Part one, The Palace and town.
October 24, 2008
Sintra from above.
My second excursion in Portugal was to the little mountain town of Sintra, an hour’s bus ride north of Cascais. Sintra ranks on my short list of the most beautiful places I have been. It is draped over steep hills, giving it steep streets and constantly changing vistas. Even the 10 minute walk from the bus station to the center of the old town was lined with sculptures, modern designs carved in stone.
Rising above the central square in Sintra is the Palacio National de Sintra, whose
construction was started in the late 14th century on the site once occupied byPortugal’s Moorish rulers. Additions were made in the early 16th century by the wealthy king Manuel I (whose wealth came form the spice trade and who also built the monastery of Jeronimos in Belem, which I wrote about previously) and others have led to an interesting combination of architectural styles. The altitude of Sintra makes it relatively cool in the summer, and the palace served as the summer palace of the Portuguese royal family until the 1880s.
The fairly plain Gothic exterior is marked by a pair of unique conical chimneys that serve the palace’s kitchen. The interior holds formal halls, a chapel, an immense kitchen, and numerous bedrooms for the royal family. The interior decoration is ornate and opulent.
The domed ceiling of the Sala dos Brassoes is particularly so, with stags holding the coats or arms of 72 different Portuguese noble families. The bedrooms are large but less ornate, with heavy carved furniture. The royal family clearly lived well.
After I toured the palace I wandered throught the streets of Sintra. They reminded me of the villages on the islands of Greece with very narrow and steep streets and I enjoyed an hour of exploring and brousing. Sintra is an unabashed tourist town, but a nice one. It has great little restaurants and all sorts of interesting little shops.
Many of them featured local handcrafts, some of them made in little workshops on the premises. Portugal has a unique style of pottery, earthenware glazed with brightly colored designs. It also had an extremely strong tradition of hand painted tiles with designs or scenes on them. And there is a great deal of embroidery made locally and for sale: table cloths, napkins , towels, etc.
I had lunch in a tiny back-street restaurant of Portuguese cod cakes, fresh bread, and salad, with a local beer, most satisfying. Then I was off to catch a bus to see more of the Sintra area.
Part two, the Pena Palace.
On a peak high above Sintra is a second, more recent royal palace, the Pena Palace. A bus and a hike up a steep road through he wooded grounds brought me to this magnificent edifice. The Pena Palace was built in the 19th century by queen Maria II, or perhaps more accurately, by her husband, a German prince named Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha The Pena Palace.
who oversaw the design and construction while she oversaw the affairs of state.
The palace was built over the ruins of a 15th century monastery, designed by a German architect. This large, elaborate, and colorful building was built as Maria’s summer palace, replacing the palace in the village below. Both were built to take advantage of the cooler heights of the mountains. It occurred to me that if they had had air conditioning in those days, neither palace would have been built.
The palace is a very imposing presence looming over you as you climb the steep hill up to it. While it was built as a residence, it still shows vestiges of the old castles, with an entrance gate, high walls, battlements, and watchtowers that would make it easy to defend. I walked around the battlements, which almost encircle the castle, admiring the views off the mountain. To the west, you can easily see all the way to the Atlantic.
The central section of the exterior is decorated with Portuguese tile, rarely used on the outside of buildings. Different tiles were used on several other sections of the exterior.
The view west to the Atlantic.
Inside, the palace is richly decorated in a variety of styles, with much furniture and many decorative and personal objects that created the then fashionable “Victorian clutter.” I talked with one of the docents who told me that when the monarchy was terminated in 1910 in favor of a republic, the royal family moved to England taking all of the palace’s furnishings with them. But the woman who owned them decided that they should belong
to the Portugues people and gave them Exterior tiles, Pena Palace. back, so the castle was refurnished and became a museum.
Unfortunately, taking photographs was strictly prohibited inside the palace, so I can’t show you what it looks like inside. But I did see one scene that made me look carefully over each shoulder before I violated this rule by squeezing off one quick shot. I hope you can make out the royal throne in this picture.
Part Three, The Moorish Castle.
High on a mountain above Sintra—on a peak adjacent to the one holding the Pena Palace—is the third place I visited in Sintra, the Castelo dos Mouros, or the Moorish Castle. Archeological digs have discovered that this commanding peak—with clear views of the coast, Sintra, and the lands for miles in every direction—was used by man from the 10th to the 7th centuries, BC. After the Moors conquered Portugal in the 8th century AD, they began to build a fortress on the site in the 9th and 10th centuries. Alfonso VI, the first king of Portugal, captured Sintra and the castle from the Moors in 1093, but the Moors retook it and it was not until the middle of the 12th century that castle finally came firmly into Portuguese hands. In the 15th century the castle—apparently having lost its military value—was used to house Jews segregated from the rest of the Catholic population. In 1839 king Fernando II undertook a complete restoration.
In the town of Sintra the castle is a looming presence, with high stone ramparts tracing the outline of the mountaintop high above the city. It is reached by a steep climb from the city, or—in my case—by a bus that circles from the town to the mountaintop
and then a quarter-mile hike through the forest that climbs further until it reaches a ruined chapel, and shortly afterwards, the main gate.
Actually, I visited the castle twice, once on the day I spent in Sintra, and again a few days later with my friend Gary who wanted to see it. The first day was one of bright sunshine, but the second was a rainy day that put the mountaintop in the clouds and changed the look and mood of the place dramatically, making trees and ruins mysterious and even ominous in the fog. Gone were the breathtaking views of the city below and the distant coast, replaced by the blank white backdrop of fog. The further a tree or tower was, the more faint and mysterious, until they faded out and disappeared completely in the fog. Climbing around on the walls I kept expecting to see Banquo’s ghost, but all we saw were the outlines of trees in the moody forest, the undulating rampart walls, an occasional tower, a very few tourists, and out of the fog at one point came two of our shipmates, who also had come to see the castle. I was fascinated by the moods, shapes, textures, and mystery of the place.