At first, a visit to the fabled palaces of Sintra seemed a perfect way to spend a 12-hour layover at Lisbon, on the way travelling between West Africa and Berlin – after all, UNESCO-designated Sintra is only about an hour away from the airport.
But meanwhile, we have read Nextbiteoflife’s post on overtourism in Sintra, and combined with the bad weather (and our clothing situation, think “Sandals and T-Shirts”) we are having second thoughts. On the other hand, the tourist crowds shouldn’t be such a problem on a rainy winter day? When we arrive just after 9 am at Sintra station, the rain has stopped for the time being, but the puddles on the street prove a challenge for our flimsy sandals and loafers. After all, Northern Togo was around 40 °C, and no, we didn’t bring an umbrella on our West Africa travel …
Mediaeval palaces, romantic atmosphere, and a picturesque mountain village – we had read the travel guidebooks’ descriptions but did not get any proper idea of what awaited us. Sintra is indeed relatively mountainous, considering it’s so close to the sea, and on the rocky outcrop above the village, the ruins of the Moorish castle are visible in dense clouds. Cute old houses are huddled on the side of the mountain.
To avoid the next bout of rain, we hurry into the National Palace of Sintra, an impressive mediaeval castle right in the village, arranged in clusters of buildings around shady courtyards. The palace, built from 1281 onwards on the remains of a Moorish castle, combines sturdy gothic stone architecture with oriental fountains and round Moorish arches, blue azulejo tiles with cuerda seca tiles, on which the girih patterns are based on Islamic mathematicians’ calculations. A number of student groups are pushing past us, but in most rooms we find the space and time to look closely at the interior and exhibits.
A heavy downpour forces us to linger in the shop for a while before we dare to run to the bus stop right through the puddles. Again – with increasingly wet feet –, we wonder whether it is worth going further up the hill to the Pena Palace in this weather. At least the bus is so full by the time it finally leaves that it gets relatively warm inside. Many serpentines later we emerge into the cloud and to the end of a queue at the ticket office, only to wonder again whether this is really worth it, or should we perhaps take the next bus down and go back to the airport? But then we reach the ticket window earlier than a decision on this matter – and hurry up through the Park of Pena, towards the very top of the hill. That’s about a ten-minute walk, during which we keep fearing another cold shower.
But when the Palace of Pena comes into view, with its turrets and gates, archways and balconies, we stop questioning and debating that decision (or lack of decision). No, the books hadn’t prepared us for this great kitsch!
A romantic castle
We stand in front of a romantic dream castle of a German aristocrat who built it in the 19th century and ordered his architect to incorporate as many architectural styles as possible, from Germany and Portugal, from the Middle Ages to the present. Dom Fernando II, king of Portugal, was a contemporary of the Bavarian King Ludwig II, and his bonbon-coloured castle in Sintra parallels the eclectic and romantic style of Ludwig’s famous Neuschwanstein Castle.
On the inside as well, it features a fascinating mix of Moorish, mediaeval, early modern Portuguese and impressionist styles with some Art Deco influences.
By now it is noon, and considerably more visitors are lining up to peek into the rooms, chapels and courtyards. Most of the time it is imperative to shuffle forward slowly, so as not to disturb the flow of travellers and sightseers. Nevertheless, we get a good view of the interior, and by the time we get out of Pena Palace the fast-moving clouds even leave some blue sky and occasional rays of sunshine – very welcome as we are by now seriously cold and shivering in our wet shoes.
Final questions: Are the castles of Sintra worth a visit?
Yes, yes, yes! And one day is not enough! There are more castles to explore than the National Palace and the Palacio de Pena. We will have to come back! And yes, we caught a nasty cold on this trip.
How to get to Sintra from Lisbon
Sintra is easily reached by suburb train from Rossio or Oriente in around one hour’s time. From the airport we took the subway to Oriente (three stations) and changed there. The Oriente station by Santiago Calatrava is a sightseeing point fo itself. Within Sintra, it would be time-consuming, but possible to walk. We took a local shuttle bus from the centre to the top of the mountain. The bus was 5,50 € for the round trip, the palaces 9 € and 11,50 €, respectively, and that is for off-season.
+++Our travel to Sintra was entirely self-organised and paid for by ourselves. We got press tickets to the palaces, courtesy of Parques de Sintra+++