15 miles outside the Portuguese capital you’ll find the pretty little town of Sintra. While the town itself is a charming spot (much admired by Lord Byron), most people who visit here are steeling themselves for the hike up yet another precipitous route to see the ruined Castle of the Moors, and the Pena, Quinta da Regaleira and Moserrate palaces which sit around the town. On my visit we were only able to fit in two of these – the castle and Pena, but the Pena National Palace is probably the finest of the three royal palaces to be built here.
The Castle of the Moors was constructed between the 8th and 9th centuries and has sat brooding over the town below for most of that time. While it is in a very dilapidated state befitting its age, several sections of the wall and some of the towers can still be accessed. For those with a keen interest in the history of the Castle of the Moors and its builders, a visitor centre is currently under construction. No doubt when it’s finished next year visitors will be able to get a better picture of what life would have been like during the period when it was occupied – right through until the 16th century when the final group to make their home there (a small Jewish community) were expelled by King Manuel I. It’s a magical place – a beautiful ruin that’s full of history and I highly recommended a visit if you’re staying in Lisbon.
On the next hilltop is the Pena National Palace, built in the 19th century as a summer palace in a faux-Moorish style by German amateur architect Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschweg for the newly crowned King Ferdinand II. The palace is quite literally a riot of architectural styles and colours – some might even call it tacky, and one could imagine the likes of footballing star Ronaldo commissioning something similar today. It really does have an air about it of ‘all money and no taste’! The exteriors have a similar feel to Port Meirion in West Wales – it appears as a collection of buildings grouped together rather than a discreet whole, although with only a little of Port Meirion’s classical flare…
I’m happy to report that the interior is rather more consistent – the main rooms of the building are set around the type of courtyard that you might see across North Africa today, although again the tiles used to decorate the external walls are haphazard and come in a wild variety of colours. Many of the rooms have been restored with the furnishing and decoration from the period when they were occupied by the Portuguese Royal Family, and the main dome houses much of the King’s glass collection. The sumptuous ballroom, which is currently undergoing extensive restoration, contains fine examples of German stained glass which are being returned to their original positions in the windows. Again, I think the Pena National Palace should be on every visitor’s itinerary.
A helpful note on visiting the sights – if you don’t feel like strenuous activity, a cheap tourist bus that runs on a circular route from Sintra’s railway station can pick you up and drop you off at various points along the way. Travelling to Sintra itself is easy – trains from Lisbon’s Cais De Sodre (literally, the south station) near the waterfront ony take about 40 minutes and cost about 5 euros for a return trip.
All the pictures from my visit to Sintra can be found online here.