” Perhaps in every aspect the most delightful in Europe; it contains beauties of every description natural and artificial. Palaces an gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts an precipices, convents on stupendous heights, a distant view of the sea and the Tagus…it unites itself all the wildness of the Western Highlands with the verdure of the South of France.”
Lord George Byron, anno 1809
A few months ago, I had never even heard of Sintra. Contented with being a fairly well-travelled individual, I went around blissfully unaware of this fairytale-like town 35 km northwest of Lisbon. Today, a month after reluctantly returning home from a long weekend there, I remain hopelessly enchanted by its verdant charms.
It was by no means love at first sight. I had arrived at Sintra train station after a 45-minute train ride from Lisbon’s Rossio station only to be met by a sleepy and moist town, and taxi drivers who seemed to be in a competition with the weather on who would win the title of gloomiest.
As the vehicle made its way from the Estefania district through to Sintra-Vila, the historic centre of the town, I started to feel as though I was being transported into an alternate reality, a world where fairy tales not unlike The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland take form. Green ravines lining fresh water springs and constantly winding roads, once past a Gothic looking building I later found out was the famous Quinta de Regaleira, took me to the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais hotel, where I was happy to get some rest and regain my bearings.
The next morning, white clouds and mist hovering over the hotel’s grounds continued to give the town a mysterious yet benevolent feel. Sintra has its own microcosm, and as a result, the weather there is not only as fickle as a five-year old princess, but also five degrees cooler than Lisbon.
It is the latter quality that made Sintra a cherished summer residence of the kings and the Moorish lords of Lisbon before them. The enigmatic town also attracted writers such as Lord Byron, fable-writer Hans Christian Andersen and poet Robert Southey among others. Today, it remains a holiday playground for well-heeled Lisboetas, as well as a place for tourists to immerse themselves in the town’s mysterious gardens, palaces and museums.
What to see and do
Begin with a visit to Sintra’s most conspicuous and and central landmark, The Palacio Nacional de Sintra, or the National Palace of Sintra. Once there, do not miss the Magpies Room, whose magpie-decorated ceiling holds saucy secrets. According to legend, King Joao I commissioned the ceiling to be painted with as many magpies as there were ladies in cour because he perceived them to be magpie-like gossips after the queen, Phillippa of Lancaster, caught him kissing one of them.
Equally dramatic is the Palacio da Pena, which with its position at the top of the oft mist-shrouded Serra de Sintra, rewards those who take the trouble of climbing it with magnificent views stretching all the way to Lisbon. The palace’s architectural style, like many historical buildings in the area, is a flamboyant amalgam of Manueline, Teutonic and Moorish influences.
Take in the ruins of the Moorish castle on your descent to the foot of the Serra de Sintra. Built in the 9th century by the Moors, part of it is now the site of an archaeological excavation project. It also offers fascinating panorama views of Sintra’s historic centre, Europe’s most westernmost point Cabo da Roca and the Atlantic Ocean almost 12 km away.
Once back at Sintra-Vila, perish the thought that you will be able to explore all that the town has to offer in a day, and save the trips to the gothic-influenced Quinta De Regaleira , the semi-tropical Monseratte Gardens and the cork-lined Capuchos Monastery for the next day. Then, set out to explore what the town has to offer by way of local pastries and cuisine.
Where to eat
No visit to Sintra is complete without sampling queijadas, the local cheese tarts spiced with cinnamon the town is famed for and travesseiros (almond pastries). Get these at Piriquita, a small pastry shop which has been making them since the 1860s. Be prepared to queue though, as the place is usually lined by locals and tourists alike clamouring to get a piece of the pie.
For something more substantial, seek out the Tacho Real for authentic Portuguese cuisine. Hidden atop a steep cobble-covered alleyway, the restaurant offers traditional dishes with international overtones. Try the bacalhau à bras, a medley of salted cod, onions, and matchstick-sized potatoes and scrambled eggs.
Where to stay
Stay at the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais, whose past as a former palace and impeccable service will leave one feeling like a royal. The hotel’s verdant gardens offer breath-taking views of the Estremadura countryside.
Alternatively, stay at the well-known Lawrence’s Hotel which, having opened in 1764 boasts both being the oldest hotel in the Iberian Peninsula and having hosted Lord George Byron when he stayed there in 1809. Perhaps you too will leave Sintra describing it as “a glorious Eden.”