Storybook Sintra

When the Portuguese royal class of the 19th century wanted to get away from the city, they – and all their followers – went to the town of Sintra. Just 15 miles from Lisbon, the hilltops offer views of the Atlantic and Lisbon, and the opportunity to create luxurious gardens. “A glorious Eden,” said Lord Byron.

The main attraction is the Pena Palace, perched high above Sintra, and very hard to reach. There is a one-lane road to the top, and whether one takes a bus, car, taxi, or tuk-tuk from the train station, you crawl up the mountain single-file around more curves than you can count. We had the misfortune to be standing on a bus for 40 minutes, and were definitely shaken, not stirred, the entire time.

If the day had a theme, it would be Lines. Lines to get tickets for the Palace; lines to get the shuttle bus up to the actual site; and then there was the line to get into the palace.

The exterior reminded us of a Disneyland fantasy castle in many ways. It is a confection restored by a Portuguese cousin of “Mad” King Ludwig in the mid- to late-19th century. Gothic, Renaissance, Moorish, Manueline and Disney touches abound, with some remnants of the 16th-century monastery it replaced.

But the most striking Disney touch was the constant illusion that you were nearing your destination – only to find another stretch of humanity around the next curve. We think that there were easily a thousand people in line when we joined it. It took an hour and a half to get to the actual door of the palace, but just before we reached that magical point, the line suddenly sped up at exactly 1:00. We realized then that we had been stopped or just inching along while the ticket-taker and/or guards were having lunch. Though Portugal is theoretically done with austerity, we have seen many instances of tourist points where we might think five attendants would be just about sufficient. In Portugal, there will be only one, no matter how long the lines or how hot the sun. Gift shops close for the lunch hour because there is only one attendant, etc., etc.

The interior of the palace is a humbler version of Versailles – no hallways, just connected rooms – and it must have been a bit uncomfortable. This was the home of the last royal family of Portugal, who fled the country during the 1910 revolution. In some rooms, it seemed like they had just walked out the door a few minutes ago and left their Victorian treasures and uninspired furnishings.

Further down the hill is another palace of note, the Moorish Castle. This thousand-year-old fortification was overtaken by Christian forces in 1147, and then somewhat restored in the 19th century, in true Romantic-ruins style. We admired the ancient stonework and the crenellated winding walls, and the sense of nature taking over the stones. A great place to write poetry.

All in all, a day that demanded patience and fortitude. If only we had packed more of both!


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