Sintra the Fairy Tale

There are many mystical stories about this lovely little city and it’s no wonder many artists and poets mingled around here in the 19th century.

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 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. Sintra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

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’s indeed an extraordinary place, with a surreal mixture of history and fantasy, protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Its fairytale palaces, incredible vistas, and notable museum collections make it a destination you should make the effort to see, especially if you visit Lisbon.

Afonso I captured the Moors from the Moors in 1147. Two major conventions were negotiated in Sintra, one in 1509 between Portugal and Castile concerning voyages of exploration and another in 1808 by which the British and Portuguese allowed the defeated French army to return home during the Peninsular War (1808–14).

On one of the mountain peaks is the Pena Palace, a 19th-century castle, partly an adaptation of a 16th-century monastery and partly an imitation of a medieval fortress, which was built for Queen Maria II by her young German consort, Ferdinand II. Built in the 1840s, it’s 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.

On the extensive grounds of the castle, Ferdinand created the Parque da Pena, a series of gardens and walking paths that incorporated more than 2,000 species of domestic and nonnative plants. Loosely adapting to the conventions established by the English garden movement in the 18th century, the park incorporates natural elements throughout, adapting to the area’s rugged terrain rather than reshaping it.

On another peak is Castle dos Mouros, which was built by the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries.

The 15th-century royal palace, a mixture of Moorish and debased Gothic architecture, is in the old-town section of Sintra. The palace served as a refuge for the royal family during the summer months when Lisbon could become uncomfortably hot, and during times of plague. Although damaged in the earthquake of 1755, the palace was painstakingly restored, and in the 21st century it’s one of the Sintra´s mandatory places to visit.

Another remarkable building is the fantasy “Palace of the Millions,” part of the Regaleira estate, or Quinta da Regaleira. Built at the close of the 19th century, in Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance styles, it sprouts turrets and towers. It’s 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.

Last but not least you have to indulge in the Sintra´s preferred delicacies. There are a couple of treats that are almost exclusive to Sintra. One is the Queijada, a small circular cake made with eggs, milk, sugar, and cheese. Yes, cheese, as a mild, soft cheese similar to ricotta is used in place of butter. This lends the cake a smooth texture and sweet-savory flavor that can’t easily be described but is definitely moreish. Another sweet to try with a coffee is a Travesseiro, a cylindrical puff pastry filled with almond and egg cream.

Well if you don’t have time to go to the Regaleira to descend the Regaleira staircase we can always try these delicacies and say you have already been in heaven even if just for few minutes…


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