Recently I had the privilege of taking an amazing vacation to Europe. It is something I’d been saving for and looking forward to for a long time. Of all my journeys I have many places which I’d like to share and write about, but I figured I’d start by examining a place which may lie off the beaten path for most. While most people wouldn’t find themselves headed to Portugal with the town of Sintra in mind, I can assure you it’s a marvelous daytrip from Lisbon and a great experience of the countryside and culture of Portugal. This town is easily reached by any number of buses or trains as well as a series of good highways if you happen to be using a car. The town always has visitors but the weekends are especially magical with various festivals and events. More than anything, the local attraction is the stunning beauty of the sculpted mountains and polished estates in this city. The landscape itself is majestic and inspiring, so much so that the Portuguese felt like crowning these natural formations with their Romantic expressions.
The area within which the town is set is known as Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. This region is mountainous compared to the hilly aspects of Lisbon. Gorgeous cliff faces of sheet white are crowned with layers of verdant forests and wild flowers bloom in the abundant shade. This region was prized from hundreds of years ago for its natural beauty by poets and cartographers and eventually caught the eye of kings and nobles. Al Bacr, Luis de Camoes and Lord Byron were some of the many writers who were inspired by this landscape. Kings of both Portuguese and Moorish decent have been building here since the 9th century. The oldest building then is the Castelo dos Mouros which was built in the 9th century and renovated in the 19th century. This is a fantastic castle whose walls run the length of the front cliff which overlooks much of the forests and plains below. As you begin your climb towards the city in whatever form of transportation, these walls will be the first signs of Sintra to greet you. The restoration has been very exact by reconstructing much of what fell into disrepair but making sure everything remained in its exact locations and dimensions. It is a delight of medieval architecture and it possesses many of the castle essentials such as a cemetery, wells and storerooms for a siege and walls that defend against heavy warfare.
Another fabulous wonder with compelling views of the mountainside and region is the Sintra National Palace. This is a building whose foundations go back to the 10th century and Moorish rulers as well. Nothing remains of the original palace but the 15th century rebuilding King John of Portugal undertook displays a veritable synthesis of Moorish, Gothic and Manueline motifs. The building features its royal chapel as its earliest room and then branches out into a series of rooms built over many centuries often named for common birds. What is different about this palace from the Castelo dos Mouros is that this was often used as a royal summer residence and remains opulently decorated and furnished. Of all the palatial estates this one is closest to the small plateau which forms the town square and common district. Thus it is a great place from which to wander into town and explore many Portuguese culinary delights. Since you are only about 15 kilometers from the beach at this point be on the lookout for some great seafood as well as hearty country fare from the mountains.
Probably one of the most ornate palaces I’ve ever seen and definitely the crown jewel in this collection of Sintra is the famous Pena Palace which sits on the highest peak above the town and offers views from the sea on one side and all the way to Lisbon on the other. The walk even with a bus or car is not for the faint of heart, but the arrival at the palace from the moss-covered forest is simply stunning. There are a series of shuttles which take those unable or unwilling to walk right to the front gates, but if you can walk it, I highly recommend doing so. My first impressions of the Pena Palace from without are that of a delightful, colorful citadel that dominates the skyline. It is like a Romance era skyscraper which dazzles the eyes. As in the Sintra National Palace it is lavishly furnished and served as a summer residence with all the royal needs being met and accounted for. The foundations originally served as a chapel and then a monastery in the middle ages and eventually the palace was constructed after the monastery was destroyed by various earthquakes and storms. Ferdinand II in the 19th century took the abandoned property and decided to build a new summer residence for the royals. The result is today’s palace which is a proper icon of the Romantic school of architecture. Besides the sumptuous interiors the external façade is a collection of fascinating ornaments from many different periods and movements. One set of yellow towers are adorned with vaulted arches while the courtyard has an Islamic style and the central passageway is set in a Mauve coloring with a fascinating carving of a newt coming out of the wall. Neo-Renaissance, Manueline and Gothic elements also abound on this truly eclectic structure.
There are many places and things to see wherever you go exploring. Sometimes however I’m always attracted by what could be nearby to where I’m going. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the place where I am, it’s just a premonition that great things are to be found all around. It’s not always easy to get outside of an urban district especially when you are traveling, but Sintra is by far one of the easiest and best daytrips I’ve found outside a major city. If you value an encounter with beauty and nature and are looking for a step beyond the ordinary be sure and get to Sintra and find the jewels of the Portuguese landscape.