The attractive, verdant town of SINTRA warrants at least a day of anyone’s itinerary, though two or three days would allow you to make the most of its fabulous surroundings. The cooler air of the hilltop town made it the preferred summer retreat for Portugal’s royalty; over the years it has also attracted the rich and famous, and inspired countless writers, including Lord Byron (who begins his epic poem Childe Harold in “Cintra’s glorious Eden”) and Gothic-novel writer William Beckford. It was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1995 because “the cultural landscape of the Serra and the town of Sintra represents a pioneering approach to Romantic landscaping that had an outstanding influence on developments elsewhere in Europe”.
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The town’s historic centre spreads across the slopes of several steep hills. Dominating the centre of Sintra-Vila are the tapering chimneys of the Palácio Nacional, surrounded by an array of tall houses painted in pale pink, ochre or mellow yellow, many with ornate turrets and decorative balconies peering out to the plains of Lisbon far below. All this is highly scenic – though summer crowds can swamp its narrow central streets, and once you’ve seen the sights, you’re best off heading to the surrounding attractions up in the hills. Easiest to reach are the Castelo dos Mouros and the extraordinary Palácio da Pena – both visible on the wooded heights above town – or the lush gardens of Monserrate, though you’ll need a car to see the Convento dos Capuchos.
Sintra’s annual festa in honour of St Peter is held on June 28 and 29, while in May the Sintra Music Festival puts on classical performances in a number of the town’s buildings, including the Palácio Nacional. The end of July sees the Feira Grande in São Pedro, with crafts, antiques and cheeses on sale.
Strange happenings in Sintra
Sintra has been a centre for cult worship for centuries: the early Celts named it Mountain of the Moon after one of their gods and the hills are scattered with ley lines and mysterious tombs. Locals say batteries drain in the area faster than elsewhere and light bulbs seem to pop with monotonous regularity. Some claim this is because of the angle of iron in the rocks, others that it is all part of the mystical powers that lurk in Sintra’s hills and valleys. There are certainly plenty of geographical and meteorological quirks. In the woods around Capuchos, house-sized boulders litter the landscape as if thrown by giants, while a white cloud – affectionately known as the queen’s fart – regularly hovers over Sintra’s palaces even on the clearest summer day. Exterior walls seem to merge with the landscape as they are quickly smothered in a thick layer of ferns, lichens and moss. And its castles, palaces, mansions and follies shelter tales of Masonic rites, insanity and eccentricity that are as fantastical as the buildings themselves.
Best seen early or late in the day to avoid the crowds, the sumptuous and wonderfully atmospheric Palácio Nacional largely dates from the reign of Dom João I (1385–1433), making it the oldest surviving palace in Portugal, though sadly, after the fall of the monarchy in 1910, most of the surrounding walls and medieval houses were destroyed. Embellished by a series of monarchs – notably Manuel I (1495–1521) – the palace displays a range of architectural styles from Moorish tiles to Manueline decorations and Gothic battlements.
On the lower floor of the palace, you’ll pass through the beautiful Sala dos Cisnes (Hall of Swans), a reception room named after the painted swans on its ceiling, and the Sala das Pegas (Hall of Magpies). The story goes that Dom João I had the room decorated with as many magpies as there were women at court, implying that they were all magpie-like gossips after he was allegedly caught canoodling with one of the servants. Best of the upper floor is the gallery above the palace chapel. Beyond here, a succession of state rooms leads to the Sala das Brasões, a dazzling domed hall embellished with 72 coats of arms representing Portuguese nobility. Finally, back down on the ground floor, don’t miss the kitchens, whose roofs taper into the 33m-high chimneys which are the palace’s distinguishing features.