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Sintra, in the hills just outside Lisbon, was the summer retreat of Portugal’s kings; their fanciful palaces and villas give the town a fairy-tale feel.
An air of unreality pervades this royal enclave, where the wealthy, the powerful and the just plain eccentric gathered to escape Lisbon’s heat. Today it is the most popular day-trip from Lisbon, close and easy to reach.
Sintra lies in three levels along a steep slope. At the lower level is the train station where passengers from Lisbon arrive; at the top is Pena Palace. Between them lies Sintra-Vila, the main village clustered around the Palacio Nacional. These two royal palaces and the many private villas that royalty always attracts are surrounded by lush parks and gardens, their greenery punctuated by towers and turrets.
The National Palace is a catalogue of Portuguese architectural and decorative styles, ranging from Mudejar (Arabic style created by Spanish craftsmen after the fall of Islam rule in Iberia) to Manueline (a nautically inspired baroque decorative style). A tour of the palace reveals the changing tastes and times of several kings who lived there. The result is best described as exuberant Portuguese eclectic.
Even if it were not the centerpiece of the town, the palace would be easy to spot because of its two very tall conical chimneys. The plain façade gives little clue to its richly embellished interior. Its azulejos – decorative tiles found all over Portugal — are stunning, especially in the Moorish dining room. These tiles range in age from the fifteenth century to the eighteenth century and include Moorish bas-relief designs, faience and polychrome examples.
The Moorish style of some of its rooms do not date from the Arab occupation of Iberia, rather they were added later by Manuel the Fortunate, who had traveled in Spain and admired the Moorish water-filled patios, rounded arches and arabesques. He employed artists from North Africa to give his palace its Moorish style — and imported dancers, as well, to entertain his court. These personal touches of each successive king give the palace a human dimension
In the 1840s, during the reign of Queen Maria II, her husband the German Prince Ferdinand bought a hilltop above Sintra, with a ruined Moorish castle and began creating Pena Palace. In his enthusiasm for the project, the young king incorporated almost every architectural and decorative element favored by that era’s Victorian taste and romanticism. The result is a fantasy castle, made even more fantastic by the colors that decorate its outside walls and towers, giving it the appearance of a giant frosted cake.
Touring it is a must. Rooms are not large, but they are memorable, filled with whimsy and playful decoration. One room is done in cement to simulate wood, another in porcelain furniture, yet another in papier-mâché. Every surface is decorated, so there’s a lot to look at. Children love it: Pena Place has everything a child ever dreamed of in a fairy-tale castle, from a moat to crenellations and turrets.
Sintra has other places to visit, including the hillside botanical garden of Monserrate and the stone castle and somewhat spooky gardens of Quinta da Regaleira, built by a 19th-century eccentric obsessed with the Knights Templar. Smart boutiques and cafes line the square opposite the Palacio Nacional and the surrounding narrow streets, along with galleries showing the work of Portuguese artists and artisans.
Trains leave Lisbon’s Rossio station every 20 minutes for the 40-minute ride to Sintra’s Estefania station. Sintra-Vila is a 15-minute uphill walk. A half-hourly tourist bus links the major sights, including the National Palace and Pena Palace.
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