Sintra (Mar 24-27)

Sintra was a totally unexpected, but completely wonderful, stop. It’s technically a town rather than a city and although I’d never heard of it it happens to host several spectacular palaces and gardens, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Apparently in 1809 Lord Byron wrote to his friend Francis Hodgson, saying “I must just observe that the village of Cintra in Estremadura is the most beautiful in the world.”

It’s located to the west of Lisbon, just a short hop by train on a route which runs regularly and takes in several commuter stops in the extended Lisbon suburbs along the way. We arrived fairly late in the day and soon found that our hotel was directly served by one of the regular local buses. This was partly because the hotel – the Palácio de Seteais – was in fact a historic neo-classical palace! It proved to be a wonderful place to stay, possibly my favourite hotel of the cities so far (and that’s up against some stiff competition!). It was also Greg’s bargain of the 40 project, having used an aggregator with a pricing mistake to persuade the hotel to price-match at less than a quarter of their usual rack-rate! Greg had wondered whether this would be reflected in the room somehow but we were allocated a spacious corner room with views across the extensive grounds and the nearby landscape, including being able to see the Castle of the Moors.  The room was very well furnished with period pieces and rather than a minibar there was free fruit and port on a dresser. All in all it made us feel like we were guests of some local noble, or perhaps visiting the Grand Budapest Hotel in it’s heyday!  A delightful quirk was looking for the lift to get our bags up to our room, to find it was in fact a tiny old fashioned lift hidden behind what looked like just another door.

When we arrived we had noticed that some kind of event was taking place. When we enquired we were told that it was a wedding fair; though clearly more upmarket than any we’d ever been to – the exquisite dresses on display had no price tags and there were models having their hair done by the winner of the Portuguese hairdresser of the year… We were invited to explore and only a few minutes later an anxious waiter, having spotted that we were empty handed, pressed glasses of champagne into our hands and offered us a selection of canapés (which turned out to be some of the best I’d ever had). It was a slightly surreal experience, but a wonderfully entertaining welcome to the hotel!

Greg had arranged for a very special dinner that night for my birthday. Our hotel had a sister location on the Algarve (southern Portuguese coast) – a restaurant with rooms called Vila Joya. This was a world renowned establishment, with two Michelin stars, which was being renovated over the winter and so closed to guests. As a result the chef and his entire kitchen brigade had decamped to our hotel and were using it as a base to offer a special fine dining dinner option. The result was totally out of this world and made for a very special night indeed. We were seated in a splendid room, with only 4 other tables of which only one other was occupied that evening. The set menu consisted of about 12 courses and all that was provided up front was a list of the main ingredients for each. These didn’t do the food justice – every bite served was a near perfectly executed blend of textures and flavours. I also enjoyed a customised wine flight; having rejected a full wine flight as impractically large. I enjoyed 4 different local wines (after requesting local wine I was firmly told that “we only serve Portuguese wine, sir”!). We were also entertained by the fact that the Sommelier was clearly missing his home in the Algarve, and having waxed lyrical about what a wonderful place Vila Joya itself was “a wonderful location in a splendid setting just minutes from the beach” concluded the description with “but today, we are here…”. Shortly after we returned from this trip I noticed that the Best 50 Restaurants in the World list has just been updated, and Vila Joya was listed at number 22; well deserved in my book.

To explore the next day Greg had planned to hire electrically-supported bikes, but unfortunately the owner of the bike rental shop planned otherwise and decided not to open that day. So instead we caught the bus to our first destination – a remarkable Moorish castle perched on the hillside overlooking Sintra town. So far in the 40 Project our weather luck had been nothing short of remarkable and nothing we’d planned had really been impacted. This stopped being quite so true in Portugal. As we got off the bus the heavens opened and it was quickly really rather soggy. We quickly reordered our itinerary and opted to first visit the enclosed Palácio Nacional da Pena (Pena National Palace) – just a short walk up the hill – before returning to the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors).

The Palácio Nacional da Pena is located in a vast park, situated on a hill with commanding views of the nearby countryside. It’s famous romantic architecture seemed to also have Arabic influence to me (the region has strong moorish history), and it’s considered to be one of the major expressions of 19th century romanticism in the world. It’s counted as one of the seven wonders of Portugal, and is still occasionally used for state functions. It is reasonably small as palaces go, with relatively modest rooms – but it’s the location which makes it a stand-out for me. In fact, on a clear day it can apparently be seen from as far afield as Lisbon!

Originally a small chapel built in the Middle Ages, following an apparition of the origin Mary it was visited in 1493 by King John II.  His successor King Manuel I became fond of the location and ordered the construction of a monastery (Monastery of Nossa Senhora da Pena) to house a maximum of 18 monks on the site which was donated to the Order of Saint Jerome.  It remained for centuries a small, peaceful location used for meditation before being severely damaged by lightening in the 18th Century which was immediately followed by the Great Lisbon Earthquake in 1755 which rendered it to rubble.  The chapel and its marble and alabaster decoration escaped with minor damage.  Thus it remained until capturing the imagination of young prince Ferdinand, who became King consort Ferdinand II.  As King consort he decided to acquire the old monastery, all of the surrounding lands, the nearby Castelo dos Mouros and a few other estates in the area.

He turned the remains of the monastery into a romantic summer palace for the royal family, with remarkably modest suite (meaning small) of rooms for himself and the Queen.  Originally conceived as an entirely Romantic style building, at the last minute in 1847 he and Queen Maria II intervened with the decoration and introduced Gothic vault arches, Medieval and Islamic elements and a grand, ornate window in the main façade (inspired by the chapter house window of the Convent of the Order of Christ in Tomar).

When Queen Maria died King Ferdinand remarried, this time to Elisa Hensler (an actress) Countess of Edla who acquired the property on his death.  King LuÍs, the then king, wanted the palace back for the royal family.  Protracted negotiations resulted in it returning to the royal ownership, with the Countess moving into a small cottage which she designed herself, inspired by Swiss and other alpine chalets, located at the bottom of the garden.

It was this ‘garden’ that I fell in love with. To begin with I should explain that it was still raining – quite heavily in fact. Holding to the (British?) adage that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes, we zipped up our waterproofs and headed off to investigate. We were clearly in the minority though, and through our 2 hours of garden exploration we glimpsed very few other souls. In fact for the first hour it felt that we had the place completely to ourselves, which just added to the magic of this wonderful garden. Pena park is huge – something like 200 hectares in total. There is huge variety within it, which I found captivating – we passed a greenhouse, several water features, a rose garden, a rockery (more like a hill!), a couple of fine viewpoints, a tropical valley filled with ferns (reminiscent of the valley from the lost gardens of Heligan), a lake cascade with huge duck houses looking like grand follies and many forest paths which we wandered down. We also visited cottage of the Countess of Edla, which is actually a very recent reproduction (rebuilt in 2011) as the original burned to the ground in 1999 after many years of neglect. All in all I think that this garden has to go into my top 5 of all time, possibly at the top. The rain progressively eased up, and by the second hour it was dry. We passed a couple of other people at that point, as we slowly headed away from the Palace and towards the exit which would take us to the Castle of the Moors.

As for Palácio Nacional da Pena, after many years of being a popular place for the royal family to stay, in 1889 it was purchased by the Portuguese State and after the 1910 Republican Revolution it became a museum and was classified as a national monument. Queen Amelia, the last queen of Portugal, spent her last night at the palace before being exiled.

The Castelo dos Mouros itself was similarly impressively located – on the hill overlooking Sintra. We could only imagine what a huge undertaking it’s construction must have been back in the 8th and 9th centuries when it was founded. It’s got a long and illustrious history, having started as a key fortress in the Muslim Iberian region.  It was then ceded to Christian forces, lost to the invading Almovorid and regained by the Christians.  Thereafter in the mid 12th century a chapel (dedicated to São Pedro de Canaferrim) was built within its walls which became the parish seat for the next 3 centuries during which time the castle was remodelled and rebuilt several times.  By the middle of the fifteenth century it was all but abandoned and the chapel became a Jewish place of worship and habitation.  In the 16th century the Jews were expelled by Manuel I of Portugal and the structure completely abandoned.

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake caused a lot of damage to the castle and chapel causing the whole place to go for ruin.  It was only in 1954 when any serious work was done, with a small portion being opened as a picnic spot for tourists visiting the palace.  Archeological excavations followed in 1979 and the local scouts were used in 1986 to clear the grounds and consolidate the remaining walls of the castle.  Finally in 2001 a concerted effort was made to make the whole structure open to the public.

What took out breath away was the the castle setting – on a high vantage point with commanding views across most of the plains below. The site itself had several points of interest – some interesting plants, the ancient well and water tank (which you can climb into), and the ruins of a castle keep. However the focus is most definitely on the walls, which you can walk around the top of. We walked along just over half of them, which was especially a notable achievement for Greg as the barriers are ½ (sometimes less) to 2/3 of our height, the walkway is a couple of feet wide and there is nothing to speak of on the outside of the wall; other than a sheer drop! The wind then picked up and we noticed the time so opted to descend from the castle and head towards Sintra town center in order to visit our last stop of the day – Sintra National Palace (Palácio Nacional de Sintra, also called Palácio da Vila or Town Palace).

It was a pleasant walk down, descending along winding paths for about 30 mins, going from relatively wild surroundings and gradually joining the outskirts of the town. We arrived at the National Palace with plenty of time before closing, purchased our tickets, and went inside. The palace is the best preserved medieval Royal Palace in Portugal, having been inhabited more or less continuously from the early 15th up to the late 19th century.  Originally built for the Moorish rulers in the early 10th century and taken over by Portuguese kings in the 12th century, none of that original building remains.  The earliest existing part of the palace is the Royal Chapel from the early 14th century, most of the existing palace dates from an extensive building program by King John I around 1415.  This resulted in a palace with a Manueline / Moorish design including the distinctive conical kitchen chimneys which dominate the skyline of Sintra town.  A more recent tower has an amazing coffered domed ceiling decorated with 72 coats-of-arms of the King and the main Portuguese noble families, though the coat-of-arms of the Távora family was removed after their conspiracy against King Joseph I.

Over subsequent centuries the palace was used off and on as a summer residence by the royal family and redecorated numerous times with new paintings, tiles and furniture, but the underlying fabric of the buildings remained the same.  The saddest story associated with the Palace is that of Pedro II who deposed his mentally unstable brother King Afonso VI and forced him to live under house arrest in the Palace from 1676 until his death in 1683.

The palace, like most in the region, was damaged in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake but was according to contemporary accounts restored in the “old fashion”, except for the tower above the Arab room which had collapsed and was not rebuilt.  At the end of 18th century Queen Maria I redivided the rooms in the main living area in a more modern fashion and as Sintra became a popular royal holiday spot once more so the palace was used much more.  This continued until the foundation of the Republic when although being made a National Monument the palace was effectively abandoned.  In 1940 it underwent significant restoration and became a tourist attraction.

We arrived after the main crowds had left for the day and enjoyed a quiet amble round.  It was an interesting building, with clear Moorish  influence and a very peaceful courtyard garden hidden away inside. After exploring the palace we had an unremarkable meal and walked for a pleasant 20mins or so up the hill back to our hotel after a busy day.

The next day we wanted to visit a famous local convent, but unfortunately it wasn’t served by a bus. So without the bikes Greg had planned we resorted to a taxi – the first of our 40 project so far I think. Still, it gave us another mode of transport to add to our collection of plane, train, boat, walking, cable car, ski lift, cog railway and tram! The Convent of the Frairs Minor Capuchin, popularly known as the Convent of the Capuchos, but officially the Convento de Santa Cruz da Serra da Sintra (Convent of the Holy Cross of the Sintra Mountains), is a historical convent consisting of small quarters and public spaces. It’s location was fantastically isolated; it was within a forest, and even from the path which led to it it was impossible to make out the convent itself from more than about 10meters away. The feeling of isolation and abandonment was all the stronger for the fact that we were the only visitors (we passed another couple coming in on our way out much later) – so whilst exploring it was just Greg and I and any ghosts! The convent was hewn into the cliff, and was almost camouflaged as a result. The rooms themselves were very plain, and really very small (even by UK standards!).  The doors into the individual cells were tiny and low, as monks should be on their knees when they enter to show reverence.  Each cell had just enough room to sleep on the floor with a tiny niche for personal belongings.  The order prohibited personal items so monks literally had the clothes they stood up in, a bible and an small icon, nothing else (and definitely no money at all).  Their biggest luxury was some walls had a cork lining to keep the damp out.  The order seemed to value a hard and basic lifestyle, which was clearly what they got.

From the convent our next stop was the Palácio de Monserrate (Monseratte Palace), an exotic palatial villa in extensively landscaped grounds. We realised that it was only an hour away through the forest, which appeared to have clear paths, so we enjoyed a peaceful stroll on what was now a beautiful day through the forest on walking trails. We saw a park ranger at one point, but other than that had the forest to ourselves and all too soon we found ourselves on the other side just outside our destination and back in busy civilisation.

The Palace was relatively small (by Palace standards!) but very interesting, and the award-winning gardens were stunning. Our first stop was at the cafe for lunch, which proved rather tasty and very good value (much better than we’ve recently found National Trust food to be). After that we wandered though various styles of planting, from a formal rose garden to a tropical hillside with waterfall and ferns, and a sunken cactus garden. The lady in the shop was from England and told us that incredibly beautiful though the gardens currently were, we should visit in May when they are truly outstanding.

The original estate was rented by Gerard de Visme, a wealthy English merchant, in who built a neo-Gothic style house there in 1789 and sub leased it in 1793/4 to William Beckford.  Lord Byron visited in 1809, by which time the house was already in ruins, but was clearly still stunning enough to be the source of inspiration for his poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, after which it became obligatory for foreign travellers to visit the property. This was especially true for English visitors, who made vivid descriptions of Monserrate in their countless travel reports and illustrated it in many engravings.

One of the most famous visitors was Francis Cook, another extremely wealthy English industrialist, who was later decorated by King Luís with the title of Visconde (Viscount) de Monserrate and subrogated the estate in 1856.  In 1863 the current palace was built with distinctly medieval and oriental-style influences, its Moghul-inspired details are unique in Portugal, its eclecticism is a fine example of the Sintra Romanticism.

Dinner that night was a spontaneous pick, recommended by some strangers who had just eaten there and were leaving as we read the menu outside. We were the first to have dinner and the staff proved to be very friendly and the food tasty and not expensive. After we paid the bill the owner insisted that we try the local port, and poured us a glass each leaving the bottle on the table!

Our last day in Sintra arrived too soon, and we had one house and grounds left to visit – Quinta da Regaleira. The property consists of a romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park that features lakes, grottoes, wells, benches, fountains, and a vast array of exquisite constructions on a 4 hectare site. The house was very interesting, particularly for the roof which has spectacular architecture – including gothic pinnacles, capitals, gargoyles and an octagonal tower, a wonderful view, and a rooftop laboratory!

Owned by a variety of owners over many year the property takes it name from the Barons of Regaleira, who sold it to António Augusto Carvalho Montiero in 1892.  Monteiro was eager to build a bewildering place where he could collect symbols that reflected his interests and ideologies resulting in the 4-hectare estate we see today. In addition to other new features, he added enigmatic buildings that allegedly held symbols related to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians.  The archictecture across the state is an eclectic blend of Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline styles built between 1904 and 1910 resulting in the property nickname of “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire”.

However the house absolutely took second honours for me to the garden, which was magnificent – varied, extensive (though not on the scale of Pena Park) and mysterious; the kind of garden which made me think of Jules Verne. As well as standard garden fare it contains a tennis court/bowling green, huge water tank (disguised as a castle), several towers with splendid views, and a large chapel complete with templar imagery and a secret tunnel in the crypt to the house. The real standout in the garden is the extensive and enigmatic system of tunnels, which have multiple entry points that include: the labyrinthine grottoes, the chapel, Waterfall Lake, and “Leda’s Cave,” which lies beneath the Regaleira Tower. Two “Initiation Wells” also connect to other tunnels via a series of underground walkways; the larger well contains a 27-meter spiral staircase and is really quite spooky. I thoroughly enjoyed this garden, and I have never wandered around anywhere with quite so many surprises round the corner. And where you can go from being in the company of many fellow visitors at one location, to feeling completely alone in less than 5 minutes. Amazing.

From there it was farewell as we boarded the train back to Lisbon and on to… Madrid!


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