Once upon a time in Sintra
ings, extravagant millionaires, monks and poets with dandy airs. Hidden by layers of history and thick forests, Portugal’s most romantic village has been home to them all. Sintra’s residents tend to think quite a lot of themselves. And understandably so. Every inch of the village is protected by UNESCO and listed as a “Cultural Landscape” site. Narrow, winding streets that cross garden after garden, and cliffs that drop down to the Atlantic come together in one of the most mysterious and bizarre places in all of Portugal.
As moisture rolls in off the Atlantic, it encounters Sintra’s hills creating a foggy panorama and a special microclimate. The weather, with pleasant summer temperatures, and the location – Sintra is on Lisbon’s doorstep – appealed to the Portuguese court and nobles, who built residences and palaces during the 19th century in what would become their favourite holiday destination. With Romanticism in full swing, the architecture was heavily inspired by medieval, over-the-top and exotic styles. Sintra’s aura also served as a beacon for the wealthy young artists who were travelling Europe at the time, and became a refuge for writers including Hans Christian Andersen or the poet Lord Byron, who described the city as a “glorious Eden.”
The exploding Atlantic
There’s more to Sintra than its castles. Nature steals the show as waves break over the 100-metre cliffs of the Sintra-Cascais Nature Park. Praia Grande, the largest beach on the Portuguese coastline, is located inside the park and is ideal for surfing and hunting dinosaur footprints.
The highest peak of Sintra’s mountain range spawns the spectacularly colourful Palace of Pena, the epitome of the city’s extravagance. Overlooking the valley, the building was designed as a summer residence for Ferdinand II, the ‘artist king,’ in the mid-19th century, incorporating a 16th century convent. The mash-up of styles reveals Gothic, Manueline, Islam and Renaissance influences. Every style is in a different colour: purple, burgundy and mustard, like a psychedelic Disney castle.
The wall surrounding the Castelo dos Mouros, built by the Arabs between the 8th and 9th centuries as a defensive enclave, offers views of the eclectic constructions that dot the mountainscape all the way down to the city centre. Looking out over the rooftops, it’s impossible to miss the towering white chimneys of the National Palace of Sintra, huge twin 33-metre conical structures that crown a construction that was built in the 11th century. The palace grew new architectural elements during the different kingdoms and has looked the same since the 16th century. Once inside, the highlights are the geometric designs of one of the most important collections of Moorish tiles in the world.
Located near the city centre, Montserrate Palace is one of the best examples of Romantic architecture, together with the Palacio da Pen. The exotic and decadent décor with Gothic, Indian and Moorish influences, inspired Lord Byron, who wrote his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’ while staying here in 1809. The gardens are some of the most interesting in Portugal, nurturing Mexican yuccas, gigantic New Zealand ferns and Japanese bamboo. A collection featuring more than 3,500 botanical species brought from around the world in the mid-19th century by wealthy owner Francis Cook.
The splendour and excess of the 18th century court is also alive in the National Palace of Queluz. The ‘Portuguese Versailles’ was the setting for legendary parties hosted in the gardens by the royal family during the halcyon days of their rule: fireworks, ephemeral architecture, horses and bullfighting were all part of the fun.
One of the most breathtaking locations in Sintra is Quinta da Regaleira, a neo Gothic mansion designed by Italian architect Luigi Manini. Fantasy and mystery take over in this enigmatic construction overflowing with symbols and riddles linked to alchemy, Masons and Templars. Surrounded by lakes, grottos, waterfalls, false doors and secret tunnels, the ‘initiation well’ spirals down a winding staircase inspired by ‘The Divine Comedy.’
Before you leave this magical city, you need to ride a horse-pulled carriage along the cobbled streets of Sintra. It’s the closest mere mortals will ever get to feeling royal.