Mountain of the moon – The magic of SintraBy Kerstin Buechner Dias • Dec 9th, 2008 • Category: Portugal, Quinta Lifestyle
A short helicopter flight from Quinta do Lago and perched close to Europe’s most western tip is Sintra, one of the nation’s most precious architectural and istorical jewels. Protected from unflattering progress by its UNESCO World Heritage status, the little town has enjoyed fame and royal privilege for hundreds of years.
The Celts celebrated it with a profusion of menhirs that still litter the surrounding countryside. The Romans magically described it as “the Mountain of the Moon”. The Moors built a stunning castle here, to be rivalled only by the summer residence of the former Portuguese royal family – the Palácio Nacional. With its distinctive conical chimneys and a lived-in history that spans from the 13th to the 20th centuries, the PalÃ¡cio Nacional is essential viewing.
Lord Byron and Robert Southey are among Sintra’s most famous visitors. In “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, Byron describes Sintra as a “glorious Eden”. Fellow English poet, Robert Southey describes it as “the most blessed place in the whole of the inhabitable world”. The 19th century Portuguese novelist Eça de Queirós describes Sintra as ”a trysting place, and beneath its romantic foliage noble ladies had surrendered to the arms of poets.” Maybe this was what attracted poets Byron and Southey to its vistas, or why Cameron Diaz chose to holiday here with her boyfriend. Then again, perhaps they were simply seduced by Sintra’s captivating beauty and the sense of intimate seclusion that emanates from the little town.
Playground of the rich and the regal
Narrow, cobbled, medieval streets radiate out from the royal Palácio, lined with antique shops, galleries, boutiques and cafés. Lush vegetation fills the air with the scent of bougainvillea, mimosa and camellias. Throughout Sintra and in the attractive villages that dot the countryside all around, you can taste the fine local wines and sample the region’s famous local pastries, the delicious queijadas.
All around is the architectural evidence that Sintra used to be the playground of the rich and the regal. Many country palaces, great mansions and quintas were built by the wealthy in the vicinity of the Royal residence.
These include the impressive Monserrate Palace, the Palácio da Pena, the Palácio de Seteais and the Quinta de Penha Verde.
Palácio de Seteais
The monumental entrance to the magnificent Palácio de Seteais is not to be missed. It was here, in this 18th century palace that the Convention of Sintra was signed in 1808 which, according to legend, gave the palace its name; House of Seven Sighs. It is now one of Portugal’s finest five star luxury hotels, offering every possible comfort including its own private jet service.
Monserrate Palace was built in the 1850s for Francis Cook, Viscount Monserrate, who filled the garden of his neo-Oriental castle with great palms, cedars, redwoods, ponds and waterfalls.
Palácio da Pena
The PalÃ¡cio da Pena is an astonishing example of Romantic architecture. Standing on one of the rocky peaks of the Serra de Sintra, it dominates the skyline with its fanciful towers and domes. Dating back to 1839, the palace was inspired by the castles of Bavaria and was built by Baron von Eschwege to the specifications of Portugal’s then King, Consort Dom Fernando II of Saxe Coburg-Gotha.
Quinta de Penha Verde
Head west out of Sintra and you will drive under an arch of the Quinta de Penha Verde. This stunning 16th century mansion was first owned by one of the Viceroys of India.
But it is not just the architecture of Sintra that is breathtaking. Its green, wooded hills are navigated by frighteningly narrow roads that spiral around picturesque hairpins, dominated always by the shadow of the Serra de Sintra. Rising high out of the surrounding green, there is a huge granite block 530 m (1,700 ft) in height, which separates Sintra from the dramatic rollers of the Atlantic Ocean.
It is this Serra that best encapsulates all that is special about Sintra. It combines the magnificent with the solid and, with its peaks hidden in the swirling mist, adds a large dose of romanticism for good measure. And, as if that wasn’t enough, it will provide you with such an amazing view of this beautiful landscape that the panorama will remain with you, forever etched in your mind’s eye.