Day 3 – Sintra
‘Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes, in variegated maze of mount and glen’ – Lord Byron.
Fernandified doesn’t like spending too many days in a city. He feels that cities are boring and he is of the opinion that a country is ever truly enjoyed outside the city in some obscure village or town. While planning this trip, I wanted more time in Lisbon and explore places around it like Sintra. Since I was the one researching all the places to see, I had a feeling that Sintra is one to be devoured slowly and languorously.
After much negotiation about the number of days we were going to spend in each city, we settled for 2 nights in Lisbon, 2 nights in Porto and 2 nights in Lagos. Now this means that Sintra falls pitifully in transit between Lisbon and Porto. We decided that we would leave Lisbon and explore Sintra on our way to Porto. After all, we had rented a car!
Only 45 minutes from Lisbon, Sintra turned out to be by far the most magical place I ever laid eyes on. Such is the beauty of Sintra that even Lord Byron quoted it in his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage which is thought to contain autobiographical elements. Sintra is often listed as the most expensive and favoured places to live in Portugal and wider Iberian Peninsula, it is no wonder that Madonna – the original Material Girl bought a lavish 18th century Moorish mansion and moved her entire brood from London to Sintra.
Driving into Sintra was not easy – extremely narrow two-way roads and uphill drive was not favorable. The traffic uphill was painstakingly slow with our little car trudging behind big tourist buses and with no way to overtake; it was truly a test for Fernandified’s driving skills and my patience. What made it worse was the lack of parking space. All the cars were parked on the sides of these narrow winding roads and if you can squeeze in your car, you just leave it there and don’t look back.
If I were to visit Sintra again, I would either hire a driver or use public transport to reach Sintra and hire a taxi from the center. We had a deadline to reach Porto and the time spent on driving and looking for parking was just time wasted when I could have been waltzing around in Pena Palace and imagining myself (in my head I’m two sizes smaller and my face has luminous zit-free skin) with my Prince holding hands reciting love poems …… and back to reality. Sorry about that – Sintra would have that effect on anyone since the place itself is synonymous for Romanticism and Surrealism.
Sintra is derived from its toponym Suntria which could mean Bright Star or sun, but today is often referred to as The Moon hill, possibly because Ptolemy referred to it as Mountains of the Moon or because the Celts worshiped their Moon God here.
It was a cold, windy and gloomy day and as we made our way up the mountain, the sun had started to peer through the thick lush green cover of trees that Sintra is most famous for. Our first stop was Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors), which was built between the 8th and the 9th Century by the Moors as a military fortification and stretched across the cliffs of the mountain. After the Seige of Lisbon, the castle was surrendered voluntarily and Portugal’s king Alfonso Henriques left the castle under the watch of 30 inhabitants who would protect and mend the castle. The chapel within the castle was used as a Parish seat but the castle was losing its military importance as the inhabitants moved to the Sintra village leaving the castle abandoned. The chapel however, was still used by a small jewish community up until when King Manuel I expelled them after which the castle was completely abandoned.
Today the castle, rising at 412m above sea level lends a haunting, yet romantic charm to the overall mysticism of Sintra. This morning’s rain clouds still hung low, almost as though you could reach out and touch them as they sit still casting shadows on the panoramic view of the city sprawled below the castle. As though, one is bewitched by an unexplained power, Sintra draws you in to the next destination – I almost lead out an excited squeak when I spotted from the corner of my left eye- sitting higher than the castle and teasing you through the mist – Pena Palace.
Having had to park quite a few kilometers away from every place we wanted to visit, we had to walk quite a lot. According to my Apple Health App, we apparently walked over 13 kilometers equaling to climbing 87 floors. So, if you are visiting, be warned and be prepared. Walking up and down the slops of Sintra was a sensory feast. There is a vibe about Sintra that is quite otherworldly. The moss-covered high walls and decaying wrought iron gates with wisteria wrapped carelessly all over is all too charming. The whole of Sintra, I dare say, was perfection. Not a leaf was out of place and I honestly could not get over the beauty of this place and it doesn’t come as a surprise that UNESCO protects the whole place as a World Heritage Site.
Much in accordance to the whole enchanting vibe of the place, Pena Palace was apparently built when an apparition of Mother Mary was reportedly seen. Where the palace stands today was a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena. The chapel has been favored by the kings of Portugal with King John II and Queen Leonor even completing a pilgrimage all the way to the chapel and King Manuel I eventually building a Monastery around the chapel. It seems Pena was a quiet place for meditation for many years housing a maximum of 18 monks.
Like most monuments in Portugal, Pena palace also suffered some unimaginable fate when it was first struck by lightening and then run to ruins after the Great Earthquake of 1755. The ruins remained untouched for many years until King Ferdinand II commissioned work to transform the monastery into a summer palace for the royals to what is today accepted as the greatest expression of the 19th century Romaticism. It is said that the last Queen consort of Portugal Queen Amélie of Orléans spent her last night in Portugal at Pena Palace before her exile after the military coup/1910 revolution, which deposed her youngest and only surviving son King Manuel II after which the monarchy was never restored.
The Palace at first glance looks straight out of any fairytale with a sudden convulsion of colours in a shocking yet peaceful eclecticism true to form of its era of Romanticism. It was heartbreaking to learn that the palace for many years was known to be entirely gray until restored to its original colours in the 20th century into what we see today.
The Initiation Well at Quinta de Regaleira was what had drawn me to Sintra in the first place before I entered the blackhole of research and found out that the entirety of Sintra was quite literally dotted with UNESCO protected gems from past epochs. After Pena Palace, we nearly did not make it to Quinta de Regaleira as we could not find parking and circled the area way too many times that we gave up and started to leave Sintra with a growing disappointment in my gut. However, we spotted a clearing near one of those high moss-covered walls and we decided to trek from there.
Taking in the wisteria scented streets, the excitement in my stomach was growing as we walked closer to what is also popularly known as ‘The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire’. Quinta de Regaleira’s most known owner António Carvalho Monteiro also known as ‘Monteiro dos Milhões’ (‘Moneybags Monteiro’) was a Brazilian coffee tycoon who along with the famous Italian Opera set designer Luigi Manini manifested a villa estate for the millionaire which can be only described as a playground for the grown-ups.
As you walk the grounds of the villa, you often get a sense of walking in and out of reality and an imaginary world. Luigi Manini clearly ran his imagination wild and managed to capture many mystical beliefs that has captured the world’s fascination over the years. The Initiation Well for instance, plays into the secretive Masonic rituals and what is even more interesting is that the inverted well also has 9 platforms referencing Dante’s 9 circles of Hell.
The entire estate had expressive Neo-Manueline architecture with symbolism hinting at the The Templars, Alchemy, Masonry and Rosicrucians with its hidden wells, grottoes and lakes of which we did not find the time to enjoy today. Seeing as how late we would be to reach Porto, we slipped the ever-enchanting grip of this magical place and drove towards rain and double rainbows onto new adventures in Porto.