it. Upon arriving at the top, we took the requisite Rocky victory shot. We we on top of the world– literally and metaphorically. Instead of being a figurative mountain climber, I had conquered my fear of nature and stone and become an actual athlete.
A significant part of the abroad experience is placing one’s self in uncomfortable or challenging situations. As a self-proclaimed bookworm with the grace of a small elephant, athletics had not and will never be my area of expertise. I relied on the experiences of my friends, and until the Sintra excursion, lived vicariously through them. But at the top of Quinta da Regaleira, I realized that for the first time I was actually living in the non-vicarious sense. I was creating my own narrative, independent of the adventures of others.
And notably, independent of the affections of another person. As a single girl, traveling with a platonic friend– who even the people at the hostel refused to believe was just platonically engaged with me– I had feared traveling, even within a Western European context. If something were to go awry, I would have no prince charming to come to my rescue. However, looking out beyond the Quinta gates, I realized sometimes I don’t need a prince to feel satisfied or secure. Getting lost within the castle walls, I felt a profound sense of completeness. Everything was as it should be. I had a breathtaking fortress to call my own, and despite the lack of romantic male companionship with which to share its glory, I was content. I could and did experience an existential sort of happiness, for which this year abroad has taught me I am capable of doing on quite a regular basis.
So my words of departing wisdom: Forget about finding Prince Charming on your travels; focus on finding his castles and creating your own adventures within them.