Exploring the treasures of Sintra
We arrive into the bus terminal of Sintra which is a simple stop near the railway line to and from Lisbon. The railway station is home to some beautiful Azulejo tiles inside which can easily mesmerize me by just looking at them. We are also at a loss to explain how these long, large tourist buses can actually turn and navigate in and around the narrow and winding roads with on-coming traffic and parked cars on either side of the road. Once we’re off the bus, we get our bearings and walk to the information stand situated within the train station for a map and some suggestions for our few hours we have to explore.
We stroll along the road heading towards the Palacio de Sintra or Palace of Sintra but we stop first at a quaint art café to enjoy a coffee and cake. Along the walkway there are a series of larger sculptures and pieces of art to look at on the way as well as pop up jewellery vendors. I get a sense that Sintra is a proud city of its former artistic influence and continues that way today. The woman behind the cafe counter asks me would I like a large or small coffee, and I reply with small please. But when it’s delivered to our table near the window, I realise small is really tiny like an espresso style cup.
We make a call not to venture inside the Palacio de Palace which is an Arab construction and residence of the Royal family from the 12th Century. In the Middle Ages it was used as the court’s summer retreat for hunting. It’s stark white and stands out with its two cone-shaped towers. We choose to get to higher ground straight away with the limited time we have to explore.
There is an assortment of different vehicles that visitors can hire to explore in and around Sintra: tuk tuks, electric buggies for two, hop on hop off buses, electric bikes. We choose to take the standard tourist bus that operates as a service similar to the hop on hop off style of tourist bus but without the 24 hour ticket and it’s a one way only so once the loop is complete that’s the ride over. It costs about 5.50 euros each for the one loop. We jump on the 434 bus that’s stopped directly opposite the palace and we commence our ascent.
The two places that we are visiting and interest us the most both literally sit on the top of a rocky mountain. First is the rugged Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle) and the other is the exquisite Parque e Palacio da Pena (Park and Palace of Pena).
Castelo dos Mouros or Moorish Castle
Wow! This Moorish castle is simply breathtaking and reminds me at first glance of the Great Wall of China, with its long and impenetrable stone wall stretching over the top of the mountain ridge and into the distance. Not as extensive as the Great Wall, just a little reminder. The wind is extremely blustery and strong up here too as you can see with Steve trying to tame my hair for a selfie!
The 434 bus snakes around the roads that zig zag up this steep hill. It’s just incredible how it all works with buses and other varieties of hire transport. We’ve pre-read that lines for tickets into these sites, especially in summer, can be long. Seeing the amount of people who disembarked the bus I can just imagine. So we hedge our ticketing bets: I line up at the human ticketing office which is already really slow, while Steve lines up at a machine operated ticketing service just outside. He wins. Plus, Steve purchases tickets for visiting both sites at once.
We find ourselves initially in the middle of a lush green forest. Big old trees loom above like skyscrapers, their branches moving in the wind. We pass by voluptuously rounded boulders of granite covered in moss, and lichen with ferns and trees all sprouting up all around them. There’s a lovely coolness, and dampness that brings about a sense of intrigue and enchantment in the air up here. We walk up and up and up and climb uneven rocky stairs until our heads emerge from the thick green foliage. The view along the path just getting to the top is serene and calming and the stone structure looks more like a fort than a rocky castle that was built in the 8th and 9th Centuries. It was the site of the military fortification and extensive Islamic presence in the region. This fort/castle overlooks the city of Sintra and history tells us that it acted as a watch tower to protect the capital of Lisbon and the surrounding areas. I even meet the self-proclaimed “King of the Castle!” and get a photo with him to, in his words, liven up the photo a bit!
Once we arrive out of the lush green forest we are here. On top of the world. We walk the entire length of this magnificent stone fort structure, and have a feeling of nearly being able to touch the low hanging clouds that rush by with the gusty northerly wind. The view down onto Sintra and the Palacio de Palace is beautiful – the town is made up of a series of rectangular block apartments that from up here look more like the hotels that come with a Monopoly board game. Scattered in the hilly landscape are luxurious homes with spiral towers, and an abundance of forest land around them.
Within the fort wall on the lower level landing are hundreds upon hundreds of flowering hydrangea plants – pink, purple, blue, and a vivid red colour. It’s a sea of hundred’s and thousand’s sprinkled within this grey stone complex. Haggard looking pine trees sway and bend with the force of the wind; I too have to hold on to a railing as the wind huffs and puffs all around us. There are no safety guards or barriers – it is what it is – but I am left wondering how many people nearly lose their footing or balance up along this narrow walking ridge. I peer down between the gaps in the boulders and notice quite a few caps have made their home between them.
We decide to walk the 355m uphill to the Pena Palace site rather than waiting for the 434 bus. The view over to the palace is amazing. It’s a lovely invigorating stroll in the middle of the forest with just the two of us. No coaxing other family members into walking up the steep incline, no complaining. It’s very quiet and peaceful.
Parque e Palacio da Pena (Park and Palace of Pena)
We arrive to the base of the palace grounds, and here there are smaller transit buses offering to take visitors from the entrance up the hill to the front door of the castle for three euros each. We decide to walk again and fully appreciate the amazing life of the trees in this extensive park on our walk up. There are 500 different species of trees that are said to originate from all corners of the earth. King Ferdinand II is said to have arranged for different species of trees to be imported and planted in the park including North American Sequoia, Lawson’s Cypress, Magnolia and Western Redcedar, Chinese Ginkgo, Japanese Cryptomeria, ferns and tree ferns from Australia and New Zealand.
The park itself is a system of labyrinth pathways and narrow roads, with a stream moving through the Queen’s Fern Garden. What can I say. Just wow again!
The Palace is established virtually on top of a rock in the Sintra hills and is the result of the creative genius of Ferdinand II. The extensive park and unique palace are examples of 19th Century Romanticism and the most important cultural element of Sintra. Originally the palace was a monastery, but after the massive earthquake in 1755, much of it was ruined and it was left vacant and unused. That was until Ferdinand II arrived and made it his home and renovated it extensively.
The first impression of the Palace is a mix of: wow, colour pop, Cinderella and fairy tales with Moorish architecture. It was classified as World Heritage Site in 1995 by UNESCO and its vividly painted red and yellow walls, terraces and decorative battlements, mythological statues including grotesque gargoyles that peer down at the entrances contrast against the lush green forest and uneven terrain – all 200 hectares of it. It’s a lot to take in at first sight.
The interior has been restored to reflect the decor of 1910 when the Portuguese nobility fled to Brazil to escape the revolution. The last queen of Portugal, Queen Amelia, spent her last night at the palace before leaving the country in exile. The bedrooms and dining room are magnificently restored, especially the dining room as well as the long elongated room that has a golden chandelier hanging in the middle of it – apparently this chandelier was purposely created for this one room. Just beyond this room is a circular room painted all white with the heads of hunted deers mounted on the wall around the room. The windows are enticing to look out from – overall being here physically is awe-inspiring to see up close.
The grotesque gargoyles are particularly unusual to look at peering down at the entrance to the Palace. Are you certain JK Rowling didn’t get some of her characters for Harry Potter from here? And also the Azulejo tiles underneath the archways of the hideous looking gargoyle figures are glorious.
And apparently on a clear day the palace can be seen all the way from Lisbon! It’s no wonder then that this place is the number one tourist destination for visitors from Lisbon. It’s an easy train ride here from Lisbon thats makes Sintra the most popular day trip.
The Palace is also listed as one of the 7 Wonders of Portugal and to date we have managed to see three of these wonders while living in Portugal.
We wait for the 434 bus to arrive that takes us back down the mountain to Sintra city. It’s been a lovely afternoon of sightseeing together and we have really enjoyed traveling out to Sintra and seeing another of the wonders of Portugal. Truly magical.