The chimneys and the fish man
Sintra is a great day out if you are visiting Lisbon and is easily accessed by train from Rossio station. It takes about 40 minutes but leave yourself a little time at Rossio to admire the pictorial tiles on the platform walls.
The tourist information booth at Sintra station offers a number of combination deals to save money if you plan to see more than one site. We wanted to see three so on top of the combo discount, we got a further 10% off with the Lisboa Card (that also made the train ride free).
We used the 434 bus that stops outside the station and allowed us to hop on/off at each of our sites for a bargain 5 Euro round trip. Note: the bus only does the circuit one way, so realistically you need to do the sites in that order.
Our first stop was the National Palace in the UNESCO world heritage listed historical centre. First mentioned in the 11th century, the rudimentary moorish fort has been transformed over many years into the fine palace it is today. From the outside the most striking aspect is the whitewashed twin 33m high chimneys, which sit over the kitchens. Inside it’s probably the ceilings that steal the show, with the in-house map calling it a “harmonious blend of Gothic, Morrish and Renaissance elements that is so characteristic of the monument’s architecture and heritage”. Couldn’t have said it better myself. The Swan Room ceiling with its 27 wooden panels painted with swans, followed by the Magpie Room with magpies and the Galley Room with ships. OK they lacked imagination in naming the rooms but they’re fantastic and went beyond amazing in Blazons Hall. Many of the lovely open courtyards tinkled with the sound of running water, so be aware of where the toilets are.
We spent a bit of time outside admiring this part of Sintra and the buildings perched up on the steep hills. For those with energy to burn there is a steep trail that runs from the town to the Moorish Castle Ruins (our next destination) but we got back on the bus.
Built in the 9th or 10th century depending on which source you use, it sits 412m above sea level and provided the Muslim occupants an outstanding vantage point over the surrounding terrain. From here they could monitor the Atlantic coast and act as an outpost for Lisbon. There are things to see here, like the Church of Sao Pedro de Canaferrim, which also houses many of the artefacts collected during archeological digs. There’s also the tomb built by King Ferdinand II for bones found during various excavations. As there is no telling who (and which religion) the bones belong to, the tomb is marked with both the cross and the crescent. The key attraction for me though was walking the walls and enjoying the spectacular views of the countryside, palaces, churches etc. The climb up to the Royal Tower is rewarded with great views of the Palace of Pena (our final stop).
Quoting the guide again, the Park and Palace of Pena “are the finest examples of 19th century Portuguese Romanticism and the integration of natural and built heritage”. So with that in mind you look at the kaleidoscope of domes, cone shaped watch towers, squared battlements and decorations all of various sizes and wonder what they were thinking of. Did they take the best of the best and merge it together or couldn’t they make their mind up and threw a bit of everything in? Yet somehow it works in a kind of Sleeping Beauty Palace sort of way and if we don’t see a Disney film shot here at some point in the future I’ll eat my Silver Travel bag. Another impressive example of this architectural indecisiveness is the scary half man half fish that sits over the Allegorical gateway. There are so many fine points of the palace to admire; we liked the Manuline Cloisters, which are part of the 16th century monastery, and its decorative Hispano-Arabic tiles. Or perhaps the Queen’s Terrace will be your favourite, with views over the surrounding parkland and of the palace itself. We loved it all in some mixed up way.
We didn’t explore the park, this trip had punished poor Linda’s knees enough and so we signed off a fabulous day out and jumped back on the bus.
Some points of note if you’re considering this trip. The 434 bus is very popular and often there are queues for it. Particularly later in the day at Pena, you may have to stand and wait for a while until you can get on a bus. To get the best of this trip there are steep hills to tackle, steps to climb and uneven surfaces. Even using the local transport and the one lift we spotted at Pena, it’s a tough but rewarding day for your legs. Stout walking boots with a good grip and walking poles help.
Extend your trip to Lisbon by an extra day and visit Sintra, it’s well worth it.