Sintra isn’t Portugal’s best kept secret anymore, but being located slightly out of the Porto-Lisbon axis, most tourists tend to forget about it – that is, if you avoid the hottest months of the year (writes Julia Ossena). They might indulge in a day trip there, but swiftly return in the evening to the shiny lights of the capital. After all, what more would there be to see beyond the charming roughness of Porto and the elegance of Lisbon? Well, a hell of a lot if you take the time to get there, which isn’t much of a trek, being an easy hour's drive or a cheap train ticket.
For centuries, Sintra has welcomed in its many castles and mansions royalties and nobles looking for an escape from the hustle and bustle of Lisbon. The nineteenth century saw the crowned heads replaced by high bourgeoisie and wealthy industrials wanting a slice of the dream, building extravagant Romantic properties to rival former rulers. The architectural result seems to have leaked out of a fairy tale book, and the town’s Cultural Landscape is entirely listed since 1995 as a Unesco World Heritage Site. No wonder Lord Byron declared in 1809 that the then village was “the most beautiful in the world”.
Perched in the heart of a National Park and boasting a spectacular mountainous backdrop, Sintra is a jewel of a town. From afar it looks like the town fought its way through wilderness before the two entities agreed to share side by side the same location, each one trying to slowly gain space over the other. Its main road is lined with palm trees and snakes uphill through thick vegetation, and exploring its quirky cobbled streets, crooked flights of stairs and colourful cul-de-sacs, you can’t help but notice the overgrown gardens pouring their leaves over each street corner.
There is a whole lot to see and visit in Sintra: the sixteenth-century Monastery Dos Capuchos, partly built into the cliff; the eighth-century Moorish castle overlooking the town; many churches and museums; the eighteenth-century Queluz Palace that served as a summer residence of the Royal Family; the very exotic looking Monserrate Palace; The National Palace, the best preserved medieval castle in Portugal, having been inhabited continuously from fifteenth up to late nineteenth century… But here are the two marvels not to be missed:
Quinta da Regaleira
Passing through the gates of genius Quinta is akin to stepping into a world of fantasy and extravagance. Its first owner, Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, wanted to build a mind-blowing property reflecting his interests and beliefs.
The Italian architect Luigi Manini designed and built (1904-1910) for him the four-hectare estate, its mysterious buildings and gardens mixing symbols related to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, astrology, and the Divine Comedy of Dante. The five-floor mansion reflects Gothic, Romantic, Renaissance and Manueline influences in a debauchery of spires, sculptures, pinnacles, gargoyles and an impressive octagonal tower.
But the main attraction of the place is undoubtedly the four hectares of land which invite you to lose yourself through its twists and turns. Built over several levels, this luxurious garden features a chapel, a greenhouse, lakes, grottoes, wells, aquariums, benches, fountains and numerous exquisite constructions, as well as an ancient tennis court.
This labyrinth of footpaths invites you to discover the genius and playful mind of its creator. Like a modern day Alice you can explore this wonderland for hours, where you can walk on water with the help of stepping stones hidden just under the water surface, and go deep underground thanks to a system of enigmatic tunnels interpreted as a symbol of darkness and light, death and resurrection.
Quinta da Regaleira is a unique piece of art and architecture, the creation of an utterly cultured and original man, and to my opinion one of the most extravagant and creative place you can experience in Europe.
Pena National Palace
In a different style but still of a mind-blowing beauty, the Pena Palace can be described as the iconic symbol of Sintra. Like Quinta da Regaleira, it is the result of a clever mix of architectures that will remind you of Bavaria as well as of Andalucia, forming one of the major expressions of nineteenth century Romanticism. Standing on top of a hill overlooking the town, it can be seen from Lisbon on a clear day, when the sun hits its glorious pink and yellow towers.
In 1838 King consort Ferdinand II decided to transform the remains of an old monastery into a fantastic castle set to become a summer residence for himself and Queen Maria II. Ferdinand being a German Prince, he wanted to create a castle reminding him of his native country while incorporating traditional Moorish features to suit his wife’s culture. The result is simply breathtaking, from its spectacular location and views to the bright colours and diversity of glazed ceramic tiles, or azuleros, one of the country’s most celebrated specialties.
The park surrounding the castle is a vast and luxurious forested area worth exploring for its amazing variety of vegetation. Spread over 200 hectares, you’ll come across exotic plants and trees from the five continents, including a North American Sequoia, Lawson’s Cypress, Magnolia, Cactuses, Chinese Gingko, Japanese Crypromeria and a large range of ferns from Australia and New Zealand.
The most beautiful jewels of Sintra’s cultural landscape, Quinta da Regaleira and Pena Palace greatly represent the grandeur, originality and exoticism of this peculiar place that seems a world of its own, drawn by the hand of an eccentric artist. Porto introduced me to Portugal’s people, Lisbon to it’s culture. But Sintra made me realise why this country used to be one of the leaders of the continent, feeling as it does like a concentrate of Portugal’s powerful history, delicate arts and avant-gardist architecture.
About the author
Julia Ossena is a French freelance travel journalist living in London. She has traveled extensively around Asia and Europe, and describes herself of being most proud of her year-long camping trip around the "old continent".