Sintra is a small town in the mountains of the Portuguese Riviera, just an hour away by train from Lisbon.
The first Celtic tribes to inhabit the region called the mountain range Cynthia, after the Greek goddess of the moon, and built a temple on one of the highest points to honor her. After the Roman occupation, the temple fell into ruins.
Later on, when the Moors arrived at the Iberic Peninsula, they Arabized the name into Zintara and built a castle above the ruins of the Celtic temple. Finally, the Christians conquered the region during the 12th Century, and only the Castle of the Moors remained on the top of the mountains.
Throughout the following centuries, the inhabitants of Sintra seemed to be marveled by the town’s cultural past, as now it’s full of eclectic buildings that reflect its historical heritage. I just planned my visit for a day, so I didn’t have time to see them all. But I didn’t regret any of the places I chose to see while I was there. 🙂
The first place I went to was Pena Palace, which looks like Sleeping Beauty’s castle in a far far away land. Just like the ruins of the Castle of the Moors, you can see it in the top of the Sintra Mountains from downtown.
While it looks like a medieval fairy tale landscape, Pena Palace was actually built over the ruins of a monastery during the 19th Century, by King Ferdinand II, who wanted a romantic building that would rival Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.
He combined medieval European and Islamic architectures with bright colors inside and outside the building and made the palace the royal summer residence.
Because of its privileged location in the second highest point of Sintra, the Portuguese royal family had a spectacular view to their domains. Also, it’s hard to miss the blue and lavender tiles and red and yellow walls of the façade from any part of town. With the mix of colors and styles, Pena Palace looks as different castles merged together. Inside, the walls have pastel colors, and the roofs are decorated with tiles. There’s not a single space that they forgot to overcharge with some decoration.
From its terraces, you can see that the park that surrounds the castle is as exotic as the building. Ferdinand II sent to bring unique trees, ferns and flowers from all around the world.
After the Portuguese revolution in 1910, the royal family fled to Brazil and the castle passed to the hands of the Portuguese government, who opened it as a museum.
The second place I visited was Quinta da Regaleira.
The history of this place began when an entomologist, Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, bought the land from the Regaleira family.
He was fascinated by pagan mysticism and esoteric symbols, and hired a renowned Italian architect, Luigi Manini, to build him a palace and garden with Portuguese gothic and renaissance architecture that displayed his interests.
They decorated the palace of 5 floors and the chapel with pinnacles and gargoyles in the exterior, making them look like old gothic mansions ready to be the set of a romantic horror story.
The plants in the garden are left to grow wild, hiding the structures built around the property. But with the help of a map, or just by wandering around, you’ll find towers, fountains, lakes, caves, and wells that interconnect with underground tunnels. The spiral stair, grottos, and Sintra’s cloudy weather, give Quinta da Regaleira an authentic surreal atmosphere.
To finish my day in Sintra, I headed to Monserrate Palace, built over the ruins of an old mansion (yes, everything in Sintra is built over someone else’s ruins) in 1858 by a British merchant called Francis Cook.
Cook was a linen, wool, and silk trader who constantly traveled to Middle-East. He bought the land in Sintra and was named Viscount of Monserrat by the king of Portugal.
Monserrate Palace combines Arabic, Indian, and gothic architecture to remind Cook of his travels. But it doesn’t overshadow the garden, as outside there are fountains, a lake and a waterfall, thematic Mexican and Japanese gardens, exotic trees, and a rose garden.
The only disadvantage of Sintra is that all monuments and museums close early. Even most buses stop running at 6 pm. But if you arrive early, you can visit all the highlights it has to offer, and in the evening have time to get dinner in one of the downtown restaurants.
Sintra is definately a place for a one-day trip or a weekend that you can’t miss if you are visiting Lisbon!