Portugal # 4: Sintra

Blog # 4:  Sintra                                                5-7 November 2011

            If the sandy beaches of the Algarve  on Portugal’s southern coast are the country’s number one tourist attraction, then Sintra has to be number two. In both cases it is clear that geography reigns, that topography is determinative of history. The mountain that makes Sintra, rising 490 meters above the surrounding countryside, is crowned by a Muslim castle built atop a 7,000-year old Neolithic settlement. The mountain and the castle dominate a substantial chunk of west-central Portugal. The town of Sintra, 250 meters below the summit, is itself well protected. The royal place sits on a promontory between two yawning gullies that bring streams down from the mountain. The town itself clings to the hillside. Most of its streets are flights of stairs. In olden times it catered to monarchs; today it serves tourists.



For the first half of its history Sintra was the military stronghold of its Muslim rulers (in Portugal, as in Spain, collectively if erroneously called Moors), until in 1147 it was retaken by the Christians as they inched inexorably southward in the 700-year long War of Reconquest (they won, so they got to name the war).

Once the Christians had pushed the frontier back into Africa, Sintra could become a play-place, and for the last 500 years or so it has been the favored summer retreat for Portugal’s royalty. From June to August Sintra was tolerably cooler and breezier than the scorching lowlands. Its oak forests teamed with game for the royal hunting parties. The panoramic views of hundreds of square kilometers of tax-paying peasants would have cheered the hearts of the royals and their number-crunching retinues. The manicured, French-flavored flower and bird-filled gardens would have delighted the princesses and their ladies-in-perpetual-waiting. Like the Escorial for Spain’s Hapsburgs, Sintra spelled summer vacation for Portugal’s bluebloods, but with a big difference. Felipe II, Spain’s religion-obsessed 16th century monarch, dressed in black and attached his summer retreat to a sober, Pentagon-sized monastery complex. His pleasure-loving Portuguese contemporaries opted for Disneyland.


            We came by train from Lisbon on Friday morning and stayed two nights in a tiny house-turned-hotel that for Sintra’s going rate sold us a charming and immaculate three-room flat with kitchen. By planning carefully, going full-tilt, dodging raindrops, and ducking indoors only when the wind grew too strong to stand up in, we were able to see half of Sintra’s palaces and one fifth of its renowned gardens.


The Palacio Nacional took up the whole of Friday afternoon. When King Alfonso Henriques took the town in the mid 12th century, he took over the Muslim king’s quarters, leaving the wind-buffeted fortress on the mountaintop for the salaried military types. For the next 300 years Christian kings added rooms, towers, passageways, fountains and patios, decorating them with the costliest materials in the highest style. That is to say, Muslim stuff. Like their Castilian cousins, they went nuts over tile mosaics, intricately carved geometric plasterwork, horseshoe arches, and ceilings covered with inlaid wooden geometric stars and frets. Their chairs? Benches cushioned with fabrics from Damascus or Fez. Their tableware, lustrous faience inscribed—why not?—with Qu’ranic verses. Dining rooms; billiard rooms, dressing rooms, salas dos chachquis. Two kitchens with enough copper implements to pay off the Greek debt. Later Renaissance kings overlaid everything with their own taste, Italian in its basic lines, but with the Iberian Muslim-inspired abhorrence of plane surfaces. If busy was good, really ostentatiously curvaceously busy was, well, Manueline. Named after King Manuel I, whose architects named the style after their patron.


            Later monarchs occupied the palace right up until the declaration of the Republic in 1910, each adding personal touches that imbue the place with its overarching theme: eclecticism. And with the 19th century came the collectors. You name it, and if it was costly, rare, fragile, stylish (think eye of the beholder) and—better yet, the gift of some royal cousin elsewhere in Europe—they piled it up to be dusted and admired on shelves, mantels, vitrines, pedestals, cupboards, and armoires. This king went for goblets and beer steins. That one went for painted platters of a size for serving a whole sheep or, in one or two cases, a small ox. Another monarch amassed Manises ware, glazed 15- and 16th-century pottery that we have long admired and sometimes craved, though we’ve never been willing to take out a second mortgage buy a saucer or two.


            Saturday was supposed to have dawned bright and sunny (and I was supposed to have been born rich – you just can’t count on those things, can you?). I upped early, put on my contacts, grabbed my binoculars (and umbrella), and started up through the woods to the castle, where Linda, who would climb the 250 meters by bus, would meet me in a couple of hours. I tried the umbrella, but the wind kept turning it inside out, and it wasn’t raining all that hard anyway. The road wound around the mountain, climbing past summer cottages (more of that in a moment), including one plaqued to the effect that Hans Christian Anderson had made it his Sintra home for a while. I had a map and found the indicated trail up through the woods. In the old days it would have all been oak (note: old days = before the hills were denuded to make the boats that the Portuguese used to develop the African spice trade in the 15th century). Now it is a mix of pine, chestnut, and odd specimens of exotics salted into the forest by the arborists of various monarchs. Huge tumbles of moss-covered boulders looking as if they had been carelessly tossed there by giants. Ferns dense in the hollows and even straggling up the trees in the way of tropical rain forests. The path I was following was cobbled, and every couple of hundred meters it crossed lateral cobbled paths that suggested that the whole wild mountain had been exploited as a park, as a kind of Romantic sculpted landscape. And indeed that was the case, as it was with all of the other parks—more than a dozen of them—that cling to the lower slopes of these mountains.

            About two-thirds of the way up I overtook an old man (my age?) and his dog (younger). With my Spanish-based pigeon Portuguese and his tolerant ear we had an amiable conversation about (1) our two kids and his twin daughters, all about the same age and doing well; (2) his dog; (3) the castle-like mansion on a neighboring hill that was built by a Brazilian industrialist who only visits about three weeks each year; and (4) the weather.

            At the ticket kiosk I met Linda, and together we walked the last few hundred meters to the castle gate. Archaeologists have spent a few seasons on the approaches, uncovering some Neolithic bits, some 10th-12th-century Islamic grain storage pits, a medieval Christian cemetery, and the odd buttress wall. All that remains of the castle itself is its crenellated wall, running up and down and around for a kilometer or so, with a 1-meter wide walkway along the top from which archers could discourage visitors. The wind was blowing so hard that I had to hang onto the battlements with both hands to keep from pulling a Mary Poppins up over the treetops.


            Now Queen Maria II, and her consort Don Fernando II, who held the throne intermittently through much of the early 19th century, decided that the Palacio Nacional, though opulent and crammed with stuff, wasn’t quite opulent or crammed enough, and besides, from the bedroom window they could only get a small glimpse of the coastline and the Republican armies anxious to depose them. The solution: built a new palace way up on top of the mountain, higher even than the castle, which is on the steepest bit, if not the highest. Their creation, the Palacio de Pena, is what Disney would have built for them had he been available for hire. A theme park of a palace, an idealized (or, if you like, nightmarish) agglomeration of every historical style Portugal had experienced so, tied together with Manueline whimsy, aka excess. A place to put all their treasures that wouldn’t fit in the Palacio Nacional. A place for a couple of hundred tourists, including us, to spend a gasping, gawking, incredulous couple of hours before taking the bus back down the mountain to Sintra village.

 An hour’s rest and then the sky began to clear. Perfect for an hour’s walk through the Parque da Liberdade to gaze at the tropical plants (including a strangler fig! shades of Mexico), and take pictures of the life-size papier maché giraffe and rhinoceros.


Sunday morning, with honest-to-goodness sun we walked a kilometer or so to the Quinta da Regaleira, a summer cottage and grounds to make the Newport “cottages” on Bellevue Avenue seem like tract housing, or maybe shacks in the woods. The Newport-Sintra comparison isn’t all that far off: Sintra in the late 19th century and early 20th was the place for the nobility of new money to congregate in the summer show to off their wealth and taste by trying to top each other’s mansions. There are scores of these cottages in the surrounding hills, each with 20 or 40 hectares of sculpted landscape enclosed by a massive stone wall

with just enough peepholes in it to ensure that passers-by will experience the requisite envy. Each of the cottages, in the absence of the others, would be worthy of being made into a national park. But the Quinta da Regaleira . . .


The ancient estate’s modern history began when some wealthy merchants from Porto sold it to a man named Carvalho Monteiro in 1892. The man was wealthy as Midas, mad as a hatter, and nostalgic as Miniver Cheevy. For the next 20 years or so he and his neo-romantic architect, Luigi Manini, built a fairy palace in the woods. But their genius lay not in the palace, built in Sintra’s prevailing Roman-Gothic-Renaissance-Manueline style, but in the grounds. Monteiro was obsessed by alchemy. By the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians; by Franciscan Mystics and by Greek and Roman myths. By holy wells and infernal grottos, chivalric quests and Dantesque circles. And all that he built into his gardens. Towers with spiral staircases winding down to underground grottos. Themed fountains draped with statues, faced with mosaics. Duck ponds and crenellated mini-castles. Statue-lined esplanades, chapels, oratories, miradores. A well that sinks 27 meters into the ground, circled by a colonnaded spiral staircase like an inside-out Tower of Pisa, but with tunnels leading off into the mountain in every direction. It’s easy to be freaked out (eventually Linda went and sat in the sun to people-watch by some marble nymphs and satyrs), or to be utterly drawn in by the mysteries. 


‘Nuf said. Even without mentioning Sintra’s curio shops, crammed with almost as much crapola as the palaces. Or its famous pastries (delicious) and good restaurants (we ate spectacularly well, and for reasonable prices). Three days well spent, and worth repeating.

D & L