Portugal’s fairytale town on the edge of Europe

Sintra and its mystical hillsdotted with fairytale palaces and extravagante villas have bewitched visitors for centuries.

Sintra and its mystical hillsdotted with fairytale palaces and extravagante villas have bewitched visitors for centuries.

The Romans made it a place of cult moon worshiping and named it “Cynthia” after the goddess of the moon. They were followed by the Moors who also fell in love with the lush vegetation and built a hilltop castle, a palace, and several fountains around the town. Later it became the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family and attracted a number of wealthy aristocrats who built huge mansions and villas.

Famous British poet and traveler Lord Byron stopped by in the 18th century, writing that the town is “perhaps in every respect the most delightful in Europe,” and calling it a “glorious Eden” in his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. His fellow countryman Robert Southey followed him and saw it as “the most blessed spot on the whole inhabitable globe.” Others made it their own private retreat, such as William Beckford (one of 18th century England’s wealthiest men), who lived in the splendid Monserrate Palace, later bought by Francis Cook.

It is indeed an extraordinary place with a surreal mixture of history and fantasy, protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The most famous building in Sintra is Pena Palace. Built in the 1840s, it is one of Europe’s most fantastic palaces, often compared to Neuschwanstein and the other mock-medieval castles of Ludwig of Bavaria in Germany, although it was actually built more than two decades before those. It includes a drawbridge, a conglomeration of turrets, ramparts, and domes, and a gargoyle above a Neo-Manueline arch, all washed in an array of pastel shades. The extravagant interior is decorated in late Victorian and Edwardian furnishings, rich ornaments, paintings, and priceless porcelain preserved just as the royal family left them.pena-palace

Surrounding the palace is the mystical Pena Park, filled with a variety of trees and exotic plants from the former colonies of the Portuguese empire, ponds, fountains, and black swans.

Another remarkable building is the fantasy “Palace of the Millions,” part of the Regaleira Estate. Built at the close of the 19th century in Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance styles, it sprouts turrets and towers. It is surrounded by a garden filled with mythological and esoteric symbols — statues of gods, mysterious wells, ponds, and grottoes. The highlight is an almost supernatural tunnel staircase that symbolizes death leading into a “Garden of Eden,” symbolizing “rebirth” or the entrance to Heaven.

Contrasting with all of these fabulous palaces is the tiny but extraordinary Capuchos Convent. Visiting its labyrinth of narrow corridors, chapels, and child-sized cells cut out of rock, all lined with cork, is an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. The cork, used to keep out the humidity and to favor the acoustic isolation required for the meditation of the friars, has given it the nickname of “the cork convent.”

Before returning to Lisbon stop for a drink after all the sightseeing or to try a sweet Queijada de Sintra, or a Travesseiro de Sintra; both local and very well known specialties.

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