The Cultural Landscape of Sintra, Portugal: A Comprehensive Guide

June 28, 2013 by

Europe, Things to Do, Travel Advice & Inspiration

Palace of Pena

Pena National Palace

In the gardens of Quinta de Regaleira, the sound of water echoed everywhere, from waterfalls spilling into landscaped lakes to just a hint rumbling below the ground. Birdsong intermixed with the breeze that lapped the trees, where traces of sunlight scattered out in patches onto the graveled pathway.

“This is it,” I said looking down at the map.

My mother came up from behind, squinting as she looked at the boulders I was pointing at.

“The rocks?” she asked. She looked unimpressed.

But nothing is what it seems in the Quinta da Regaleira and these rocks held a secret I was desperate to discover.

I pushed the stone slab, and with a loud, echoing scrape, the hidden doorway appeared.

The Initiatic Well plunged 30 meters, curving down the spiral staircase of the inverted tower feeding into the labyrinth below. Water trickled down the moss-covered arches of the stairs, culminating in a puddle covering a Rosicrucian cross.

The water rose with each step. I heard my mother’s protests as it seeped into her shoes, but half way down the Initiatic Well, there was no turning back. A dark tunnel offered the only way out, leading us through a subterranean labyrinth guided by the fairy lights lining the ground, from the darkness into the light.

Sintra Town

Sintra is an easy day trip from Lisbon. The rusty, old trains with graffiti covered windows run every fifteen minutes from Rossio Station, taking forty minutes to trudge through Lisbon’s more unattractive suburbs, until they pass through a tunnel into the lush, green Sintra Hills.

Exiting the station at the end of the line, the crowds pushed through the barriers, navigating past the forest of fliers being handed out offering tours and information.

The train station is outside the village, but it’s easy to orient yourself, especially since there are regular buses going to the historic center and the surrounding palaces. Bus number 435, “the Villa Express 4 Palaces”, departs every thirty minutes and goes through the center of town, the centrally located Sintra National Palace and then further on to Quinta da Regaleira, the Seteais and Monserrate Palaces. Bus 434 on the “Pena Circuit” is the most popular route and also goes to the town center, before continuing up the hill to the Moorish Castle and the grounds of the Pena Palace. There is a small café opposite the bus stop, where we preferred to wait for the bus with a cup of coffee in hand accompanied by a pastéis de nata, creamy custard tarts lightly dusted with cinnamon.

The bus curved round over green slopes towards the two white “chimneys” sticking up from the Palácio Nacional de Sintra and the old town. Overlooking the village, the ruins of the Moorish Castle crown the top of the mountain.

Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is lined with colorful houses, perfumed by lilacs and wisterias in their back gardens, whitewashed streets replete with souvenir shops and a selection of restaurants, which make it a good base for exploring the palaces. There is also the Museum of Natural History and the Toy Museum in the village center.

Palácio e Parque da Pena

Palace of Pena

Pena National Palace

At 1640 feet above sea level perched on the summit, the views from the multicolored Moorish turrets of Palácio da Pena spread out all the way down to Lisbon and over to the Atlantic. We took the bus number 434 from the train station, taking us through the town center before coiling up the mountainside, past dilapidated mansions in the forest and the ruins of the Moorish castle to base of the palace. We had to line up for a long time for our tickets (tickets cost 13.50€ with full access), and we decided to pay the additional 2€ to take the transfer to the top, but it is possible to hike up the path through the forest.

The palace stood out against the bright blue sky with its intense palette of reds, yellows and purples, mixing Moorish turrets with the fantasy of the Bavarian Palaces that inspired it, creating a unique example of Portuguese Romanticism.

Our footsteps echoed under the shade of the covered gates, taking the path upwards to a terrace that stretched out with views over the mountains and out to sea. Our ticket included a tour inside the castle, but we found nothing could live up to the exterior beauty of the palace. A cool draft caught us in the Manueline Cloisters lined with blue and while tiles, and the royal chambers were jarringly small, perhaps even modest. The castle was full of curiosities though, like the early telephones in one of the studies.

The Park at Pena is vast, and alone would take a day to explore. Scattered with boulders, tall trees, ferns and unstable paths, the garden was untamed, yet the little landscaped details, such as the Temple of Columns and the Fountain the Small Birds, transformed the forest into a royal playground.

Take a tour of Pena National Palace

Quinta da Regaleira

When we got off the bus at the base of the Quinta da Regaleira (6€ entry), the elaborate spires rising up above the leafy trees were the first things I noticed. This neo-Manueline style former summer residence once belonging to the Carvalho Monteiro family wasn’t the incentive for our visit — but its garden.

Filled with symbolism and poetry, each feature and structure in the garden at the Quinta da Regaleira bore some symbolic meaning, drawing inspiration from classical mythology, the poetry of Dante and Milton, the occult, Freemasonry and the Templars. Its overall construction, the architecture, the plants that scent the grounds and the stone features designed by Italian opera set designer and architect Luigi Manini, have turned the Quinta da Regaleira into a work of art.

The path from the entrance went up past the white, Manueline style chapel, housing a subterranean tunnel that links back to the main house, and we continued up by the church to the Fountain of Regaleira to fill our empty water bottles before scaling up Leda’s Grotto and up the spiraling Regaleira Tower. My personal highlights were the Initiatic Well and the Lake of the Waterfall, dotted with small stepping-stones that carry visitors across the waters back into the labyrinth.

The Moorish Castle

View of Moorish Castle

View of Moorish Castle from Pena Palace

The Moorish Castle looks down over the village, and while its bare walls blend into the background of the rocky mountain and are less adorned than the palatial grounds of its neighbors, this 9th century military fortress is worth adding to the Sintra itinerary.  The grounds of the Moorish Castle border on the Pena Park, so the same bus route is used. After passing through the entrance (7€) the narrow path crossed through the trees and by large boulders to the castle. I stopped to look at the grey walls. Their uneven style showed the layers of history, from the lower level dating back to the 9th and 10th centuries, through to the unmethodical top from later additions between the 12th to 20th centuries.

The majority of the Moorish castle might date back to the time of the Arab occupation, but findings at the Archaeological investigation site crossing to the side path up by the walls date back to the Neolithic period around 5000BC, along with the 12th-14th century necropolises and Islamic houses on site.

Another curious fact about this windy fortress is that it never saw battle. Its original purpose wasn’t to guard the village, but to watch over the region surrounding Lisbon, and scaling the walls to the view over Sintra and the coastline at the Castle Keep reveal its strategic location. It’s quite a hike, but seeing the village from a bird’s eye perspective was worth it. It’s really easy to combine the Moorish Castle with a trip to the Palácio da Pena, and you can even get a discounted ticket at 17€ for both sites.

Parque de Monserrate

The Monserrate Palace and Park (7€), built by English millionaire Francis Cook, are located at the other end of the Sintra Hills and are reached by the 435 bus. The wild gardens are split up into botanical themes, such as the Mexican and Japanese garden, which when combined with the orientalist pleasure palace, there is a strong British influence. Parque de Monserrate is also one of Portugal’s richest botanical gardens.

We took the long way round the garden, following the uneven stone steps down by the rumbling Beckford Falls cascading over the Fern Valley. The gravel path spiraled past the fake ruined church consumed by crawling vines. I pictured Lord Byron scribbling in its shade, when he had been a guest at Monserrate.

Palácio de Monserrate sat above the English lawn in an eclectic mix of Indian and Moorish style that was in vogue in Britain at the time. The interior gallery connecting the three towers of palace mirrored the Alhambra, with its succession of intricately carved arches and columns.

Leaving the palace behind, I turned back at the authentic Indian arch for one last look. Enveloped by the scent of jasmine and wisteria interlocked in the pergolas, this is how the palace should be seen for the first time!

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Walker.

Visit Sintra on a tour from Lisbon

             – Jennifer Walker

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