Lord Byron wrote to his Mother from Sintra calling it, “The village is perhaps in every respect, the most delightful in Europe.”
Whether this is still true or not remains to be seen, but it is a lovely spot. The tiny town, about an hour outside of Lisbon, felt to me like Disneyland, only it is the “real thing.”
Thought to be inhibited since prehistoric times, Sintra was first settled by the Moors. Then Sintra became the summer residence of Portuguese kings and aristocrats for more than 500 years.
At first I was puzzled. Why here and not by the water? We could see the Atlantic from our hotel…. way off in the distance. Why didn’t the royals and wealthy build there, kinda like our Newport, RI, where the wealthy Americans built “cottages” with dozens of bedrooms and hundreds of staff to run by the sea.
But, ahhh, it became clear. This was first a hunting destination. The magical dense and beautiful forests, crisp air and mountains made for a lovely getaway from Lisbon. Clearly the hunters wanted to be here. Soon it became chic and cool and people built large homes with massive gardens and ground, grottos and play areas.
Many of the homes had the heads of their catch stuffed and preserved and hung around the walls or decorated with images of the “hunted.” Hanging out at the beach came later.
Some of the palaces were quite quirky. Like really quirky. Will cover that in a different blog post.
Our hotel, the Tivoli Palacio de Seteais, with spectacular views, was built in the late 18th century by the Dutch consul as a private home. It features lovely interior with delicate murals, grand staircases and antique furnishings. The staff was attentive, helpful and charming.
We enjoyed our aperitif in the quaint bar with piano music in background, lunch on the awning-covered terrace and dinner in the elegant dining room.
Our room had high ceilings and antique furnishings. Very comfortable and made me feel queenly.
Sintra, no longer a venue of the rich and famous, is swamped with tourists. I shudder to think what it would be like in the peak travel season but I do suspect one could escape the crowds on the many garden walks in the magical and mystical forests. Lots that we didn’t get to explore.
We saw lots of kids on field trips, dressed with matching hats and vests so their teachers could spot anyone wandering off. We also saw Asian tourists, loaded with cameras, groups of small children poking each other, elderly sitting on the wall watching it all.
The most notable building to see is right in town—The National Palace, a late medieval palace, an amazing expression of royal wealth and power. Even though it is huge, we at first had trouble finding it because the exterior is very plain and the pair of conical chimneys rising high above it made me think of some kind of weird power plant.
While boring on the outside, the wonderful decorated palace is absolutely worth a tour, especially to see the tiles and the painted ceilings.
It is the only surviving royal palace from the Middle Ages, having been added on to over centuries. Acting as a luxury hunting lodge and a refuge from unbearable summer heat in Lisbon, which was also devastated by outbreaks of plague.
Will write in more detail about the palaces, but they are the attraction along with charming town and gorgeous gardens. Palace de Pena probably gets the most spin. I love hotel guru, Karen Brown’s, description of the Pena Palace. She says it is, “A colorful, flight of fancy construction which includes elements of every architectural style imaginable.” She says, and I agree. “This is a castle you must not miss. It’s fabulous.” But that is another post. Stay tuned.