As the summer residence of the kings of Portugal, and the Moorish lords of Lisbon before them, SINTRA’s verdant charms have long been celebrated. British travellers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries found a new Arcadia in its cool, wooded heights, recording with satisfaction the old Spanish saying: “To see the world and leave out Sintra is to go blind about.” Byron stayed here in 1809 and began Childe Harold, his great mock-epic travel poem, in which the “horrid crags” of “Cintra’s glorious Eden” form a first location. Writing home, in a letter to his mother, he proclaimed the village:
…perhaps in every aspect the most delightful in Europe; it contains beauties of every description natural and artificial. Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices, convents on stupendous heights, a distant view of the sea and the Tagus…it unites in itself all the wildness of the Western Highlands with the verdure of the South of France.
Byron’s description of Sintra’s romantic appeal is still telling two centuries later. Today it is home to two of Portugal’s most extraordinary palaces, the Palácio da Pena and the Palácio Nacional; some lavish private estates; and a Moorish castle, the Castelo dos Mouros, with breathtaking views over Lisbon. Sintra can be a confusing place in which to get your bearings. Basically, it consists of three distinct districts: functional Estefânia, around the train station; the attractive main town of Sintra-Vila; and, 2km to the east, the separate village of São Pedro de Sintra. It’s Sintra-Vila and its environs that have most of the hotels and restaurants and the main sights. Within reach, too, are semitropical gardens and small-scale resorts on a craggy coastline boasting Europe’s most westerly point – to do it justice, give yourself the best part of two full days here.
Sintra’s annual festa in honour of St Peter is held on June 28 and 29, while in July and August the Sintra Music Festival puts on classical performances in a number of the town’s buildings. The end of July also sees the Feira Grande in São Pedro, with crafts, antiques and cheeses on sale.
- Strange happenings in Sintra
Best seen early or late in the day to avoid the crowds, the sumptuous and wonderfully atmospheric Palácio Nacional was probably already in existence at the time of the Moors. It takes its present form from the rebuilding of Dom João I (1385–1433) and his successor, Dom Manuel I, the chief royal beneficiary of Vasco da Gama’s explorations. Its exterior style is an amalgam of Gothic – featuring impressive battlements – and Manueline, tempered inside by a good deal of Moorish influence, adapted over the centuries by a succession of royal occupants. Sadly, after the fall of the monarchy in 1910, most of the surrounding walls and medieval houses were destroyed. Highlights on the lower floor include the Manueline Sala dos Cisnes, so-called for the swans (cisnes) on its ceiling, and the Sala das Pegas, which takes its name from the flock of magpies (pegas) painted on the frieze and ceiling – João I, caught kissing a lady-in-waiting by his queen, reputedly had the room decorated with as many magpies as there were women at court, to imply they were all magpie-like gossips.
Best of the upper floor is the gallery above the palace chapel. Beyond, a succession of state rooms finishes with the Sala das Brasões, its domed and coffered ceiling emblazoned with the arms of 72 noble families. Finally, don’t miss the kitchens, whose roofs taper into the giant chimneys that are the palace’s distinguishing features. The Palace also hosts events for the Sintra Music Festival.