Two centuries before I trudged up the densely wooded hills of Serra de Sintra, that is the mountains of Sintra, the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron had spent time falling in love with its ‘variegated maze of mount and glen’.
My arrival in the foothills of Portugal’s resort town and former royal haunt of Sintra was not a mistake as the Romantic Poet’s was. Byron had set sail for Malta, missed the boat and had taken off for Lisbon instead. A mistake that he does not seem to have rued because he found himself in “Cintra’s glorious Eden”. He was enchanted by Sintra’s “palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices; convents on stupendous heights”.
His voice laced with horror at the thought, a local in Lisbon had insisted that “why you cannot be in Lisbon and Not go to Sintra”. The Portuguese adore the town that lies a mere 20 miles west of the Portuguese capital. Even their royals in the past coveted Sintra so that they transformed it into their summer retreat. This obsession with Sintra is explained perfectly by Portuguese writer Eça de Queirós who found it to be a “nest of lovers [where, in] the romantic foliage, the nobles abandoned themselves in the hands of the poets”.
After a few goof-ups (a constant feature in each trip) – in this case paying twice over for the ticket – I heaved a sigh of relief at making it to dreamy Sintra, of the palaces and castles. The train pulled into the station and I noticed the grey mist hanging atop the panoply of trees that formed a backdrop for colourful and aged buildings.
I could already smell the promise of faded glory in the air.
At that old train station, made more picturesque by intricate carvings in wrought iron, its white and brick red façade decorated with vivid tiles, I spent time warding off a tout advertising all the reasons why I should be on electric car tour. The words, “I do not drive,” finally did the required magic and sent the tout packing off to greener pastures. The possibility of a walking tour was bleak. The information window stated boldly that it would open more than a couple of hours later – I could only sigh heavily because the prospect of information too seemed bleak. I was in the land of people who believe in the concept of prolonged lunches and pay unequivocal attention to what is on their plates.
The onus of discovering Sintra was on me.
In the heart of the old town, a pair of unconventional conical chimneys stick out above a rambling white palace. Those chimneys lend that something extra to the Palacio Nacional de Sintra (National Palace of Sintra), or you could easily dismiss it as just a big but plain summer retreat for the Portuguese royal family since the 14th century. Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish author, described those quirky chimneys best – as giant champagne bottles.
There is a distinct Moorish touch to the palace.
It was stamped on me that the Moors were in Sintra from the moment that I beheld the Castelos dos Mouros, located strategically, high above town and clinging dramatically to the ridges.
Apart from the Moorish style of architecture reflected heavily in most monuments in Portugal, there is another distinctive style of architecture which is the Manueline school of design. It is a late Portuguese Gothic style, a mix of Spanish, Italian, Flemish and Moorish styles and named after the reigning king Manuel I of the 16th century. I could see the Manueline influence in the design of the National Palace and kept thinking how fascinating it is that it was heavily influenced by the Age of Discovery (which included voyages of the notable Portuguese seafarers, Vasco da Gama and Pedro Álvares Cabral). The proceeds from Portugal’s spice trade with India and Africa financed the construction of churches and monasteries in the Manueline style.
Right opposite the National Palace is a maze of restaurants, cafés, shops and boutiques, arranged along narrow alleys that climb up steeply. They offer the eyes a visual display of geometric azulejos (hand-painted tiles typical to Portuguese architecture) and Ginjinha/Ginja (Portuguese liqueur made with an infusion of Ginja berries or Morello cherries). At one of the kiosks, for a measly buck, I had a shot of Ginjinha in an edible chocolate cup. I clutched the first cup too hard, crushed it, and expressed such consternation that the lady behind the counter offered a second cup, without charging a dime extra. That cherry liqueur shot is one of the best memories I carry from Portugal apart from the flavourful Bacalhau or salted cod dishes.
Negotiating stairs that snaked their way through beautiful old buildings, I found walls decorated with azulejos, wrought iron doors and the odd cupid statue playing the Portuguese guitar. Strains of soulful Fado wafted from the interiors of a restaurant. The Fado is a music genre that is beloved of the Portuguese with the predominant sentiments of fatefulness and melancholia pervading the songs. It is how I came upon a cobbled road that led the way up to the Castelos dos Mouros.
On the way, it was impossible not to catch my breath in more ways than one as I beheld pastel, faded red rooftops of villas and palaces below. Imagine my thrill when I walked past a certain yellowed old Santa Maria Church to chance upon a pale pink, dilapidated casa with a marble plaque that had the name of Hans Christian Andersen inscribed upon it. The writer of ‘The Little Mermaid’ fame had lived his bit of fairy-tale in Sintra in 1866 when he visited Portugal.
A few more minutes of hiking and I reached mossy stone stairs leading up to the castle that dates back to the 9th century. It was a military fort, built by the Moors who occupied the Iberian Peninsula at the time. The mist thickened into fog and grew so dense that I could not see the town I had left below. And even though it was not raining, there was a steady pitter-patter of water that must have been draining off the thick foliage and canopy of tall trees surrounding me. Yet not a drop touched me.
I had to myself the run of that forest terrain, thick with boulders sheathed in moss, lichens and ferns. It was a Harry Potter-esque forest except no centaur or giant spiders ran out to greet me.
My brilliance lies in the fact that after climbing all the way to the top I figured out that it was not the day to walk the ramparts. I decided to return another day.
Yet I cannot forget the mysterious charm that Sintra exuded, mired in veils of thick fog.
“Do you know how rare it is for Sintra to get blue skies?” said a Lisbon cabbie to me during my days of rambling about the Capital. Considering which, I struck lucky when I returned to Sintra on a sunny day, large swathes of cloud hanging above me in a blue, blue sky. I opted for a hop-on hop-off bus that promised to show me the westernmost point of the country too.
The bus wound its way through woods, giving me views above town, revealing beautiful mansions such as the Chalet Biester to my curious eyes. Built by a Portuguese journalist-playwright of German origin in the late 1800s, it explains the reason why with its turquoise-trimmed black roof and black turrets look distinctly German. It is where Roman Polanski shot his thriller ‘The Ninth Gate’ starring Johnny Depp. The chalet fascinated me with its neo-Gothic and neo-Romantic style that gave it the look of a chalet with dark and yet fairy-tale aspirations.
When we ascended all the way to the top, I walked the ramparts of Castelos dos Mouros. The scene that unfolded before me was spectacular, standing as I was 1,300 feet above sea level, staring down from ivy-clad battlements at the woods and the old town below. I could have been a medieval figure, standing on a fantasy fortress, gazing at the azure waters of the Atlantic on the horizon and scanning it for invaders.
As I followed the course of the rampart, I was rewarded by the sight of a remarkable palace, made up of pink towers, yellow towers and turrets and golden dome, against the backdrop of massive white clouds. It was the 19th century Pena Palace, a product of the imagination of Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha who conceived it in cohorts with his German architect, Baron Von Eschwage. Ferdinand was a nephew of mad Ludwig, the one who built the most eccentric Bavarian castles. I always find myself taken in by such unbridled craziness.
Further along the woodland paths beneath the granite massifs of the Sintra mountains, past tiled fountains and giant redwoods, are more romantic pieces of architecture such as the chalet that Ferdinand had built for his opera singer mistress and the neo-classical palaces of Seteais and Monserrate. Their ornate beauty takes you back to another time and place just as the Quinta da Regaleira does. It is unlike any other mansion I have laid my eyes upon. A Brazilian coffee tycoon, António Carvalho Monteiro, owned it and had it designed by an Italian opera set designer. That should tell you about the fantastic nature of the 20th-century neo-Manueline mansion which seems enchanted with its turrets and finials, drooping willows and wisteria and its gardens that reveal secret follies, grottoes, fountains and lakes.
Towards afternoon I boarded the hop-on hop-off to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in mainland Portugal and Europe. We passed by pristine sandy beaches and wine-growing villages like Colares, known for the ruby-coloured wine it yields. The Colares vines survived a 19th century grape pest blight that destroyed vineyards across Europe because of the unusual growing conditions of its sandy soil.
When we arrived at Cabo da Roca, the driver gave us about 30 minutes to have a go at the high rocky point, with its red and white lighthouse staring straight into the Atlantic. A landmark cross stood on the cliff with the inscription by Portuguese poet Luis de Camões stating: “Land ends and the sea begins”. I sauntered along to the furthest end of the cliff where it fell into the ocean and revealed a beautiful deserted beach below that opened out into turquoise blue waters. On my way back to the bus – I had 10 minutes at hand – a trio of tourists wanted me to click snaps of them beneath the cross. Now being the kind soul I am, I clicked more than a few options, then decided that the bus was of some importance in the scheme of things. I made my way to it. But just as I crossed the lighthouse, I spied the red top of the bus moving away at considerable speed.
The cheek of the driver. I frothed in righteous indignation and checked my watch. I had five whole minutes to spare. A couple who were on the bus with me were also left behind. They spoke no English, nodded substantially and smiled at everything I said. The only way back to civilization was to get on to the local bus, as it happened it was the last one for the evening. They too followed suit. A cogent thought given that the only two things on Cabo da Roca were a souvenir shop-cum-café and a visitor centre.
But what is a trip without a few adventures, eh? Though at the time I would not have felt so magnanimous, every aspect of a trip acquires a rosy hue on retrospect. Especially when you reach a place like Sintra where manors in faded pastel colours are tucked into verdant hills rolling down into the ocean, where the Celts worshipped their moon god, the Moors built their vertiginous castle and Portuguese royals lived their summers in dreamy elegance.
No place does ‘fairy-tale’ as sublimely as Sintra does.