Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sintra: A UNESCO Site of Royal Palaces

With its rippling mountains, dewy forests thick with ferns and lichen, exotic gardens and glittering palaces, Sintra is like a page torn from a fairy tale. A Unesco World Heritage listed village, Sintra is dotted with pastel-hued fortresses folded into luxuriant hills that roll down to the cool blue Atlantic. Celts worshipped their moon god here, the Moors built a precipitous castle, and 18th-century Portuguese royals swanned around its dreamy gardens. Near the coastal city of Estoril, the majestic Sintra Mountains cast a veil of mystery over the town nestling on its northern slopes. Both the hills and the surrounding area have been classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage site both for their cultural significance and for their outstanding natural beauty. An easy day trip from Lisbon, we headed up the coast for a magical day in the captivating city of Sintra.

The Moorish-style entry gate into The Pena Palace courtyard

The ornate formal gate into the Pena Palace

A fantastically surreal archway at the Palace

Flowers were in bloom all around the Pena Palace

It was the Moors who first built a castle northwest of the capital at Sintra as a defense against Christian forces, which, under Dom Afonso Henriques, moved steadily southward after the victory at Ourique in 1139. The castle fell to Christian hands in 1147, a few days after Lisbon. Sintra's lush hills and valleys later became the summer residence of Portuguese kings and aristocrats, its late medieval palace the greatest expression of royal wealth and power of the time. The Disney-like Palácio Nacional da Pena is a glorious conglomeration of turrets and domes awash in pastels. In 1503 the Monastery of Nossa Senhora da Pena was constructed here, but fell into ruins after religious orders were expelled from Portugal in 1832. Seven years later the ruins were purchased by Maria II's consort, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg. Inspired by the Bavarian castles of his homeland, Ferdinand commissioned a German architect, Baron Eschwege, to build the castle of his fantasies, in styles that range from Arabian to Victorian. Work was finished in 1885 when he was Fernando II. The surrounding park is filled with trees and flowers from every corner of the Portuguese empire. Portugal's last monarchs lived in the Pena Palace, the last of whom—Queen Amália—went into exile in England after the Republic was proclaimed on October 5, 1910. 

The Moorish-style courtyard with elaborate tile work from which the Portuguese became inspired and became known for producing for centuries after

Detail of the tile work

Inside the royal palace

A UNESCO restorer working on damaged frescoes

The original kitchen and copper pots in the palace

View over the palace from the rooftops

Another view over the palace and the surrounding mountains

One of the palace's many turrets 

View of the palace as we left by foot through the Royal Forest

View of a Moorish Castle in the distance

A cobblestone walkway leads from the palace through the Royal Forest to the old town of Sintra

The old narrow cobblestone streets of the village of Sintra

A small restaurant in the village where we stopped for lunch

A basket of bread arrives as we sit down

A plate of local Sintra cheese

A bowl of sweet briny olives

A cold beer 'hits the spot' on a hot day exploring Sintra's palaces

Hot Carrot and Potato Soup

Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa, a Portuguese dish made of layers of salt cod, potato and sautéed onions

Bacalhau a Gomes de Sa with salad

A bowl of chilled Mango Pudding tops off our 'Orange Meal' as I dubbed it

View of the village from the National Palace of Sintra

The National Palace of Sintra fountain

The fountain shows how close the National Palace is to the centre of the village

The only surviving palace from the Middle Ages in Portugal, the National Palace of Sintra was the royal palace for summer holidays and hunting. The conical twin white chimneys of the Palace are the town's most recognizable landmarks. There's probably been a palace here since Moorish times, although the current structure, also known as the Paço Real, dates from the late 14th century. It's the only surviving royal palace in Portugal from the Middle Ages, and displays a spectacular combination of Moorish, Gothic and Manueline architecture. The chapel has Moorish-influenced azulejos (tile work) from the 15th and 16th centuries. The breathtaking ceiling of the Sala das Armas is painted with the coats of arms of 72 noble families, and the grand Sala dos Cisnes has a remarkable ceiling of painted swans. The Sala das Pegas (magpies) figures in a well-known tale about Dom João I (1385–1433) and his love affair with a lady-in-waiting. The king had the room painted with as many magpies as there were chattering court ladies, poking fun at the court gossips as loose-tongued birds.

The two conical chimneys are the palace's most recognizable architectural feature

The sunlit bathed interior courtyard of the palace

A Moorish-style room decorated with very early 'azulejos', or tile work

A detail of the early tiles that were quite rough and rudimentary looking

A gorgeous chandelier in the Room of the Swans

The ceiling is overwhelming with all the paintings of regal swans

Each swan has a royal crown around its neck

The spectacular Dining Room with blue tile walls and sumptuous carved ceiling with the coats of arms of noble families

The ceramic wall shows scenes of royal life

A detail of a royal cherub

The carved painted ceiling with the coats of arms of the areas noble families

The Magpie Room

The Royal Chapel

Restorers at work in the chapel

The Queluz National Palace was inspired, in part, by the palace at Versailles. The salmon-pink rococo edifice was ordered as a royal summer residence by Dom Pedro III in 1747. Architect Mateus Vicente de Oliveira took five years to make the place habitable; Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Robillon spent 40 more executing a detailed Baroque plan that also comprised imported trees and statues, and azulejo-lined canals and fountains. You can tour the apartments and elegant staterooms, including the frescoed Music Salon, the Hall of Ambassadors, and the mirrored Throne Room with its crystal chandeliers and gilt trim. Some are now used for concerts and state visits, while the old kitchens have been converted into an ordinary café and a fancy restaurant with an imposing open fireplace and a vast oak table.

The magnificent Queluz Palace

One of the palace's ornate rooms

Versaille is certainly the palace Queluz most resembles

The ballroom at the Queluz Palace

The Royal Chapel

A staircase into the breathtaking Palace gardens

The bridel path for horses in the royal gardens

View of the palace though the gardens

Detail of one of the garden's many fountains

A cherub gazing into the garden

The precious pink exterior of the palace from the beautiful gardens