Two centuries before I trudged up the densely wooded hills of Serra de Sintra, the mountains of Sintra that is, 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 poet’s was. Byron had set sail for Malta, missed the boat, and taken off to Lisbon instead. That is how he found himself in ‘Cintra’ enchanted by its ‘palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices; convents on stupendous heights’.
His voice tinged with horror, a local in Lisbon had insisted, ‘You cannot be in Lisbon and Not go to Sintra’. The Portuguese adore this town which lies 20 miles west of their capital city. Even the royals coveted it so that they transformed it into their summer retreat.
As the train pulled into the station, my eyes fell upon a grey mist hanging atop a panoply of trees and in the backdrop, aged buildings in vivid reds and yellows. I could smell the promise of faded glory in the air.
At the old train station made up of intricate wrought iron railings and a white and brick red front decorated with azulejos, I spent time warding off a tout advertising an electric car tour.
In the heart of old town, a pair of unconventional conical chimneys stuck out above a rambling white palace. The Palacio Nacional de Sintra (National Palace of Sintra). A big, plain summer retreat — with Moorish touches to its architecture — for the Portuguese royal family since the 14th century. Hans Christian Anderson, the Danish author, described the chimneys as giant champagne bottles.
Through a maze of restaurants, cafés and boutiques, I climbed stairs and walked the length of narrow alleys, stopping to gaze at geometric azulejos, gulping down shots of Ginjinha, that wonderful Portuguese liqueur made with an infusion of morello cherries. They give you edible chocolate cups along with the liqueur to seal in the heady flavours.
Spooky statues of angels playing guitars and the strains of soulful Fado wafting from the interiors of a restaurant evoked fatefulness and melancholia on a foggy day. I could not have asked for a more atmospheric walk. Steep paths, buildings matted with ivy, yellowed Santa Maria Churches and then a pink, dilapidated casa with a marble plaque, ‘Hans Christian Andersen’ inscribed upon it. The writer had lived his fairy-tale in Sintra in 1866 when he visited Portugal, it seems.
A few more minutes of hiking with my heart fit to burst and I reached mossy stone stairs leading up to the 9th-century Castle of the Moors. The fog was a wall — so dense that I could not see the town at all. A steady pitter-patter of water drained off the thick foliage above yet not a drop fell upon my head. I had the run of that forest terrain to myself, giant boulders sheathed in moss, lichens and ferns. An enchanted forest, the dream of a king who wanted to be surrounded by sylvan beauty.
“Do you know how rare it is for Sintra to get blue skies?” said a Lisbon cabbie during my days of rambling about the city. On a sunny day, swathes of cloud hanging above me in a blue, blue sky, I returned to it. I opted for a hop-on hop-off bus that would take me to the westernmost point of the country. Cabo da Roca. The bus wound its way through woods offering views above town, revealing mansions such as Chalet Biester to curious eyes, and when we had ascended all the way to the top, I walked the ramparts of Castelos dos Mouros. Ivy-clad battlements, thick woods out of which chalets and palaces, and the red roofs of buildings in old town reared their heads. I could have been a medieval figure standing on a fantasy fortress, gazing at the azure Atlantic, scanning it for invaders.
The most remarkable sight that popped up by and by was Pena Palace. All pink towers, yellow towers and turrets and golden dome against the backdrop of a cobalt blue sky and billowing white clouds. A product of the imagination of Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, a nephew of mad Ludwig who built the most eccentric Bavarian castles. It figured.
Further along the woodland paths beneath the granite massifs of the mountains, past tiled fountains and giant redwoods, were more romantic pieces of architecture. But my eyes were held by the sumptuous beauty of the Quinta da Regaleira. A mansion unlike any I have seen, conceptualised by a Brazilian coffee tycoon and designed by an Italian opera set designer. Turrets and finials, drooping willows and wisteria, gardens filled with follies, grottoes and fountains and lakes. You get the picture.
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. When we arrived at Cabo da Roca, the driver gave us about 30 minutes. A red and white lighthouse, the landmark cross on the cliff with an inscription by the 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 below into a deserted beach and then the turquoise blue waters. On my way back, I had 10 minutes at hand, and so I dawdled around clicking photos of a trio of enthusiastic tourists. Then just as I started moving in the direction of the parking lot, I spied to my utter disbelief, the red top of the bus moving away at great speed.
Bald bastard had left me behind.
After hyperventilating for the most part of an hour, I took a local bus into town, my senses frayed to bits by the caterwauling of a horde of school children. Anyway it turned out to be an adventure in the sublime environs of that fairytale place called Sintra.