Friends and family have asked about Portugal, “Is it crowded?” My answer has always been, “There are people everywhere, but it’s not crowded” Until, that is, I got to Sintra.
I knew I was pushing my luck by going on a weekend, but due to travel schedules, museum closures, and nonrefundable hotels I had now booked onward, there was no other option. It was go on a Sunday or not go at all. Another of Portugal’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites, Sintra is known for its beautiful setting, romantic ambiance, and fantasy-like architecture. There are palaces perched on hilltops, Moorish castles, flower-lined paths through lush gardens. It’s the Number One day trip outside of Lisbon, and often listed as Portugal’s number one tourist attraction. Everybody says, “Be sure to go to Sintra! You’re gonna love it! Don’t miss it!”
It’s only half an hour from Lisbon by train, leaving from the cavernous Rossio Train Station, which adds an additional reason I want to go. It’s literally outside the door of the hostal where I am staying, not more than 50 footsteps. So it’s a kick to walk out the door and step onto the train without ever leaving the building.
Social Media has dictated so many changes in our lives, changes that seem to be doubling at the speed of light, particularly for those of us who can remember when a phone was just a phone. I have ranted in the past about how things like “listicles” (articles listing “Top ‘X’ places we must see in 2019.”) are funneling tourists, creating hot spots. (And I use the term “hot spot” to mean like a blister on a worn callous, not as the “in” place to be.) But it’s not only changed things geographically. It’s also changing things culturally.
For example, I seem to be one of the few travelers who actually uses a camera these days. I’d say one out of 100 take photos with a traditional camera, while the other 99 wave their smartphones or tablets into the air, trying to see the image over the crowds, pinching and spreading to get the photo into frame. Have you ever noticed how much longer it takes to take a photo on a phone? First, there is the swipe, followed by the selection of sizes. Then there is the tapping to achieve the right lighting and focus on the face, followed by multiple attempts at hitting the right button, particularly if you are taking the photo with someone else’s phone. It’s not as quick as one might think.
But then comes the part that sends me into a rage….the review stage. The arms come down, the head goes down, and the subject rejoins while they stand there hunched over the phone, oblivious to the fact that they are still blocking the “feature” while they do post editing. Pinch and spread the photo into frame, crop, change the filter, pull up the Instagram app, type in a catchy caption, make up a few hashtags, and tag the subjects. All while standing in front, blocking the fountain, castle, palace, statue, whatever.
Whereas with a traditional camera, settings are often preset making it possible to step into the spot, get the subject reasonably within frame, tap the button, and step aside to let others have their turn.
Sites like Instagram and Facebook have not only changed the way we take photos, they’ve changed the subject matter as well. I really hadn’t thought about this much until my frustrations in trying to photograph the palace at Sintra. Since it’s a fairytale-like setting, I began to notice young women engaging in a type of “cosplay” where they were posing like princesses wearing sundresses with long flowing skirts, vintage straw handbags. I even saw one woman posing in a sheer, ankle length tulle skirt. And of course always the ubiquitous wide-brimmed Instagram hat.
These young women typically work in pairs, switching roles while one is the photographer, and the other is the model. There are poses looking whimsically up at the turrets, one hand on the hat while the other hand holds the skirt hem or straw bag. There are those who pose from the back view, their tresses flowing out of the hat brim. Sitting on the majestic staircase looking pensive with ankles crossed, elbows on knees. Sunglasses slid down the nose while looking coquettishly over the shoulder. And then they reverse roles. It’s fascinating if you stop long enough to observe. And you will have plenty of time to observe while standing in the midday sun, waiting your turn for these photo shoots to wrap up so you can grab a photo of the actual palace itself!
I do not begrudge anyone for getting their photos. Or for visiting the places to which social media has alerted us all, and made us feel like we’ve got to get there now, or miss out on living our best lives. But for goodness sakes, when you are at Sintra on a Sunday, snap the shots..then please…step aside!