Royal and romantic, Portugal’s palaces and castles are much more than Disney for adults
SINTRA, Portugal — Fog and mist are generally not friends of travelers, particularly when those travelers have visions of a sunny and warm week in Portugal. But when fog and mist descend and then hug a Romanticist castle that sits brazenly atop a hill, it’s difficult to hold a grudge against the elements.
It was as if some sort of divine movie director yelled “Cue the fog!” to complete the scene at Pena Palace on the spring afternoon I made the trek up the mountain to the massive 19th-century structure.
Nothing about the palace, or its location, is conventional. Pena Palace is an unlikely hodgepodge of styles, including Gothic, Islamic, and Renaissance. It’s like the platypus of palaces, or a cobbled together Disney princess vision as interpreted by Salvador Dali. As fashion types are prone to say when disparate styles merge, it’s a lot of look.
But before I subject you to more flowery descriptions and other assorted taradiddle, it’s important to back up and look at the municipality where this grand residence is located. Sintra is a 30-minute drive from Lisbon, but it’s nothing like the nearby sun-baked capital. It has its own microclimate, it has its own delicious pastry treats, and its seven hills are 50 shades of green with palaces sprouting from them. The rakish Lord Byron described Sintra as a “glorious Eden.” If a romantic, sex-positive dandy like Byron could get gushy over Sintra then it’s certainly good enough for the rest of us.
Sintra is often tacked on as a day trip from Lisbon. Listen to me carefully and don’t make me hit the caps lock key: Sintra is not a day trip. If you think you can properly experience five palaces, a castle, a convent, plus squeeze in time for suckling pig and a trip to the beach in a single day, then it’s time to reevaluate your vacation priorities. You’re not going to get a proper taste of Sintra from a tour bus window.
I’m not here to give a hard sell, but a friend who joined me for a day in Sintra later confessed that he enjoyed the town more than Lisbon. I will remain neutral on the topic. Staying in Sintra has become easier as more hotels have opened over the years, such as the Sintra Boutique Hotel, the Arribas Sintra Hotel, and Sintra Bliss House.
First the downside: Portugal’s newfound popularity means that there are more necks craning to see these palaces. The number of Americans visiting Portugal skyrocketed from 390,000 in 2016 to 685,000 in 2017. But the beauty of taking the town at your own pace means you can carefully time your visits around the motorcoaching hordes.
I started my first morning at Quinta da Regaleira, an outrageously Gothic 1910 palace which also includes a chapel, park, lakes, and dramatic dry wells. I arrived before the morning buses and had a few moments to walk around without a forest of selfie sticks sprouting around me. Quinta da Regaleira wore a mysterious shroud of fog which put its ornate details in soft focus. It’s perhaps best known for its dry initiation wells, one of which contains a 90-foot spiral staircase down mossy stones and into the earth. Mysterious tunnels abound and ferns poke out between rocks in high, imposing walls.
Here’s where my Sintra experience began to diverge from the daytrippers. I enjoyed a leisurely lunch, strolled around the historic downtown at an unhurried pace, then walked into the Casa Piriquita bakery and stocked up on enough travesseiros (a pillow of pastry with egg, cream, and almond) and queijadas (tiny pies made with cheese, sugar, cinnamon, eggs, and wrapped in a crispy batter) to last me through my afternoon trip to Cabo da Roca, a cape at the westernmost point in Europe.
Sintra is all about drama and dreamscapes. Cabo da Roca’s lighthouse is perched near sheer cliffs and surrounded by fields of ground-hugging yellow and purple flowers. You come for the novelty of being in the westernmost point in Europe, and stay for the view.
Again, timing was everything in Sintra. I arrived at Pena Palace near the end of the day when the crowds had dissipated. I strolled through the ornate rooms where Portugal’s royal family summered in the 19th century to escape the heat of Lisbon. In the courtyard, through the arches, I could see fog and clouds drifting beneath me, revealing bits of blue.
Sintra has turned into a destination for golf and hiking, but I was itching to get to the beach on my second day. You can hop a 1904 tram from the center of town to the coast. Praia das Maçãs (Apple beach in English) isn’t quite the Algarve, but on a hot day it’s a beautiful, sandy option. Because I was not treated to a hot day, I decided to treat myself to wine.
Not far from the beach are wineries where you can sample wine made from grapes grown in the sand. Colares, a town west of Sintra, creates reds and whites from these grapes. The vintages I tried tasted wholly unique. They were fresh with a bit of saline, and slightly herbal. I’m no wine snob, so my milquetoast description is not doing them justice. But of all the Portuguese wines (and there are many), the wines I tasted at Adega Viúva Gomes were the most memorable.
Giving myself days, not hours, in Sintra allowed me the luxury of seeing museums that are not a part of day trips. I was also able to sample restaurants, such as the wonderful Incumum, and Tia Alice, where locals go for their suckling pig. I drove to the see the Roman ruins at the Archaeological Museum of São Miguel de Odrinhas. But what I treasured most were those moments spent rambling through palaces and sweeping gardens that represented a time when Sintra was a sanctuary for royals and romantics. On my final day I was able to step into my favorite of the grand residences, Monserrate Castle.
I’m quite sure Monserrate is not on the standard bus route, because there were moments when I nearly had the place to myself. I studied the intricate Moorish details and the Gothic touches — let’s just call it all Eclecticism — and imagined that the serenity I felt was the 19th-century version of unplugging from the world.
There was a rose garden, a Mexican garden, a small waterfall, and ornamental lakes. The curious Sintra mist descended over the lichen-covered trees. In all, the gardens support more than 1,000 species of sub-tropical trees and plants which flourish in rambling ravines and across sweeping wooded slopes.
It’s enough to bring out the 19th-century romantic in all of us. It made me think of a letter Lord Byron wrote to his mother boasting “The village of Cintra, about 15 miles from the capital, is, perhaps, in every respect, the most delightful in Europe; it contains beauties of every description, natural and artificial.”
More than 200 years later, it seems that Byron’s words are still true.