One of the reasons that I spent four nights in Lisbon was to check out the small town of Sintra, an incredibly popular day trip for tourists from the big city. It was extremely easy to get to from my hostel, which was located directly across from a small train station where trains to Sintra ran every twenty minutes or so. The fare was an unbeatable €4.30 and the train ride, on a comfortable commuter train, was about 50 minutes long.
Sintra is famous for its castles, palaces and summer estates that dot the mountains and hills. On a clear day – which I, of course, did not have – one can see all the way to the Atlantic Ocean from many of the castles. The castles appear to be close to town, but to get there you’re looking at a long, hard uphill slog on narrow roads. The best option, and the one I would recommend to visitors, is to spend €5 on the bus loop that starts at the train station and visits the old town, the Castle of the Moors and the Palace of Pena before descending from the hill with another stop in the old town and then the train station again. The loop is one way, but it visits things in a fairly logical order.
I wandered through the old town for a bit, shopping and trying the travesseiro from Piriquita before hopping back on the tourist bus. The only castle that I planned to visit was the Palace de Pena but when I got off the bus and walked towards the Castle of the Moors I decided to buy a combination ticket, for €18, that would allow me to visit both sites. To visit them separately would cost €7 at the Castle of the Moors and €14 for the Palace of Pena.
The Castle of the Moors was constructed, of course, by the Moors sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries. If there is one thing I can say about the Moors is that they understand the “location, location, location” principle of real estate – the site is stunning, perched on a high hill with commanding views of the countryside and town below. It was taken over by the Christians at some point during the 12th century and was used by both a fortress and religious centre. The Castle was damaged during the earthquake of 1755 and basically in ruins until 1840 when Ferdinand II decided that the castle should be preserved.
Ferdinand II of Portugal was an artist and a romantic, so the restorations were done and should be admired with this in mind. He reforested the area, added beautiful gardens and created all sorts of nooks. I really enjoyed walking along the perimeter of the wall, despite the narrow walkways and not quite to code staircases, peering over the edge to look below and taking scenic pictures. It was quite breezy up there and there are flags all along the walls so you could hear them flapping violently in the wind.
You could easily see the Palace of Pena, despite the clouds and the rain, and I think that the misty weather really fit in with the grey walls and green vegetation. Ferdinand II likely would have approved of the “romantic” atmosphere as the ruins of the castle were only enhanced by the grey, moody skies.
I took the bus to the Palace of Pena, not realizing how short the walk was… although, to be fair, it was still uphill. The bus drops you off at the main entrance to the Park and from there it’s a fifteen minute, uphill walk to the Palace itself. The entrance ticket includes entrance to the Park but you still need to show it again once you reach the castle itself.
The Palace of Pena is considered one of the best examples of Romanticist architecture in the world. It was first a monastery but it was basically reduced to rubble during the earthquake in 1755. Ferdinand II had always enjoyed the ruins and so he acquired the former monastery, the lands surrounding it and the Castle of the Moors. His goal with the monastery was to rebuild it, add to it and eventually create a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. It passed from Ferdinand II to his second wife (who was not a member of the royal family) upon his death but she eventually sold it back to the royal family. It only became a national monument after the Republican Revolution in 1910.
The Palace itself is quite beautiful and, once again, has stunning views over the countryside and towards the Castle of the Moors. There was a great deal of restoration work going on and the Portuguese authorities seem to be determined to return the palace to its original state – the facade has been repainted to its colours of red and yellow, for example, and portions of the castle were closed for renovations. There was one part, however, where visitors could walk right through the work in progress and they had informational plaques outlining the process. They also asked visitors to not take photos and to not speak so that the restoration team could complete its work in peace – a fair request, I thought, when they are trying to repaint damaged frescoes!
I was happy to see that there was a lot of furniture and decorative items in the Palace. This is something that I last saw in Neuschwanstein Castle, and I really think that it adds to the visit. The architecture and decorative details in places like the Alhambra are stunning, but it’s hard really understand how a room was used without a few visual cues.
I briefly wandered through the park but it was starting to rain (again) so I decided to just head back into town with the goal of finding a late lunch and picking up a couple of gifts before heading back to Lisbon. Prices for food in Sintra are crazy high and I wandered through the streets until I found a small, slightly dingy bar on the outskirts of the main tourist street. If you’re on a budget, eating in Sintra should be approached with caution as the restaurants, especially in the main area, were priced quite high.
It was easy to hop back on the train to Lisbon – I had bought a return ticket – and the train was waiting in the station as Sintra is, for all intents and purposes, the end of the line. If you want to go a bit further, or visit the Atlantic Ocean, you can take buses that leave from the town. This option was recommended to me, but the weather was really quite miserable and I wanted to get back in time for a cooking class at the hostel. A chair – and a shower – were really quite appealing after a few hours of climbing around the castles and the parklands. A final piece of advice – sturdy shoes are a must!