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?
(from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,Canto I, Stanza 18)
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.
But the Palácio is entirely lacking in beauty, with its twin chimneys looking more like champagne bottles.
—Hans Christian Andersen
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.