Before I write paragraphs upon paragraphs about how great Portugal is, I’ll talk about my visit to Sintra, a short day trip from Lisbon.
Sintra is a city about 40 minutes away from Lisbon, easily accessible by train for just 3.40 euros roundtrip. It was originally a Moorish city and the remnants of the Moorish Castle built in the 8th-9th centuries sit forebodingly on a hilltop above the town. In 1147, a Portuguese king recaptured the area and it became a favorite vacation spot of Portuguese aristocracy for 600 years.
It was also a favorite place of Lord Byron (who I am quite fond of). He wrote: “Lo! Sintra’s glorious Eden intervenes/In variegated maze of mount and glen/Ah me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen/To follow half on which the eye dilates/Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken/Than those whereof such things the bard relates/Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium’s gates?” and in a letter to a friend, “I must just observe that the village of Sintra in Estramadura is the most beautiful, perhaps in the world. I am very happy here.”
The magic and weirdness started on the train. There was a ginormous aqueduct next to modern 20-story apartment buildings AND the oldest intact buildings I’ve ever seen. It was such a crazy combination, I wish I had captured with my camera, but I didn’t and the internet pictures do not give justice to the weird juxtaposition.
Sintra is a page out of a fairytale. I do not totally understand why it is this way; what started this architectural craze. But the town is nestled in these eerie mysterious hills, partly shrouded in fog on the morning that I arrived. And dotting the countryside are ornately decorated, rainbow bright palaces – sitting on properties designed to be “playgrounds” for the rich (you’ll see what I mean soon). It’s like a cool decaying theme park.
The medieval national palace in the center of town.
The forest is just as weird as the buildings. The only way I can describe it is that it is exactly as if you were in a Disney animated princess movie. In one panorama, you never see the same type of tree twice; massive and perfectly rounded rocks sit amongst the trees and in some places everything is covered in a perfect layer of bright green moss. As far as your eye can see, it looks like someone has edited the scene and increased the contrast and saturation. I hope that my pictures will make up for where my description is lacking.
I walked to Pena Palace (a former monastery converted into a palace for Queen Dona Maria II of Portugal) on the highest hill and the Moorish Castle just across from it.
The Moorish Castle as seen from Pena Palace.
I wish I could show you the map of the grounds for these palaces. They’re extensive. The second one I visited, Quinta da Regaleira, was a cheaper entrance fee and even better than the Pena one. It is built in the “exuberantly decorative” neo-manueline style, a perfect example of Portuguese romanticism.
A door in the dining room of the house.
The “garden”, though it’s more appropriate to call it the many acre park that the house sits on, is [direct quote] “an image of the Cosmos, revealed through a succession of magic and mysterious places… A candidate is led by an Ariadne’s thread on their metaphysical quest for paradise… Various scenes from their journey appear along the way and in these realms abound references to the worlds of mythology, to the mission of the Templars, to great mystics and miraculous magicians, and to the enigmas of alchemy.”
Simply put, it’s a giant playground of awesomeness. After the main gate, there’s a terrace of statues, a chapel, a grotto, multiple fountains, a tennis court, multiple towers offering viewpoints over the grounds, a greenhouse, multiple caves, a waterfall, and, oh yeah, a subterranean tower (7 story) that leads you to a series of underground tunnels that link different monuments together. Example: sneak behind the waterfall and you will find a tunnel that you can follow to one of the caves, or a fountain, or back to the tower. It is actually really scary. When you’re alone, and the tunnels are totally dark.
The main gate.
Chapel with house in the background.
Go behind the fountain to get to the tunnels.
The subterranean tower!
The waterfall area (connected to tunnels).