Sunday, 8 February 2015

Sintra - A Thousand and One Fairytales

As you may have gathered by now, I have a sweet spot for places that seem to be trapped inside a fairy-tale. The most common day trip from Lisbon is undoubtedly to the town of Sintra, where I took my dose of fairy-tale dreams during my recent stay in Portugal. Easily reachable by train from the capital in half an hour, Sintra has been for centuries the privileged residence of kings and queens. Because of its beautiful natural surroundings, it offers nice walks in the wilderness, but also charming stone-paved streets where you can soak in a distinctive Portuguese atmosphere. The reason why Sintra is so famous, though, are the castles and palaces that make Cinderella and Snow White look like real tales.

Palacio da Pena on a sunny winter day

From Rossio train station in Lisbon, a 4.10€ return ticket took me to this magical land of moss-covered trees and mysterious woods. The centre of Sintra is within a pleasant 10-minute walk from the train station. Here there are small restaurants, souvenir shops and B&Bs. Lord Byron raved about this small town, and this is why you will find streets and restaurants bearing his name.
A peculiar stone staircase called after Lord Byron
I immediately recognized the Palacio Nacional de Sintra from the pictures I had seen in guidebooks and travel blogs. With its funny conical chimneys, it does not look particularly charming from the outside, but rather a bit clumsy. The combined ticket (Palacio Nacional de Sintra + Palacio da Pena) does not come cheap: 19€. "Whatever", I thought, "you gotta do what you gotta do".
Palacio Nacional de Sintra seen from the outside
The interior of the palace positively impressed me with its distinctive style. I have visited countless royal palaces in my travels, including Versailles and Schönbrunn, but this one had something unique. Maybe it is not as luxurious as others, but it had its own style. Its blue-green mosaic decorations on the walls, the bizarre objects on display (like these decorative hens!) and the vague Moorish style certainly caught my attention. This area was the siege of power since the Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus, which controlled most of the Iberian peninsula, but this particular palace dates back to the 15 and 16th century.

Hens as knick-knacks

Interior of Palacio Nacional de Sintra

In spite of the bizarre and underwhelming look from the outside, Palacio Nacional de Sintra is elegant inside. The famous Sala dos Brasões is full of coat of arms on the ceiling and of beautiful azulejos on the walls. I had never seen a room decorated like this in all of my travels!

Sala dos Brasoes in Palacio Nacional de Sintra

Once visited the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, I hopped on a touristic bus that in a few minutes left me near Palacio da Pena. There aren't many other options to reach it, I'm afraid, unless you're up for an exhausting uphill trek. The bus costs 5€ and it's hop-on-hop-off, so you can use it several times, and you can also stop in Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle). Palacio da Pena is one of the most eccentric palaces I have ever seen, a sort of Iberian Disneysland that reminds me of another uber-famous 19th-century Romantic castle: Ludwig of Bavaria's Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.  Palacio da Pena is located on top of a hill, and it incorporates Medieval and Islamic elements. It was used by the Portuguese royal family until they were forced into exile in 1910. The bizarre colour juxtapositions - blue and yellow, grey and red - make it look like a mish-mash of different inharmonious elements, and honestly it is a bit kitsch.

Palacio da Pena

Palacio da Pena from the outside

Inside it, I found it less interesting than Palacio Nacional de Sintra, but I really loved the central courtyard. Needless to say, it was decorated with beautiful azulejos.

The beautiful courtyard in Palacio da Pena

What you cannot miss - and I hope you'll have a sunny day like mine - are the views: the woods on one side and the plain with countless small towns on the other side. There are gardens to explore inside Palacio da Pena if you have plenty of time in your hands. As for me, I was starving, so I headed down to town for a hearty meal of bacalhau com natas, a real Portuguese treat.
View from Palacio da Pena
A last palace was left to explore, before heading back to Lisbon: Quinta da Regaleira, which was a real surprise. The suggestion to visit it came from the staff at my hostel in Lisbon, Sunset Destination Lisbon. I can never thank them enough for this and many other tips. In spite of being the least famous and the least expensive of the palaces I visited in Sintra (6€), Quinta da Regaleira was by far the most beautiful. You can literally spend hours exploring the park and you'll never get bored. It is Gothic and romantic in style, with paths and views studied to leave an impression on the visitor.

A corner of the gardens of Quinta da Regaleira 

It is located in the historical centre of the town, so unlike the Palacio da Pena for which you have to take a bus, it is easy and quick to reach it. Pinnacles, gargoyles and elaborate neo-Gothic decorations are among the elements of the actual mansion, but the real star are the gardens. Lakes, extravagant grottos, fountains and statues decorate it in ways that are never banal.

Quinta da Regaleria

Quinta da Regaleira - still autumn

The famous "inverted tower", or initiative well, has obvious alchemic connotations. It is an upside-down tower, going deep into the earth instead of trying to reach the sky.

The initiative well
You can actually walk down the tower, and then follow some dark and humid tunnels until you find yourself on the other side of an artificial waterfall.

Seeing a waterfall from behind

Everything here is just perfect, like in the fairytales. Just have a look at this view of the Moorish Castle and of the surrounding hills, for example. I spent about one hour and a half exploring the paths of Quinta da Regaleira, and came out of the estate when  the sun was beginning to set. 
The view of Castelo dos Mouros from Quinta da Regaleira
What I liked the most about Sintra was, however, the atmosphere: the trees (in December it was still autumn), the winding roads and the elegant houses. In Sintra one of the most pleasant experiences is just walking around, smelling the fresh air and letting yourself be charmed.

Along the street in Sintra
Sintra, along the street

A house in Sintra. In the background, you can see Palaco Nacional de Sintra

A stone-paved streets in the back streets of Sintra

Did you like Sintra? Would you let be charmed too?


  1. I've been reading so many posts lately about Portugal and this one is my favorite so far. Sintra looks INCREDIBLE! I'm really going to try and visit for a weekend since I'll be spending a lot of time in Madrid this spring. Thanks for sharing!

    Happy travels :)

    1. Thank you, Lauren. Sintra is a special place: it is really worth visiting!

  2. Dell'Algarve invece hai qualche info?
    Vale la pena andarci in primavera?

    1. In Algarve purtroppo non sono stata, ma secondo me dev'essere piacevole in primavera senza troppi turisti britannici tra I piedi.


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