Looking out of the big bus, as it trudged along the winding road towards the Castle of Moors, my very first impression of Sintra was that it could well be Portugal’s Nathiagali!
About 25km from Lisbon, with layers of history, nestled between the Portuguese Riviera and Sintra mountains, this picturesque city has been declared a “Cultural Landscape” by Unesco and placed on its World Heritage List in 1995.
In 2000, Parques de Sintra - Monte da Lua (PSML) was founded as an exclusively state-owned non-profit organisation. Interestingly, its management model is such that it receives no state funding.
Ensconced between the Portuguese Riviera and Sintra mountains is a verdant city with mesmerising architecture and Portuguese artistic traditons
“The restoration and maintenance of the heritage and assets under its management is ensured by the revenues generated by ticket sales, stores, cafés and hiring out facilities for events,” José Lino Ramos, a board director of PSML, told Eos over an email exchange from Sintra.
All the earnings, explained Lino Ramos are re-invested in preserving and enhancing the heritage in its care. This year, for the fifth consecutive time, it won the World Travel Award for ‘World’s Leading Conservation Company’.
That October Sunday, the thick verdant forest with tall oaks and pines, sunlight that turned into cool shade and then a sprinkling of rain, bringing out the earthy scent making all of nature’s colours sharper, only added to the magic, giving the city a Nathiagali air about it.
When in Lisbon, Sintra is a must-visit even if for half a day and the easiest and cheapest way to get there is to hop on the train (it’s five euros for a round trip and it takes about 35 to 40 minutes to reach). In 2017, the parks and monuments were visited by close to 3.2 million visitors — 80 percent of whom were of international origin.
A tourist information kiosk at the Sintra station will guide you or if you already know what you want to do, just head outside, turn right, and buy a day bus pass before boarding the bus. You can hop on and off all the places you would like to visit using these buses.
There is so much more to this lazy little town than the half a dozen monuments it boasts. These include the beach along the Atlantic which is exceptionally beautiful and people go for surfing, body-boarding, paragliding and fishing or going on hiking trails in the forest.
But that is possible if you are staying a couple of days. For day-trippers, the two not-to-be-missed sites are the architectural wonders — the Pena National Palace and the Castle of Moors, built in 1840 and the ninth century respectively, before hightailing it back to Lisbon.
THE MEDIAEVAL CASTLE
Fortress-like, perched atop the mountain, its long stone wall bending around the contours of the mountains with blue skies forming a perfect backdrop, reminds one of the Great Wall of China. The crenellations on the parapet suggest it was designed to be a military outpost.
It was built by the Muslim Moors who conquered Portugal and Spain in mediaeval times in the eighth and ninth centuries.
The uneven pathway, a little slippery when wet, leading to the castle is in the dense forests of the Sintra mountains and the breathtaking views of the city and the Atlantic Ocean in the distance make the uphill hike (the flight of steps are unending) and the ticket of eight Euros, all worthwhile. From the highest tower you get a great view of the Pena Palace, which Ramos said is frequently “buffeted” by winds and “swallowed” by dense fog.
The castle fell into disrepair after the conquest of Lisbon (1147) by Afonso Henriques and suffered more damage after the 1755 earthquake. But King Ferdinand, known as the artist king, who was the president of the Royal Academy of Sciences and the Arts, loved the castle and restored it.
THE FAIRY-TALE PALACE
If short for time, you may want to give up the Palace of Monserrate or even the flamboyant Quinta da Regaleira, or the National Palace with its distinctive conical chimneys, but a visit to Sintra would be quite incomplete without visiting the over-the-top Pena Palace.
In complete contrast to the pared-back simplicity of the Moors Castle, this summer palace, commissioned by none other than King Ferdinand (a German) in 1840, stands tall at the highest point of Sintra.
You get the first glimpse of the palace in the form of a bright marigold yellow turret peering from behind the verdant foliage. Up close, you will be unable to hold back the gasp of wonderment at the first sight of the crazy mish-mash of style that forms the castle.
Design critics explain it as Romantic architecture which combines Gothic, Moorish, Manueline and Renaissance elements with the bright red (originally a monastery that housed 18 monks), yellow, grey and blue happily giving way to Moorish stonework, Turkish style domes and ample use of Portugese ceramic tile art — azulejos. Then there is Triton the newt, which has a significant presence: the statue of the squatting half man, half fish, its hair turning into branches symbolises the four elements — fire, water, air and earth or the creation of the world.
Lino Ramos explains: “His [King Ferdinand’s] love of the place reflects his taste for the sublime, for imposing landscapes where the overwhelming power of nature in the face of human frailty awakens emotions beyond the rational — emotions such as surprise and fear, but also passionate enthusiasm and ecstasy.”
The castle had everything you read about in storybooks — an iron gate, a drawbridge giving access to a vaulted tunnel, turrets, ramparts, battlements and domes. The view from the top (you will not be disappointed by the popular Wall Walk) will give you some spectacular views of the valley below as well as the Moors Castle.
Spread over an area of 200 hectares, the gardens are a maze of paths strewn with plants from all over the world: North American magnolia, Japanese camellia, Australian fern, different cypresses and cedars. The highlights of the gardens are the several ponds — in an area that has been named the Valley of Lakes where the carp and black swans drift about lazily.
Ramos describes it best as the king’s “vast laboratory”, where he experimented with architecture and the applied arts in an attempt to remould Portuguese tradition in a powerfully German-inuenced spirit.
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 9th, 2018