A grand day out

Weekend mini-breaks don’t usually warrant a day excursion. That’s probably the case with Lisbon as there’s more than enough to fill a weekend, but several friends had recommended that we should visit Sintra, a hillside town about 40 minutes from Lisbon. With the added bonus that our Lisbon tourist cards gave us free train travel to Sintra, we decided that Monday (when many museums in Lisbon are closed) would be a good day to visit.

From Sintra station it’s a short walk to the town centre – just follow the crowds! Sinatra’s popularity means there are a lot of tourists. In mid-March the numbers were just about bearable, but I imagine in mid-summer it would be heaving. Our first stop was the National Palace, situated right in the heart of the town. It has two distinctive white chimneys which make it easy to spot.

It is the best-preserved medieval royal residence in Portugal, being inhabited more or less continuously from at least the early 15th century to the late 19th century. Compared to many palaces, it is actually quite domestic in scale. The rooms are not enormous and the decoration is, on the whole, quite restrained. The highlight for us were the stunning Moorish tiles and some interesting ceiling paintings. The latter are quite quirky and often explain the name of the room, there’s the swan room, the magpie room, the galleon room and the crown room – each with corresponding ceiling decoration. I might try this at home, we could have the dog slobber room, the crack room (several of these) and the cobweb room.

After the National Palace we sought advice from the tourist office on a walking route to the Moorish Castle. Although there are frequent bus transfers between the palaces (not to mention tuk-tuks, electric scooters, mini vans, taxis etc which will take you for an inflated price) we decided to walk. With map and directions in hand we set off for an anticipated climb up the hill through the wood. What we weren’t expecting was that more than half the walk was set out as a delightful garden with winding paths, terraces, follys, pools, rills, pergolas and lots of wonderful plants. It was odd to see spring flowering hellebores, primrose and cyclamen alongside plants we’d expect to see flowering in mid-summer. Arum lillys, agapanthus and acanthus were all in flower. This sheltered Portuguese garden clearly doesn’t get much cold and frost.

When we reached the Moorish Castle were very pleased we’d walked. The busses were heaving with people. It didn’t look like a pleasant way to travel – I’d definitely recommend the path if you can manage a brisk climb. The castle was wonderful. Perched high on the hill the views extended far and wide, even though the cloud had started to form you could still see the sea – one of the reasons the Moors chose this spot. Once inside you can walk around the battlements (not for those without a head for heights) and peer down on Sintra, up to the Pena Palace and the many other palaces dotted about on top of almost every hill. There is also a wonderfully preserved underground cistern that provided an essential water source for the castle.

Our final destination was a short ten minute walk – the Pena Palace. Originally a monastery, it was acquired and rebuilt in highly romanticism style for King Fernandinho II. It is rather bonkers with a mash-up of Moorish, Gothic, Classical and Romantic styles. Not somewhere that would be easy to live in, but definitely worth going to see. For me, the highlight was the park and gardens. Arranged on the steep hillside below the castle, wooded walks, fern filled valleys, rills and streams, and several follys and glassshouses were a joy to discover. Fortunately they also lead down through the ‘valley of the lakes’ to a back entrance that joined back up with the trail back down to Sintra.

The walk down was considerably quicker and got us to the station in perfect time for our return train to Lisbon. Two palaces and a castle was quite a lot in a day – even for two queens – but well worth the effort. These two queens certainly slept well in their beds!

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