Impressions of Portugal, In Sintra

National Palace of Sintra and surrounding town from Castelo dos Mouros

National Palace of Sintra and surrounding town from Castelo dos Mouros

Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah, me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen,
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium’s gates?
—Lord Byron
(from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,Canto I, Stanza 18)

João Cristino da Silva, Cinco artistas em Sintra (1855)

João Cristino da Silva, Cinco artistas em Sintra (1855)

Ah, those Romantics! Surely no one does awe-struck better. Time has moved on since Romantics of all stripes waxed lyrically about Sintra, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site it seemed we should not miss. Cloudy skies, a chilly wind, and no clue how far (and how far up) we’d have to go induced us to buy tickets for a hop-on hop-off bus tour, something we usually go to lengths to avoid. The efficient tour bus operation made short work, for the most part, of longish Easter break lines of tourists, and off we went, uphill all the way. Had Lord Byron seen Sintra as we did, I suspect his waxing might have waned, but we were grateful to preserve our “museum legs” for the sights themselves.

National Palace of Sintra (Palácio da Vila)

National Palace of Sintra, wall with original 16th C fresco painting & chimneys

National Palace of Sintra, wall with original 16th C fresco painting & chimneys

But the Palácio is entirely lacking in beauty, with its twin chimneys looking more like champagne bottles.
Hans Christian Andersen

Bedroom-prison of Afonso VI

Bedroom-prison of Afonso VI

The chimneys are indeed peculiar, apparently “built in the fourteenth century to keep the kitchens smoke free. . . . one can only imagine the kind of banquets held at the courts that required such massive chimneys.”  Inside, however, all was opulence, from the grand Swans Hall to a series of lavishly decorated rooms. Most intriguing to me was the bleak bedroom-prison of Afonso VI. Deposed by his brother Pedro, Afonso is said to have spent his final years in this room, pacing a groove into the stone floor. (A lively version of Afonso’s story may be found here.)

Castle of the Moors (Castelo dos Mouros)

Castelo dos Mouros

Castelo dos Mouros

In around the 10th C, after their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, Muslims built the castle as a military fort. Since then, it’s been through several iterations of control and renovation. In 1839, King Ferdinand II, born a German prince and later dubbed the “Artist-King,” undertook renovations in 19th C Romantic style. The renovations “likely made the archaeological exploration of the territory considerably difficult.” Indeed I wonder whether, today, it’s even possible to distinguish what’s authentic from what’s the fantasy of a King. At least one truth remains, however: the views from the castle walls are grand.

Pena National Palace (Palácio Nacional da Pena)

Pena National Palace

Pena National Palace

Today is the happiest day of my life. I know Italy, Sicily, Greece and Egypt, and I have never seen anything, anything, to match the Pena. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. This is the true Garden of Klingsor and there, up above, is the Castle of the Holy Grail.
Richard Strauss

They say, on a clear day, it’s possible to see the Palácio Nacional da Pena from Lisbon, and I believe it. At 476m (1561ft) its elevation is higher than the Castelo dos Mouros (420 m/1,378 ft). The hop-on, hop-off bus stopped at the bottom of the Palácio’s vast park, but the tourist service didn’t miss a beat, offering a shuttle to the Palácio’s door. True, this ate into the big “R” Romantic experience of the place, but we were glad of it, particularly as it was a cold and blustery day.

Pena National Palace, King Ferdinand II

Pena National Palace, King Ferdinand II

The Palácio, together with its park, are billed as “the finest examples of nineteenth century Portuguese Romanticism [and] constitute the most important part of . . . Sintra’s World Heritage site.” [Tourist brochure] This, too, was the work of the Artist-King (who was himself proficient in the visual arts), though it got its start, in the 12th C, as a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena. By the time King Ferdinand II purchased it in 1838, it was a bona fide ruin, courtesy of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

Well, ruin it is no more. To transform the ruin into a summer palace suitable for a king, King Ferdinand commissioned Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, “a German amateur architect, [who] was much traveled and likely had knowledge of several castles along the Rhine river.”  The result?

a wild architectural fantasy in an eclectic style full of symbolism that could be compared with the castle Neuschwanstein of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The palace was built in such a way as to be visible from any point in the park, which consists of a forest and luxuriant gardens with over five hundred different species of trees originating from the four corners of the earth. [cite]

Now, I’ll admit to being dazzled by all the dazzle, yet in such instances I’m always of at least two minds. All that opulence for such a narrow purpose. Who are these people? Why should we care, and what about? I haven’t yet found much of an answer. Though some sources suggest he was an enlightened King, I’d like to know what that means.

The remainder of the story of the Palácio, in brief, is this. King Ferdinand “spent his last years in this castle with his second wife, receiving the greatest artists of his time.”

After the death of Ferdinand the palace passed into the possession of his second wife Elisa Hensler, Countess of Edla. The latter then sold the palace to King Luís, who wanted to retrieve it for the royal family, and thereafter the palace was frequently used by the family. In 1889 it was purchased by the Portuguese State, and after the Republican Revolution of 1910 it was classified as a national monument and transformed into a museum. The last queen of Portugal, Queen Amélia, spent her last night at the palace before leaving the country in exile. [cite]

In the course of all this hopping on and off buses and visiting sites, it was essential to get something to eat. We had no idea what was where, so we slipped into the nearest sandwich shop. The sandwiches and fresh-squeezed orange juice hit the spot, but I also craved a sweet. Using my primitive point-and-ask method, I picked out a little tart—not the famous Pastéis de Nata, but rather something that wasn’t named. It was delectable. I didn’t try to find out what it was; I assumed I’d spot it again. I was wrong. Only once back stateside did I discover why I may have looked in vain: it was a Sintra specialty, the queijadas de Sintra.

Our visit to Sintra did not, I fear, comport with Romantic notions. Imagine Lord Byron on a hop-on, hop-off bus, or Richard Strauss shivering with all us tourists in the shuttle line. A bit more in line with contemporary sensibility might be this:

At the wheel of the Chevrolet on the road to Sintra
Under moonlight and dream, on the deserted road,
I drive alone, slow and easy, and it seems to me
A bit—or I make myself think it so a bit—
That I’m following some other road, some other dream, some other world,
I’m going on, not with Lisbon there behind or Sintra ahead,
I’m going on, and what more is there to it than not stopping, just going on?
Fernando Pessoa (as Álvaro de Campos)

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Credits: For more information on Sintra, click here. The sources for the quotations in the text may be found at the links or cites indicated. The image of Cinco artistas em Sintra may be found here and additional information, as well as an image that I suspect is truer to color, may be found here. The image of Afonso VI’s bedroom-prison may be found here. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

 

 

9 thoughts on “Impressions of Portugal, In Sintra

  1. David N

    Didn’t know about Strauss’s impression – fear it ties in with the bad taste of the Pena. We didn’t visit it, but were lucky to find Sintra quiet (and stayed in a very lovely B&B a bit like an English country house, covered in bougainvillea). I can’t remember how we got to the monastery in the cork woods, but it was a wonderful walk back to Sintra. Had thought of returning to walk further but now I have had a taste of the wonders of the Arrabida National Park between Lisbon and Setubal, so that’s an aim.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: You know, I don’t think so much about good taste or bad taste in these situations, but rather am always curious about what informs the taste, and even more so, what are the stories behind the things I’m seeing. I have really enjoyed, since coming home, getting below the surface and discovering at least something of the stories. Portugal definitely has a fascinating, and of course fraught, history, and now, having been there, I certainly want to know more. As for visiting Sintra, I’m sorry we didn’t have time or weather with us. I think the best way to do it is exactly as you did, first of all, not on a major holiday break, then staying overnight and ambling around a bit. I think there’s lots to explore. I’m sorry also we weren’t able to get to the Arrabida National Park, which was an aim on this trip that remained out of reach (actually, we have quite a long list of such things). But we did get to a wondrous part of the coast, just heavenly. I’ll report in on that anon.

  2. shoreacres

    In a bit of serendipity, I’ve plans to visit Palácios, Texas, in early May. There’s nothing quite like the Pena Palace there, but there is some history. Unfortunately, I don’t believe I’ll find anything like queijadas de Sintra, but there should be some good shrimp.

    The colors of the palace remind me of small settlements of Mexicans and Central Americans scattered here and there across Texas. Add some blue and green, and you’d have it. The chimneys are so strange, but they remind me of the cooling towers associated with nuclear power plants. I wonder if the science behind them is at all related.

    It occurs to me that Afonso VI’s groove in that stone floor may be the dark side of a saying long misattributed to Thoreau, but actually from someone named Wilfred Petersen: “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” Hard to imagine, what thoughts came to Afonso while he paced. I’m off to read his story.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I, in turn, will look forward to your reports on Palácios, Texas. I like very much your observation about colors, too. Many “ordinary” homes in Portugal used a very particular way of accenting with color about which I’d like to know more (I’ll have some photos of that in a subsequent post or two). Re the chimneys, I, too, thought of those cooling towers, and it’s intriguing to think about whether there’s related science behind them. Afonso VI seems to have been a very odd character. I wish I’d been able to find more authoritative online sources. I’ve been struck, now that I’m back stateside and trying to find out a little more background on various things, to see how often the only information available, and even then sometimes sparse, is in Portuguese. Google translate just doesn’t get one very far . . . but it can be amusing.

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