Sintra et al

I hardly know where to start with this post – no amount of images could cover the impressions, really, and it becomes clear that travelling vicariously is going to have its limits for some of you! How I admire the travel writers of old who must assume that their readers are unlikely to follow in their footsteps and to need to describe what they have seen in suitable phrasing…

We flew into Lisbon and very warm summer weather, picked up our rental car and headed to the coast for a few days, thanks to a wedding invitation – German friends have decided to tie the knot and as they are closely connected to Portugal, they decided festivities would take place there. Different!
On arrival, however, we were greeted by a very unrestrained and raging Atlantic crashing full force into the most westerly coast of Europe – and it had brought with it a thick, cool fog. That was unexpected.

The roar of the waves was amazing and deafening – I slowly realised why all the villages are built up on top of the surrounding countryside. I really hope the hotel staff don’t live there permanently! We were at the northern end of the Plaia Grande (big beach), which is no doubt well-visited in the summer months. At the end of September – a few brave surfers attempted to master the irregular storm of waves and a few intrepid sunbathers lounged by the pool but the water was also very cold. I believe it doesn’t actually get any warmer than our Brittany shore, even in summer. Well, that figures. Also, we were told that only 15 minutes drive away in Cascais, the climate is mediterranean: warm, mild, sunny!

When we awoke the following morning, the sea was still bellowing but the skies had cleared and we decided to explore. A cool wind was very welcome and kept the temperatures pleasant in the warm sun. We were staying in Colares, a parish of the municipality of Sintra, which in turn belongs to greater Lisbon. Sintra is a World Heritage Site – and no wonder. There is an array of places to see, scattered through the edge of a national park or forest, mainly of chestnut trees, it seemed, and each palace or villa or castle is as interesting as the next. It is a region that was fought over for centuries and where evidence of a Moorish past is still very much evident. This made quite a change for us, used to British and central European architecture and architectural detail that generally features a lot of Celtic influence in the designs and geometry, but here, the heritage is a very different one, which of course also reflects the difference in climate. Another impression is of the traditional Portuguese style – as the first European colonists, it becomes clear that it was their style which was imprinted on the Colonies, with low square villas covered in fancy decoration and often in shaded, lush gardens appropriate to the lifestyle in a hot place, with the ubiquitous verandas, indispensable attribute to this kind of building. The area is also a wine-growing one, so large depots hold the enormous wine barrels for storage, keeping it dark and cool for later distribution.

Even at the very end of September, Sintra is obviously a popular destination and the tiny town of streets divided only by pedestrian paths was well visited and bustling. It wasn’t easy to find a parking spot or to work out exactly where we were – we had passed several fascinating-looking palazzos and Italianate villas where there only seemed to be a handful of parking spots and time restrictions meant we had chosen two specific places to visit. (Should you ever go to Sintra, allow several days because there is really so much to see and take in, and you wouldn’t want to rush, now, would you?!)

We did come across a house with a different history – the place where Hans Christian Andersen stayed in a tiny village above the town…

Firstly, visible for miles around up on top of the hills, there is a Moorish castle (8th/9th century). That is, the remains of the Moorish presence and several hundred years’ worth of adaptation (from the Bronze Age onwards) and rebuilding, but it is essentially that which we imagine when the word “castle” comes up – look-out towers, crenellated walls snaking over the stretch of the highest part of the hill and flags flying to show who is boss. As it is spread over the hilltop, it has a larger area than you might find elsewhere and is quite a building feat. We climbed and climbed, up cobbled paths and stairways and steps, winding back and forth, through gatehouses and outer walls until we reached the main entrance. Mainly mediaeval, the castle was crumbling by the time Ferdinand II took it on – time and lack of attention since the 14th century as well as the huge earthquake of 1755 that destroyed much of the area had taken their toll – and by the 19th century there was a new sense of romanticism. This artistic, modern and liberal king was actually a German prince, aha! And so we understand the hows and whys of his sense of conservation and romance as he saved what was left, built a mediaval-looking tomb for any bones he found and generally made something of interest and which appealed to visitors… early tourism! The whole is very well presented and worth the steep climb through the woods, which we thoroughly enjoyed (despite aching calves the next day!).

From the top, there is a wonderful view down over the coastal landscape, the town of Sintra and all the way to the coast – with the sea in the far background! The palace with the tall white towers was where we were headed next…

We chose a different route down, one which descended below the Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros) and through a cleft between the rocks (a somewhat perilous path of steep steps and large rocks where young rock climbers practised both monkeylike climbing and abseiling…) and then into the shaded gardens of the Villa Sassetti which meander down through the valley to Sintra, following the fountain/stream that irrigates everything. All the info here:

We’d been all the way up there!

But now, we headed down through Sintra to the National Palace, also known as the Town Palace (Palacio Nacional de Sintra), the best preserved mediaeval royal residence in Portugal, again, with Moorish origins (not visible now). To my mind, the mainly 15th/16th century building offers a wildly exotic comparison to residences of the time in Britain – this was the time of Henrys V, VI, VII and VIII and Elizabeth I. For all the necessary basics, the contrast is extraordinary: both architectures are “the best” of their regions, being royal, and yet they are so not alike! Perhaps there are arguments which are better informed than I and maybe there are palaces that have more in common, but in my experience, there are so many differences – and it occurs to me that they can be seen in mediaeval paintings, too, though I had not previously considered that…
Anyway, to begin with, we did not enter into a large representative hall – a side door of the main entrance (again, perhaps different to the way it was at the time?) led up a sinuous stone spiral staircase to the guard halls and the first large, representative room, the Swan Hall, or Hall of Princes.

How unusual to our eyes the tiling everywhere?! Not something I’ve ever seen in an English stately home.
Step onto a loggia and feel the coolness of this central courtyard – and just look at those curious white towers which can be seen for miles around! What on earth could they represent?!

Walls of daisies – something for my Yarnsmithery friend! – lined the following rooms, followed by another stunning Chamber of State, with a ceiling decorated with magpies. “Por bem” (for honour) being the motto of Joao I (John I, 1385-1433)… “This relates to the story that the king John I was caught in the act of kissing a lady-in-waiting by his queen Philippa of Lancaster. To put a stop to all the gossip, he had the room decorated with as many magpies as there were women at the court.” Wonderful stuff!

Loggias, bedrooms, patios, gardens, staircases of stone (little wood here except for furniture and ceilings!)… a palace truly fit for royalty.

This last high-domed room has a real wow-effect – coming from a narrow corridor you enter and gasp. The walls are all blue-and-white tiled hunting scenes, the ceiling incredibly ornate and richly painted. In German, to be snooty is to be “high-nosed”; I wonder what it is in Portuguese?! The Royals definitely had their noses in the air and a crick in their necks, by the look of it!

Again, what a contrast to the tapestry hangings on the wood panelling commonly found in chilly English palaces!

The chapel seems to be one of the oldest parts of the residence. It seemed unusual to me to find the walls in pink, though I did like the dove theme! It seems that when they found a motif, they really stuck with it (a lot of birds, too!) and I also like the geometry of the repetitive design.

(In knitting, those inbetween borders could almost be Norwegian stars!)

What about a built-in fountain in your bedroom?! (In fact – running water in the 15/16th centuries? Eat your heart out, England and France…!!)

And now for those curious white towers… Built in the early 15th century – I remind you that we are talking 1400-1450, so around 600 years ago. This utterly blows my mind: they are kitchen chimneys!

How amazing is that kitchen?! Tiled all over, large, roomy and NEXT DOOR to the main halls!! Compare that to a Tudor kitchen (and in fact, we should go back and compare it to the Lancastrian Henry V… pure mediaeval renaissance!), far from the state rooms, dark, dirty, dangerous… I find this kitchen completely mindboggling. This is the oven…


By now it was time to head off to the beach for a pre-wedding get-together – again, the sea was very loud and the wind fairly icy, but a good time was had by all. I was very glad of my blue Quill shawl!

And the wedding was beautiful, too. A fantastic wine cellar location, a very classy reception, excellent food and wine – I’m sure the couple will be very happy together!

A last drive out to Cabo da Roca – this is the westernmost point of continental Europe. As loyal fans of Brittany it has to be said that the Pointe du Raz also claims the same honour, and I really don’t know who to believe. In any case, it’s an impressive cliff with an attractive lighthouse… you decide!!

(and for comparison, the Pointe du Raz:

Wow, what a weekend! ;o

If you’re interested, here is more on Sintra: and and we stayed here where the food (fish!) was excellent!

19 thoughts on “Sintra et al

  1. This is a great post, very well written and great pictures. It is fascinating the way you describe it. Must have been a great experience for you. Thanks for sharing! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. I can’t believe this was just a weekend! Wonderful pictures and lovely to share your travels. I realise I haven’t left the UK since 2009 so I’m enjoying my virtual holidays, thank you! Just one thing missing from your weekend – no wool shop? ๐Ÿ™‚

    • LOL – we did no shopping (yay!) and I was a little disappointed not to see any of the famous handicrafts, just a lot of mass-produced souvenirs BUT I did put in an online wool order while I was there to a Breton supplier, and that arrived here in Brittany yesterday… ๐Ÿ˜ณ Incorrigible, I know!
      (And perhaps one day I will have an opportunity to find the Portuguese women and their domestic crafts :))

  3. You did a fabulous job in both words and pictures of letting me travel with you. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have to say of all the pictures I was most drawn to the steps, of both castles. What detail work for that time period.

    • Fascinating, aren’t they? Very romantic, too, somehow, knights in shining armour and damsels in distress… ๐Ÿ˜‰
      I was also struck by the construction of the walls, with the narrow stones interspersed with the squarer ones – I haven’t seen that in any old castle, I don’t think (though I know the Tower of London is also very old and uses stones decoratively…).
      Thanks for the compliment, much appreciated!

      • Yes, I took quite a bit of time just admiring the construction of those stones in your photos.

        You are welcome, I love to visit and see all the places you vacation to.

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