Sintra Stories and Tips

Sintra

Adeus, Good-bye Cascais, and off to Sintra, we took bus No 417 at the bus station behind the train station and went inland and up for 38 minutes, the Mediterranean vegetation of the coast gave way to mountains covered by dense green forests:

Sintra is a town of about 20 000 inhabitants situated on a slope with the ruins of a Moorish fortress on the top of the mountain. We got off at the highest point of the town, the National Palace which is in the middle of the slope with the town below, the palace and the town were classified by UNESCO as part of World Heritage in 1995.

Built on the remains of another Moorish fortress the palace was used for centuries by the Portuguese royal families as a refuge from the unbearable heat of Lisbon and outbreaks of the plague, the building was expanded several times, it‘s not easy to walk through and not lose one’s way, there are frequent twists and turns (open from 10am to 5.30 pm, closed on Wednesdays and public holidays.

It‘s a small and ‘liveable‘ palace, not at all show-offy. I found two rooms outstanding: King Alfonso IV‘s bedroom to which he was confined for nine years by his brother King Pedro II until he finally died there and the so-called Magpie Room, a private antechamber whose ceiling is decorated with magpies holding ribbons in their beaks bearing the King‘s motto ‘For the Best‘. When King João I was caught by his English Queen kissing a lady-in-waiting, he remarked ‘It was for the best‘; although his wife forgave him, he was so enraged by the continuous palace gossip that he ordered magpies to be painted above the scene of crime, as many as there were ladies at the court – 136!

After the visit of the palace we relaxed in the Café Paris opposite, it can‘t be missed, the whole front is covered in blue tiles, it was built in 1800 in the classical Parisian café style, we took a café com laite (coffee with milk) and a queijada, a small sweet cake of almonds and cottage cheese, delicious!

We hadn‘t been to Sintra when we were in Portugal the first time twenty-one years ago, it was nice to discover something new. I liked the national Palace but I was overwhelmed by the Palácio da Pena we visited next (approximately 5 km out of town). We had only our old guidebooks with us with ugly black and white photos, so we weren‘t prepared for what we saw: we bough tickets in a booth beside the street (4 Euro/concession 2 Euro), came into a park where an odd vehicle was waiting, a kind of mini train in which one could ride up the steep mountain if one didn‘t want to walk, we took it and when we had climbed up we saw the kitschiest castle ever! An irregular building with grey, pink and yellow walls and parapets, sugar-baker style ornaments everywhere, onion shaped yellow tops on the towers, pinnacles galore, a drawbridge, Disneyland come alive in Portugal!

‘Kitsch‘ is a German word. Why am I telling you this? Well, the building as we see it today was thought up by Queen Maria II‘s consort, the German Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, aided and abetted by a German architect, Baron Eschwege, they recreated a medieval castle in the middle of the 19th century, someone called the outcome a ‘Wagnerian monstrosity‘, but for me the whole thing was so kitschy that I liked it.

The rooms on the upper floor look as if the royal family may come back any minute, they‘re complete with furniture, crockery and cutlery on the tables, soap and towel beside the bathtub, emroidery in tambour frames, pictures on the walls; I’ve never seen anything like that.

The Parque de Pena is one of the largest and loveliest parks in Europe, the Monserrate Gardens nearby are fascinating for botanists, they were laid out by the Englishman Francis Cook, also in the 19th century and contain over 3000 species of plants.

No wonder that for Lord Byron Sintra was ‘Glorious Eden‘! (The Portuguese have forgiven him that he called Lisbon shabby).

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