Visit: 7th December 2016
Not far to the west of Lisbon in the forested hills lies what UNESCO describes as the ‘Cultural Landscape of Sintra’. This refers to an area of grand palaces built as summer houses for Portugal’s nobility in the 19th century. My family and I drove to this World Heritage Site from Alcobaça after having been to three monasteries, two historic cities and one volcanic island on a five night tour of southern Portugal. The first site we saw when heading for our hotel was this 11th century Moorish palace.
We had arrived in the early afternoon so, although this site consists of a number of palaces and a Moorish castle, we only had time to visit one – the Pena Palace. This eye-catching edifice perched right on the top of a series of jagged hills takes some getting to, being accessible via a bus that winds its way up hairpins so tight it has to stop and do a three-point turn in order to get round one of them.
The Pena Palace was built by King Ferdinand II as a summer retreat. His architects turned this former monastery into a wild pleasure palace that prefigured Gaudí and Lluís Domènech i Montaner of the Art Nouveau movement (whose buildings in Barcelona have their own places on the UNESCO list). The Palau de la Música Catalana, for example, was completed in 1908, whereas the Pena Palace had been around since 1854.
It is described as being of the Romanticist style, and features as one of Portugal’s ‘Seven Wonders’ (apart from Óbidos Castle, the others are all World Heritage Sites and places I’ve visited: Guimarães castle, Batalha, Alcobaça and Jerónimos monasteries and the Tower of Belem in Lisbon). It is certainly eclectic and exotic. They say that Disneyland was inspired by the Pena Palace.
Sintra is popular with tourists as it is easily done as a day trip from Lisbon (or at least, it is easy to see parts of it in a day) – and it is priced accordingly. We lost the crowds, however, as we walked down from the Pena Palace through its charmingly landscaped grounds where even the waterfowl live in castles and where we experienced what can only be described as a ‘black swan event’.