Sintra is endowed with a unique, almost mysterious quality. The small chain of mountains (serra), smothered in rampant tropical vegetation, emerges almost miraculously in the far flung suburbs of Lisbon. The lush greenery provides a sharp contrast with the surrounding arid plains. The rains swept off the Ocean catch on the peaks and stream down the impermeable granite rocks, gorging the site in moisture. The town, often shrouded in thick mist at dawn, seems almost magical, to such an extent that you may even think you can hear the calls of the macaws and the monkeys.
A few particularly inspired Prehistoric tribes came here to worship the moon. The Moors built a fortress on the ruins of which the kings of the Age of Discovery established their residence, a bona fide Portuguese Alhambra that was to become the Palàcio Real (Royal Palace). Lisbon’s nobility has ever sought refuge and a cooler climate here, building aristocratic villas (quintas) set in luxuriant gardens. In the 19th century, artists, poets and writers also fell in love with this cool mountain resort that seemed so suited to romantic daydreaming. It inspired Byron to write Childe Harald’s Pilgrimage to Portugal and also poet Fernando Pessoa. Paul Morand, an ardent cosmopolitan, adopted the place as a second home, while writer José Maria Ferreira de Castro, author of A Selva, one of the best books devoted to the Amazon Forest (adapted for the screen in 2002), finished his days here. He is buried beneath a granite boulder in the serra.
The immense natural magnetism of the spot (the mountain range is rich in iron) also attracted enthusiasts interested in esotericism, initiatory traditions, Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry in particular. Roman Polanski, director of Rosemary’s Baby, shot several scenes of the Ninth Door here and we see a booklover (Johnny Depp) in search of an early printed book illustrated by the devil himself. Nowadays hundreds of Portuguese couples come here to get married, making this “industry” the second source of income for Sintra after tourism.
The brightly coloured old town, stretching out at the foot of the hillside around the royal palace, is tiny. It is nonetheless bewitchingly charming with its lanes, old palaces, fountains lined in azulejos and its restaurants, wine bars and pastry-coffee shops. Sintra has played a central role in Portugal’s history, a function it owes to the Palácio Real: whether they are Portuguese or not, every visitor is treated to a fantastic history lesson that takes us back to the kings of the Age of Discovery, Vasco de Gama and Luis de Camões.
Immediately recognisable thanks to the kitchen’s conical chimney stacks, the palace is an eclectic mixture of styles and periods. Building occurred from the 13th to the 16th century and a tour of the palace will transport you from one period to another, as you go up and down staircases, along corridors, through gardens and onto terraces. The Hispano-Moorish art dear to King Manuel I nonetheless triumphed here, as did the art of azulejo (ceramic tile work), of which the Palácio Real was the birthplace. You will also sgraffites which are azulejos etched for decorative purposes.
The Magpies Room (Sala das Pegas) and Coat of Arms Room (Sala dos Brasões) are adorned with magnificent painted ceilings. Beneath the coffered timbers of the first, Luis de Camões is reputed to have recited the Lusiades, an epic national poem devoted to the glory of navigator and explorer Vasco de Gama, whose title Os Lusiadas (the “Lusitanians”) comes from the descendants of Lusus, son and companion of Bacchus, considered to be the mythical ancestor of Portugal. The second ceiling features the coats of arms of the main noble families established in Portugal in the early 16th century.
It is now time to make your way up to the (modest) summit of the Sintra serra to explore the Castelo dos Mouros (Moors’ Castle) and Palàcio Nacional of Pena in Pena Park. Of the Moors’ castle built in the 8th and 9th centuries, all that remains are ramparts, rebuilt in the 19st century with four towers. The crenelated wall hugs each contour of the landscape before commanding a sumptuous panorama of the sea, town and palace of Pena from its summit.
A riot of blood red crenelated towers, bright yellow ramparts, mixing Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance and Baroque styles, the Palàcio Nacional da Pena is full of delicious surprises. It is thirty years younger than the famous castle of Neuschwanstein, built by Louis II of Bavaria, which is however generally accepted to be the first example of Historicist architecture.
This masterpiece, worthy of Disneyland, is the work of Ferdinand II of Portugal, nephew of the king of the Belgians, Leopold I, married to Queen Marie II. Cultivated and endowed with a genuine artistic talent, this king was an accomplished engraver, ceramicist and watercolour artist. He fell in love with the Sintra serra and bought the ruins of a Hieronymites convent. With the assistance of Prussian architect, Ludwig von Eschwege, he set about building an architectural extravagance rich in Masonic symbolism and tributes to the history and legends of his new country.
Inside, azulejos adorn what remains of the convent, the Manueline cloisters and the chapel with a superb alabaster altar by Nicolas Chanterene. In the rest of the palace, 19th century kitsch takes pride of place as the profusion of sofas, poufs, wall hangings, furnishings and exotic knick-knacks illustrates. Fountains, water features, rock formations and trees from all over the world make the park a delightful place to walk.
Sintra would definitely seem to have inspired the wildest architectural and landscaping projects as the Quinta da Regaleira exemplifies. At the end of the 19th century, Carvalho de Monteiro, a wealthy businessman who dabbled in philosophy, mythology, esotericism and freemasonry, decided to create a narrative garden inspired in part by Francesco Colonna’s The Dream of Poliphilus, a mysterious masterpiece of Renaissance humanist literature.
Rich in statues of divinities, grottoes, fountains, belvederes, towers and even a chapel, this luxuriant garden takes the visitor on an initiatory journey that they must first decipher before being able to decipher themselves. The most spectacular element is the initiatory well that features nine levels – in tribute to the circles in Dante’s Divine Comedy – at a depth of 27 metres below the ground. At the far end of the garden, the residence of Carvalho de Monteiro is reminiscent of a wedding cake such does it mingle Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline exuberance.
The magical spell of Sintra is at its strongest when you wander through this theatrical setting amidst tropical trees, immense ferns, giant camellias, moss and vines.
Tourist Office of Portugal : www.visitportugal.com/en