sintra spain

Despite clear instructions to trust our car’s navigation system through Sintra, Portugal, we decided to go our own way…turns out, it was not the best decision. Learn from our mistake.


Words by Francois Lachapelle


MY GIRLFRIEND AND I WENT to Sintra for a day while visiting Portugal to see Pena Palace and the Moorish castle ruins. Once off the train, I noticed a sign for Sight Sintra – a company renting battery-operated cars. We were told to choose one of three routes and the GPS would not only guide us to the sights we wanted to see, but also tell us about points of interest along the way. Additionally, we’d get prime parking spots at both the palace and castle, and our rental fee included admission to each. Sold!  

They told us to stick to the GPS route as it was mapped-out based on the vehicle’s battery life. The car was tiny. We sat almost shoulder-to-shoulder and the backs of our seats touched the rear window, but Sintra’s streets are narrow and twisty, so our little car was perfect for navigating them. We had a blast just driving, so it was almost disappointing when we arrived at our first stop.

After a full afternoon sightseeing, we made our way back to the rental booth. We arrived, as requested, right at 4 p.m. The two gentlemen told us they were there until 6 p.m so they suggested we take the car back to the old part of town (about 10 minutes away) for more sightseeing.

So off we went. We parked, walked around and ate cream tarts. With some time left to spare, I wanted to keep touring.

We had time before our scheduled car drop-off but it was almost dark as we headed up a hill with the GPS chatting away about what we were passing. And then, the “low battery” signal flashed. Although my girlfriend wanted to turn around immediately, I decided we could go a bit further before going back toward town. Soon thereafter, the lights started to dim in the car… then the headlights… then our speed slowed, power dropped and the battery died altogether.

It was 5:45 p.m. and we were somewhere on a hill surrounded by forest in the pitch-black of night with a now-dead GPS. We reasoned that if we could just get the car up the slight incline in front of us, we could roll back into town.

And so, it was time to push. While my girlfriend drove, I pushed until my legs burned before we traded places — she was howling with laughter but I did not find the same humour in the situation. She pushed, still laughing, until we got to the top of the incline then jumped in and we cruised to the bottom only to find we were still nowhere near the town.

With a 15-minute drive to home base, we had no option but to call and fess-up to doing exactly what they’d warned us not to. My girlfriend picked-up the phone and tried to explain where we were. Turns out, “a fork in the road beside a statue with a fountain” is too common a place in Sintra, so they had no idea where to find us. Finally, a bus came around the corner and we got the driver on the phone to give proper directions. The guys showed up 20 minutes later pulling a small trailer.

They weren’t angry but one said, “This is why we told you to just go into town and then come straight back.” Mortified, we climbed into the back seat, offering up our cream tarts in an attempt to rectify the situation. They kindly dropped us back off at the train station and we left with a very important lesson to share with fellow travellers: When in Sintra, rent the car – it’s too much fun not to – but stick to the GPS route to avoid total embarrassment.