Sintra is a must-do day trip from Lisbon, but we visited and stayed the night after finishing our swing through the Algarve region of southern Portugal. There is evidence of the Celts worshipping their moon gods in the verdant hills north of Lisbon and in the 9th century, the Moors built a castle atop a 412m hill where they could survey the entrance to the Rio Tejo and protect their interests from invaders.
The advantage of height wasn’t lost on the nobility of Portugal either. When the rabble sweltered in the heat and humidity of the port city, the royals and their hangers-on would head for the hills and cool themselves on the mild breezes and on the shady walks afforded by the lush vegetation that covered the heights. A massive botanical garden filled with an incredible variety of plants not native to the region is another reason for visitors to dawdle.
After the royals built their palaces at Sintra, the elite followed suit and constructed hundreds of villas and grand estates in order to live comfortably as well and to rub shoulders with those they admired. The palaces are now the property of the state and many of the private homes have been converted into guesthouses and hotels for today’s tourists to visit and for the residents of Lisbon to escape life in the big city, breath the fresh air and relax for the weekend.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
For many, the Palácio Nacional de Sintra is the main attraction in Sintra-Vila. Its garnered UNESCO World Heritage status and most visitors make a point to tour its elegant rooms filled with an array of antiques and decorated with some of the oldest and best-preserved azulejos (ceramic tiles). It was originally a Moorish palace, but was expanded by the different kings over the centuries with each adding their own touches and filling the rooms with their favorite collections.
We were most intrigued with the tall conical towers jutting out from the palace roof, especially when we learned that they were the chimneys for the kitchens. We walked rather hurriedly through the extensive corridors and salons, but lingered with interest in the kitchens, with their rows and rows of woodstoves and a massive multi-level spit for roasting whole animals in the center of the kitchen itself. No wonder huge chimneys were needed to deal with the heat and smoke that would have resulted from all those fires burning at once.
There are four main sights to see when visiting Sintra, but we felt we could manage the three major ones without resorting to driving from one to another. We had just spent the previous week touring southern Portugal and we were ready to get some serious exercise and challenge ourselves at the same time. When we exited the National Palace, we looked up to the top of the hill to the Moor’s Castle and made a pledge to hike up instead of taking the car or a bus.
To our delight, most of the staircase built into the side of the hill was shaded by tall trees and the weather was near perfect. There were few other people making the trek and we felt like we had the surroundings to ourselves. At one point near the edge of Sintra-Vila, we came upon a small church and found a family posing for photos. They were celebrating the baptism of their youngest member and were delighted when I asked if I could take a photo of the group. Suddenly, one of the men realized that perhaps I could take a group photo using his camera so that the entire family could pose together. As you can well imagine, when I agreed, I found myself with several cameras taking several photos.
At last we reached the entrance to the Castelo Dos Mouros, but our climbing wasn’t over, not by a long shot. Many have likened the castle to a mini-Great Wall of China and we spent the next hour climbing along all the lengths of the remaining structures, right to the very top. We sat and had a light picnic there while admiring the Palácio Nacional Da Pena, another 200m above us. What we had known in advance, but was made even clearer to us from that vantage point was the fact that we had to hike down into the valley between the two hills and then back up again to reach the fairytale palace in the distance.
Fortified by our meal, we set out for colourful palace atop Sintra’s highest peak and arrived at the entrance gate to find several tour buses disgorging their passengers. We knew that the quiet enjoyment we had experienced till that point was gone, but the unusual nature of the Palácio De Pena was too much to resist. The palace is built on a site that once housed a medieval chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. King Manuel I had a monastery built as a quiet place of meditation for a small group of monks, followers of St. Jerome. Centuries later the monastery was almost completely destroyed by the earthquake in AD 1755.
Decades later, King Ferdinand began the transformation of the site into a summer retreat for the Portuguese royal family. The mixture of architectural styles was deliberate. The interiors are so elaborately decorated that it is difficult to take it all in on one visit. I much preferred the exterior elements and the profusion of towers, arches, gates, windows, and doorways. It felt a little like Disneyland on steroids. Over time, the colours of the exterior walls faded to a soft grey and people began to forget that it was once an explosion of hues and tones. It was repainted in the late 20th century, much to the chagrin of many who were not aware of the palace’s former glory.
The day had passed quickly and we knew it was time to make our way back to our guesthouse and on to Lisbon. We had booked tickets to fly to the Madeira Islands early the following morning so there was no lingering for us in Sintra. We managed to find our hotel, the Quintas Das Murtas with the help of a very friendly laborer who drove his truck down the roads outside Sintra-Vila, as we made our way down the steep trails.
Can you imagine how surprised we were to find him traversing back and forth in order to be at just the right point where we had to make a choice as to which fork to take? When we reached our car parked just outside our guesthouse, he sailed by once more, his arm out the window of the truck, a big smile on his face and his thumb in the air. He had surely gone out of his way to ensure we reached our destination, and there was no way we could thank him other than by raising our thumbs in the air in return.
As is usual for us, we avoided the major highways that would take us back to Lisbon in a flash, and headed for the secondary roads that were entirely more scenic. We passed a sign for the Convento Dos Capuchos, the fourth major site for tourists at Sintra. I would have liked to tour the small hermitage, built in AD 1512 to house twelve monks, but it was already closed for the day. It was then that I made a navigational error that caused us to be hopelessly lost for over an hour or more. I was trying to reach Cabo Da Roca, the western-most mainland point in Europe. We tend to like getting to these kinds of geographical spots and this was another on our list.
We finally figured out our error and got ourselves on the correct road just as the sun was dipping close to the horizon. Anil swore up and down that my mistakes were deliberate; meant to get us to Cabo Da Roca for the sunset, when he was keen to get to our hotel in Lisbon. Someone else was guiding us that evening because I was so very frustrated by the confusion that I came close to giving up entirely. That’s not like me at all.
To our delight, we were in for a spectacular sunset, standing with a very few other hearty souls that Sunday evening, near a beautiful lighthouse, looking out into the vast Atlantic. Anil was kind enough to agree to pose near the stone marker and then we hurried to our car and were the first to leave, not waiting for complete darkness, but heading out to the superhighway and speeding off to the glaring lights of Lisbon and a well-earned rest in a comfy bed.