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The Sinister Castle

The view was breathtaking — until the sun set, leaving us alone with a guide we didn’t know

It was late afternoon when I caught up with Sharon in the hotel bar. She was the roommate assigned to me by the travel company that ran my 1974 trip to Spain and Portugal. A teacher from New Jersey, she was older than me by 15 years, and, I thought, more worldly wise.
    She was chatting with a man whom she introduced as Robert, a ­fellow American. “He’s an archeologist,” she told me. “He’s working on an old castle that’s not yet open to the public. Want to ride out with us and take a look?”
    Wow! What an opportunity, I thought, so a short while later, I found myself in the backseat of one of those small roadsters, an MG or an Austin Healey, with the top down and the wind whipping through my hair.
    We flew through the countryside, past groves of olive trees, vineyards of ripening grapes, goats grazing in fields.
    At last we looked up at the castle. More like a fortress than a fairy tale palace, it stood as a silent sentry atop a mountain covered with outcroppings of ancient trees.
    A hush descended on us as we passed through a wooden turnstile to enter the outermost wall of the stronghold. It seemed as if we were traveling back in time as we climbed a winding dirt path bordered on either side by worn granite walls. Huge moss-covered boulders were scattered among thickets of undergrowth. Where cobblestone paved our way, roots from ancient oak trees reached into the path so we had to watch our footing.
    I felt a chill when we came to a monolith with a crescent moon, a cross and a skull carved into the stone. Robert told us Moors had built the castle in the eighth or ninth century. In 1147, when Christians conquered Lisbon, inhabitants surrendered the castle without a fight. Throughout the centuries, a chapel was added, renovations were made, an earthquake shook the edifice, more reconstruction followed.
    We hiked uphill over hazardous uneven stairs until we reached the pinnacle of the castle. The view was breathtaking: Below us the flat countryside stretched for miles in one direction while in the other the Atlantic Ocean lay vast, powerful and ominous. As we took in the panorama before us, the sun sank into the sea and we found ourselves gazing from a turret into the black night.
    Tales we heard in Spain about tourist kidnappings came roaring into mind. In one story, a girl left her boyfriend in the front of a shop to view a carpet in the back. He became frantic when she didn’t return and couldn’t be found, presumably rolled up into a carpet and shipped away, never to be seen again. We remembered hearing that white slavers were always looking for naïve young American girls, especially blondes (as I was at the time).
    Sharon and I shared the same thoughts: Here we were out in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country with a man we didn’t know. Was Robert really an archeologist? Why hadn’t we been more careful? Why had we been so trusting? Why hadn’t we told anyone where we were going? Would we ever see home again?
    We grabbed hold of each other’s arms as the man started to lead us back down the hill, which now loomed before us like a descent into the underworld. Navigating our way was painfully slow. We walked with one hand outstretched to avoid bumping into a wall and shuffled along the uneven path to avoid tripping or falling.
    Robert (was that even his real name?) had a pack of matches. He lit them one by one, the sound of a scraping match and the hiss of flame the only things we heard as our hearts beat faster and faster. A match caught, flared in the darkness, and we stumbled forward a few steps until the light flickered and died, sulfur wafting in the wisp of smoke. He scraped another against the matchbook for a few more moments of light, and another, until no more matches remained. We were surrounded by total darkness as dread filled our minds.

•   •   •   •   •

The castle at Sintra — so sinister in our imaginations — is now open to the public, a popular tourist side trip from Lisbon.