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Sintra is often described as a Disneyland for grown-ups, but simply spend time exploring the surrounding beaches, seafood restaurants, and woodlands, and you’ll find there is so much more to this historic town. Just 16 or so miles northwest of the Portuguese capital, with its fairy-tale landscape of mist-soaked forests, turreted palaces, and castle ruins, Sintra seems a world away from the heat and hubbub of Lisbon. Lying in the wooded hills of the Serra Mountains, cooler temperatures have lured Portugal’s overheating royalty to sit out the summer in Sintra’s fabulous palaces and shady exotic gardens for centuries – these exotic gardens, with their magnificent views, offer the ideal setting for any occasion, however royal.
The view of the castle is vibrant in striking yellows, reds and blues, perfectly showcasing this impressive castle as it sits 1300 feet above sea level, with brightly coloured flags flying from ivy-clad restored battlements and keeps – the castle is like the fantasy fortresses found in little boys’ picture books. Far below I can see the Atlantic, deep blue and restless, while to my left and higher up still is Pena Palace, rising from a densely wooded peak like an apparition. From the palace’s windows, I can also see the ramparts of the town’s Moorish Castle looming high above, and decide to head there next.
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I find a more decorative story inside though. The mixture of Moorish and Manueline styles allows me to pass through Arabesque courtyards into elegant rooms, many embellished with beautiful 15th- and 16th-century ceramic tiles. Above me ceilings glitter, one with exquisite paintings of gold-collared swans and another with magpies, their beaks sealed to act as a warning to gossipy ladies-in-waiting. There are countless exquisite rooms to go through, all filled with priceless antiques and glorious interiors which seem as new as they were a hundred years before. Sadly, however, the palace is no longer operating since the dissolution of the monarchy in 1910.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Republicanism in Lisbon grew, both in numbers and support among progressive politicians and the influential press. However, a minority with regard to the rest of the country, this height of republicanism would benefit politically from the Lisbon Regicide on 1 February 1908. When returning from the Ducal Palace at Vila Viçosa, King Carlos I and the Prince Royal Luís Filipe were assassinated in the Terreiro do Paço, in Lisbon. With the death of the king and his heir, Carlos I’s second son became King Manuel II of Portugal, however, his reign would be short-lived, ending by force with the 5 October 1910 revolution, sending Manuel into exile in England and giving way to the Portuguese First Republic.
Before we lose ourselves in the wealth of the historic town of Sintra, I must also mention another former palace which has been turned into a luxury hotel, Tivoli Palácio De Seteais, which will take you back to the elegant days of the XVIII century. The hotel itself offers the most luxurious, yet intimate, experience – just 30 bedrooms housed in this elegant, late 18th-century, neo-classical palace, with interiors of frescoed walls, tapestries, and antique furniture. It is set among lawns with roaming peacocks and a view of the mountains of Sintra, Pena Palace and Moorish Castle, just a fantasy land, isn’t it?
A 45-minute drive from Lisbon airport will bring you to the cool, misty mountains of Sintra, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The hotel is set beneath the colourfully eclectic, 19th-century Pena Palace, which perches far above it on a rocky peak. Within walking distance is the palace of Monserrate, whose exotic gardens were immortalised by Lord Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. There are quite a few exquisite and priceless houses surrounding the hotel which was once used as a holiday home for the aristocracy back in the 19th and 20th century.
The hotel itself was originally built in 1787 for the Dutch consul in Portugal. In the 19th century it became home to the illustrious Marquis of Marialva, who built the triumphal arch between the two wings of the palace to commemorate the visit of Prince Regent João VI and Princess Carlota Joaquina in 1802. Then in 1953, after a period of neglect, it was turned into a hotel with further extensive restoration carried out in 2009. Light, elegant interiors mix frescoed walls, some attributed to French painter Jean Baptiste Pillement, with chandeliers, rich silks, and 18th-century antiques.
The service at the hotel is truly impeccable with lots of friendly and polished staff. There is a swimming pool in the attractive Italian themed gardens and an Anantara Spa. The hotel has several excursions available for guests, from a helicopter trip over Sintra and the coast to a ride in a horse-drawn carriage, or at the hotel itself, a private champagne dinner among the frescoes, accompanied by a harpist and violinist. What more could you need for a royal and romantic getaway?
What attractions to see?
The Pena Palace is a Romanticist castle in São Pedro de Penaferrim, in the municipality of Sintra, Portugal. The castle stands on the top of a hill in the Sintra Mountains, above the town of Sintra, and on a clear day, it can be easily seen from Lisbon and much of its metropolitan area. It is a national monument and constitutes one of the major expressions of 19th-century Romanticism in the world. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. One of the most colourful castles I have ever seen with exquisite interiors along with panoramic views of Sintra and Lisbon in the distance.
The Monserrate Palace is a palatial villa located near Sintra, the traditional summer resort of the Portuguese court. The palace itself is one of the most beautiful and visually striking mansions of Sintra, but as it lies 3.5km from the historic centre, many visitors simply overlook this stunning palace. Monserrate Palace seamlessly blends Arabic, gothic and Indian architectural styles to create a wonderful summer house that is surrounded by beautiful gardens; when you visit Sintra, do not miss out on this hidden gem. We need to give a big round of applause to its talented architect, James Knowles.
Quinta do Relógio is an estate located near the historic centre of Sintra, Portugal. It is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO within the “Cultural Landscape of Sintra”. Along with the nearby palaces such as Seteais Palace and Quinta da Regaleira, it is considered one of the most important tourist attractions of Sintra. The property consists of a romantic palace and chapel, and a park. Believing Pena to be the keeper of Sintra’s most indulgent architectural lavishes, Quinta da Regaleira down in the Old Town proves me deliciously wrong.
Owned by a fabulously wealthy Portuguese businessman, but the creation of an Italian opera set designer, Quinta da Regaleira is an early 20th-century neo-Manueline palatial extravaganza, with a façade of towers, turrets, and finials carved with mythological creatures. The palace is also known as “The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire”, which is based on the nickname of its best known former owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro.
But it’s the gardens that are the most fantastic. Following footpaths that caterpillar around willows and ferns, full-blossomed camellias and drooping wisteria, I come across statues of lions and dreamy nymphs, hidden follies and grottoes, gentle fountains and water-lilied lakes. There are spooky wells which never served as water sources but, instead, were used for ceremonial purposes that included Tarot initiation rites. The tunnels described above connect these wells to one another, in addition to various caves and other monuments located around the park. Of the two wells, the larger one contains a 27-meter spiral staircase with several small landings. I did myself proud, looking right down into the well, as I suffer from a height phobia, but it was truly wonderful to see these man-made labyrinth wells.
If you are visiting from Lisbon, you can tour in a day, but I would recommend you stay in Sintra for two days, at least, to enjoy the full experience. It is a masterpiece of a town and simply stunning during the spring. I think it’s time for me to buy one of these stunning mansions for myself soon, but I think I will have to choose my lottery numbers first!