Nested in the forested foothills of the Sintra Mountains, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of Lisbon, the tiny town of Sintra is a unique microcosm of a millennium of Portuguese history.  Although remains testify to a Roman presence starting in the 1st  century B.C., it is the Moors conquest of the area in the 8th century A.D. that is the genesis for Sintra as we explore it today.

Castelo dos Mooros

The Castle of the Moors.

Built as a military outpost on a high ridge in the early days of the Islamic occupation, the Castle of the Moors offers a commending view of both the surrounding agricultural territories of the plain below and the maritime access route to Lisbon. It developed into a major stronghold over the next two centuries, until 1147 and the creation of the Kingdom of Portugal by Afonso Henriques. With the country now in Christian hands, the fortress lost its strategic importance. While it remained inhabited for a time, by the end of the 14th century it had been gradually abandoned in favor of the village of Sintra below.

The parapet of the mighty fortress.

Today, its granite block walls interlinking giant boulders and rock spurs still snake along a 450-meter (1500-foot) perimeter to dominate the skyline as a  powerful reminder of  the Islamic presence in the region. And its parapet walk continues to provide stunning views over the town and its intriguing collection of palaces and villas while, further in the distance, the forested hills ripple all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

 

Palácio de Sintra

The Palace of Sintra (circa early 15th century).

In the center of town, just below the Castle of the Moors, the Palace of Sintra  (now officially the Sintra National Palace) was originally the residence of the local Moorish rulers. Upon his conquest of the area, King Afonso Henriques appropriated the Sintra Palace for his own use. However, nothing remains of this original structure. The current, radically modified palace dates from the reign of King João I (1385-1433). He intended his new palace to be larger and more luxurious, its rooms arranged around a central courtyard and able to serve multiple functions. Most famously, he is credited for the creation of the vast kitchen whose monumental conjoined chimneys have become an icon of the palace and the town of Sintra itself.

The Swan Hall.

Further enhancements were undertaken over the following centuries to create a surprisingly harmonious blend of Gothic, Manueline, Moorish and Mujédar styles, a unique palace that remained a royal summer residence until the end of the 19th century. The most notable rooms include the Swan Hall, named for the panels of crowned swans decorating the elaborately coffered ceiling, the Magpie Room with its exquisite 16th century marble fireplace, elaborate geometric azulejo wall treatment, and its painted ceiling, considered the oldest in the palace, featuring 136 magpies.

The Heraldic Room.

The vast, square Heraldic Room is the centerpiece of the tower built  during the reign of King Manuel I (1495 -1521). Here, the soaring octagonal domed ceiling  is decorated with the coats of arms of the 72 most prominent families of Portuguese nobility with the royal coat of arms at the top. The azulejo tiles of scenes of gallantry decorating the walls, were added in the 18thth century.

 

 

Palácio da Pena

The Palace of Pena.

If you have ever harbored fantasies of fairy-tale palaces, this one is for you. Perched on one of the highest hilltops dominating the town of Sintra the Feather Palace, now officially the Pena National Palace is a prime  example of 19th century dream castles in the sky inspired by medieval myths. Built on the site of a small 16th century monastery, severely damaged by the the catastrophic 1755 earthquake, this architectural hallucination is the brainchild of King-Consort Ferdinand, a German-born member of the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, husband of Queen Maria II (1834–1853). He purchased the property and surrounding grounds in 1838. The original intention was to restore the remains of the monastery, which consisted mainly of the church, cloister and a few dependencies, as a summer residence for the royal family. These elements can indeed be found the northern section of the palace.

The Triton Gate.

The final outcome, however, is the embodiment of  the Romantic fad that swept through Portugal at the time: an over-the-top mixture of Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance styles. The incongruous ensemble, which took twelve years to complete, is further enhanced with elements of the medieval imagery such as parapet paths, lookout towers, and access tunnels. Then, at the explicit command of the king, the facade of the former monastery is painted a brilliant red, and that of the new building a vivid yellow. 

The Great Room.

The interior of the palace is equally disconcerting: a succession of opulent staterooms and royal apartments adorned with ornate furnishings, hand-painted tiles, and rich tapestries. It is impossible to miss the intricately carved ceilings and walls of Queen Amelia’s apartments, or the striking all white reception room. Mercifully, the chapel of the original monastery survived the Neo frenzy, The Chapel of Our Lady of Pena is a small gem of Manueline and Islamic styles. Its main altarpiece, carved in local alabaster and limestone carved in local alabaster and limestone is an 16th century masterpiece, attributed to French sculptor Nicolau de Chanterenne, who also created  the Western Portal of the  Jerónimos Monastery in Belem.

Quinta da Regaleira

The mystical Neo-Gothic Quinta da Regaleira,

Long the preferred summer destination of the royal family for the lush natural beauty of its surroundings and its proximity to Lisbon, Sintra also became popular with aristocrats. They build their own palaces and villas around town. While several of them still exist, none are more intriguing than the Quinta da Regaleira.

 

 

Baroque marble bench with Templar Cross symbol.

A few minutes’ walk from the center of town, this eccentric 19th century Neo-Gothic extravaganza dreamed up by Brazilian tycoon António Carvalho Monteiro (1848-1920) is worth a passing look. Its main attraction, however, is its exuberant park, filled with mystical grottos, secret tunnels and enigmatic buildings bearing symbols and iconography related to alchemy, freemasonry, Templars and Rosicrucians.

 

 

Lisbon to Sintra

Sintra train station.

By far the best way to travel from Lisbon to Sintra is by rail. The journey takes approximately 30 minutes on trains that leave every half an hour or so from the central Rossio Station — and take you back a couple of centuries. Built in 1887, the Sintra station has changed little since then. Within its modest exterior, the walls of the public spaces have remain a delight of Romantic-style azulejos artwork that set the tone for your day in Sintra.

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there —The fastest and most convenient way to travel from Lisbon  to Sintra is by train. It is unadvisable to consider driving to Sintra. The historic center is closed to traffic and its outer perimeter is clogged with drivers in quest of virtually non-existent parking spaces.
  • Getting Around — Walking: It is a scenic 10 mins walk from the Sintra train station to the historic centre of the town and the Sintra National Palace, and another 15 mins to the main entrance of Quinta da Ragaleira. The Pena National Palace, is situated at the top of a steep hill accessible via the Caminho de Santa Maria footpath, an approximately one hour uphill walk. The same applies for visiting the Castle of the Moors. By bus: Bus #434 departs from the train station every 15 minutes. It follows a one-way loop up the hill to the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace before returning to the train station via the historic centre of Sintra. Note: during peak season, there is incredibly high demand for the bus and long lines can be expected.
  • Visiting — The Palace of Sintra The Palace of Sintra and The Palace of Pena are open daily from 09:30 am to  06:30 pm. The Castle of the Moors is open daily from 09:30 am to 06:00 pm. All are closed on December 24 and 25, and January 1. Consult Quinta da Regaleria  website for any information regarding opening hours and visits.

Location, location, location!

Sintra