Whoever decided that Sintra can be see in a day is either the world’s most thankless traveller or superhuman. In any case, they are very, very wrong.
Yet that was the general impression among the six or seven people we quizzed before and during our stay in Lisbon last month, thus, we allotted one day of five to exploring Sintra, confident for the most part that we would return having seen the whole shebang. A glance at the park’s map as we waited in line to buy our tickets, however, quickly turned confidence into confusion and then despair. I must admit there was a certain degree of dubiety in the air given that Sintra is a National Park, and never had I encountered a National Park that could be successfully traversed in just twenty-four hours. There were multiple palaces, castles, gardens and forests to nose around– each with their own hefty price tag –and it was already getting on for 11am. Even if we were on a lucrative budget, had camped in the car park the night before and been the first to buy tickets we wouldn’t have managed it all in a day. There was just too much, and choosing what to see and what to miss was not easy. A 19th century Roman palace for €14? Another palace, equally as lavish-looking, for €9? Or a Moorish Castle for €10? So many options…
In the end, we plumped for a combined (and marginally discounted) option: The Pena Palace and Monserrate Palace & Gardens, at €20.
This turned out to be a very good decision.
The Pena Palace
The Pena Palace is undoubtedly Sintra’s main attraction. Its vibrant reds and yellows, era-defying architecture and sweeping hilltop vistas offer a tourist everything he or she could possibly want from a UNESCO labeled monument. The façade is its most impressive feature– an eclectic mix of Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Moorish and Renaissance constructions, half daubed in yellow and red, half left in grey to create a brilliant contrast. The palace has undergone various reconstructions since the first building– a tiny chapel –was erected there in the Middle Ages. Much of the palace was reduced to ruins following the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, and was left untouched until the latter part of the 19th century when the royals decided to transform the site into an illustrious summer residence.
These days there are no royals roaming the palace grounds, unless you count the numerable statues of the late– and dare I admit it –rather manlike Queen Amélia dotted about the place. No, there are just the usual swarms of camera-wielding tourists, like myself, marvelling at every cairn, nook and cranny.
The palace gardens occupy a vast area, tumbling downwards amidst hidden coves, flora-covered shacks and large, swan and carp crowded ponds. Without a map to guide you, getting lost is an almost certain outcome, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing…
Monserrate Palace & Gardens
Our next stop was Monserrate– another opulent edifice and striking example of Sintra Romanticism, with its similarly mishmashed scope of influences –just ten minutes down the road from Pena. The interior of the palace exhibits more of a Neo-Gothic style– every hand-carved arch is extraordinarily detailed –yet the façade is characterised by Moghul-inspired designs– a typical Portuguese style –though interestingly, much of the work is attributed to English designer James Knowles Jr, one of Britain’s most famous designers of the 19th century.
After our jaws had been dragged along the marble palace floors for long enough, we headed out into the gardens, where it quickly transpired that we had virtually the whole place to ourselves. These gardens were even more impressive than what we had seen at Pena. It is a masterpiece of landscaping and botanical engineering, and evidently maintained on a daily basis; every last twig and rosebush seemed to have been thoughtfully placed and trimmed. There were hidden chapels, covered in overgrowth, and even a waterfall right in the thick of it all. If I were a filthy, stinking rich European aristocrat, I’d live here for sure. Until that happens though, Granada will do.
Sintra Old Town
Before heading home, we stopped for a wander around Sintra’s old town, along with every other visiting holidaymaker that day. We didn’t get far before being lured into a port and liquor shop by the promise of €1 shots of cherry flavoured Ginjinha from a chocolate shot glass. These went down extremely well. So well, in fact, that I ended up purchasing a bottle along with a packet of chocolate shot vessels at €14, and taking it home as a souvenir, but not before sampling at least six other ports and several jams. We left feeling hungry, if not a little light-headed, so we found a place to eat– I ordered a pot pastry seafood pie –and reflected on what had been a wonderful day trip, but ultimately that there was still so much left to see. So if you’re headed to Sintra, my advice is to take two days instead of one. It really is that good.
We had a car and drove from Lisbon, which was simple enough with numerous signposts along the way, but pay close attention on the way back to Lisbon or you might end up missing your turning and accidentally crossing Europe’s longest bridge like we did, and then paying to get back. Whoops. The journey from Lisbon to Sintra takes around 35 minutes by car. Sintra is also serviced by direct buses and trains from Lisbon.
For more information on prices and opening times etc, head to the official website.
Have you ever been to Sintra? Or somewhere similar? Please leave a comment below!