The first time D visited Portugal was a dozen years ago on a weekend trip from Spain organized by his study abroad program. He remembered enjoying the visit without being able to recall any details other than that he spent an afternoon in Sintra seeing palaces. With its UNESCO World Heritage status, an overabundance of ancient regal buildings, and easy access to mountains and nature hikes, Sintra is an easy and rewarding day trip for anyone seeking to escape the hustle and bustle of Lisbon.
Sintra’s natural beauty and proximity to Lisbon had long made it a favorite estival destination for Portugal’s rulers. The early Portuguese kings and barons erected their summer palaces in the shade of the Sintra mountains, but little remains of the buildings that predate the Moors’ centuries-long domination of the Iberian Peninsula. When the Christian armies finally expelled the Moorish occupiers, they likewise laid waste to their buildings. The only relic to survive those turbulent times are the stone walls of the Castle of the Moors, perched high on a ridge overlooking Sintra.
In fact, one can easily spend several days touring Sintra’s palaces, castles, and the summer estates that once belonged to Portugal’s nobility. We bought a combined ticket that would allow us entry into three royal residences. It did not include admission to the Quinta la Regeleira, which is easily Sintra’s most intriguing historic monument and was high on our list.
Four sights seemed doable, but as soon as we began our tour we started wondering whether we had bitten off more than we could chew. The problem was that none of the royal residences allowed strollers to be brought indoors. Munchkin had just fallen asleep when we arrived at our first destination — the National Palace of Sintra. Because we had to leave him outside, that meant that somebody had to remain with him.
Compared with some of the other regal quarters we saw later, the National Palace of Sintra is understated and tasteful. It served as the royal summer residence for Portugal’s ruling family and was more or less continuously occupied from the 15th to the 19th century. The furniture preserved inside is exquisite; it is minutely decorated, but not overly ostentatious. And the Coat-of-Arms Room alone is worth the price of admission. Its features floor-to-ceiling azulejo tiles depicting various hunting and outdoor scenes, which are crowned with an ornate gold-plated octagonal cupola featuring the royal coat of arms.
From the National Palace we made our way to the Quinta la Regaleira. The estate originally belonged to the Regaleira family before passing into the hands of a wealthy merchant who had ties to the Masons. He bought additional parcels of adjoining land until the Regaleira property vaguely resembled a pentagon and then proceeded to turn the grounds into a labyrinthine homage to all things occult. The property is filled with grottoes, secret underground passageways, initiation wells, and all manner of symbols allegedly relating to alchemy, Masonry, and the Knights Templar. We quickly realized that the hour we had initially budgeted for touring the Regaleira estate would not do it justice.
After a quick lunch we hopped on a bus that wound its way up the mountaintop that overlooks Sintra. Leaving the colorful Pena Palace for last, we first paid a visit to the Castle of the Moors. The castle was built twelve centuries ago, and little of the original structure survives the ravages of time and change in dominion. There are a couple of turrets and a long outer wall that once formed the castle’s defenses. Munchkin was awake by that point, so we left the stroller at the gate and took turns carrying him up and down the old stone steps. We had a clear view down towards Sintra, but a rolling mist obscured the Pena Palace, located on a nearby hilltop, entirely from view.
The sun was well on its way towards the horizon when we finally passed through the gates of the Pena Palace. Built in the mid-19th century on the ruins of a monastery that was destroyed by the great 1755 earthquake, this palace is as capricious and over-the-top as the National Palace is reserved and stately. It almost feels like a whimsical expression that would more befit a Disney princess then the ruler of an actual country. And yet, Portugal’s King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II, who reigned during the palace’s construction in the 1840’s, reportedly made many an executive decision regarding its style and decoration. On the eve of the Republican Revolution of 1910, Portugal’s last reigning monarch, Queen Amélia, spent her last night at the Pena Palace before fleeing the country to spend her remaining years in exile in France.
Spending the entire day hopping from palace to palace may seem like overkill, but all the sights we visited were so different from one another that none of it felt redundant. And we left plenty of royal stones unturned for a possible return visit.