FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Castle of the Moors

Posted in Portugal, Sintra by folkestonejack on March 15, 2015

Tantalising views of the Moorish Castle had whetted our appetite throughout our visit to Sintra, but it was only at the end of our last day that we made it through the gates.

The castle’s origins lie in a 10th century military fort but the tourist attraction of today owes more to King Ferdinand II who restored the fortifications in 1839, constructing something of a gigantic folly rather than an accurate re-creation of the original. Indeed, the reconstruction of the castle keep largely obliterated all trace of the buildings from the Muslim era!

Castelo dos Mouros

Castelo dos Mouros

The re-built castle became one element of the romantic landscape surrounding the Pena Palace and offered some wonderful views – looking down on the National Palace, the Quinta da Regaleira and the Villa Sassetti. The tower at the highest point of the castle, the Torre Real, also offers a delightful view across to the Palace which is said to have inspired Ferdinand’s own artistic endeavours.

King of the castle

King of the castle

Although there was no great historical narrative to follow on a wander around the castle it was a pleasure to walk the walls and enjoy the view. The castle also boasted a fine population of cats who lapped up all the attention that they were given!

Practicalities

The castle can be reached by Scotturb bus 434 which runs at regular intervals from Sintra Railway Station. We chose to visit the Park and Palace of Pena first, leaving the park by the Lakes entrance. This had the advantage of positioning us perfectly for the short walk through the car park and along the path (not the road) to the castle. The path offers some wonderful views of the castle that would otherwise be missed.

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The crown of Sintra

Posted in Portugal, Sintra by folkestonejack on March 15, 2015

The Palace of Pena is a vibrant confection on the skyline that is hard to ignore, especially since the exterior facade has been freshly restored in vivid hues of yellow, pink and purple. It sits on the second highest point in the Sintra Hills, surrounded by a remarkable park which cleverly marries the architecture with the natural landscape in true romantic style. The rich forest that encircles the palace makes it feels very reminiscent of the castles that we saw along the Rhein last year and this is clearly no coincidence.

Triton guards a gateway at the Pena Palace

Triton guards a gateway at the Pena Palace

The original wing of the Palace is much older than you might imagine, having started life as a 16th century monastery. In a classic piece of nineteenth century re-invention the monastery cells of the upper floor have given way to much larger rooms with vaulted ceilings. However, the cloisters remain at the heart of the building and offer a wonderful view of the bell tower as you follow a circuit around the palace.

Although it is the fantastical nature of the exterior that grabs most attention, the interior is a delight too with plenty of surprising features. The arabic room was my highlight, a room which cleverly uses decoration inspired by Islamic design to create the illusion of space. After completing a circuit of the palace interior I would have to say that it entirely deserves King Ferdinand’s label of ‘the crown of the Sintra region’.

After leaving the castle we took a wander into the surrounding park and soon began to appreciate how vast this is – it clearly deserved much more time than we had to give to it. It would have been lovely to walk up to the Cruz Alta or to see the Statue of the Warrior but within our limited window we settled for a pleasant walk to the Chalet of the Countess of Edla and to the Valley of the Lakes. The park has its quirks, particularly the Narnia like lamp posts in the middle of the forest and the wonderful castellated duck houses on the lake. I half expected to see the White Witch emerge to announce the arrival of endless winter…

One of two castellated duck houses in the park

One of two castellated duck houses in the park

The Chalet of the Countess of Edla didn’t take long to explore but proved a fascinating diversion. This alpine inspired cottage was a retreat for Ferdinand and his second wife, Elise Friedericke Hensler, an American actress and singer. Although their relationship scandalised society at the time the couple clearly loved each other deeply and the exhibits at the chalet do a great job of telling their fascinating story to anyone unfamiliar with their story (like us).

Chalet of the Countless of Edla

Chalet of the Countless of Edla

It is sad to think that arsonists wanted to destroy this – a fire in 1999 took the interior and roof, leaving only the walls standing. Six years on, it is great to see that the restoration has succeeded in delivering a feel for what stood before. Indeed, the story of the park and palace is one of restoration and revival, from Ferdinand’s original restorations to the recently completed work of the Parques de Sintra.

Practicalities

The restoration work was completed in January 2015, making this the ideal time to visit. If you are intending to take in the full extent of the grounds as well as the palace you should be aware that this could easily take up an entire day without visiting any of the other sights in Sintra!

We took Scotturb bus 434 to get to Pena Palace which runs at regular intervals from Sintra Railway Station, starting at 9.30. The first bus of the days gets you to the palace around fifteen minutes before opening with three ticket booths in front of the palace gates.

Discounts are available for combination visits, such as the Moorish Castle and the Pena Palace. On our visit we were told that a combination ticket that included the Chalet of the Countess of Edla could not be sold at the booths, but this was easily purchased from the ticket office near the Chalet later on (a discount was available on showing our tickets for the Palace).

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Palace of surprises

Posted in Portugal, Sintra by folkestonejack on March 13, 2015

The third and last stop of the day brought us to the steps of the National Palace of Sintra, a Royal Palace that can claim a thousand year history. The Palace began life as a Moorish fort but was gradually extended and improved over the centuries, with the most substantial works taking place in the 13th-16th centuries.

Today, the Palace receives around four hundred and fifty thousand visitors a year. I’m not surprised by the figures for this is a palace unlike any other that I have seen. It deserves to be on any visitor’s hitlist, perhaps more than the eyecatching Pena Palace which attracts double the number of visitors.

Palácio Nacional de Sintra

Palácio Nacional de Sintra

The National Palace of Sintra makes a really distinctive sight from any angle with its unusual double chimneys, but it is the interior that really gets the gasps. The first room that you enter on a visit, the Swan Room, sets the expectations for the visit. You just have to look up and be wowed by a ceiling decorated in white swans. By the time you approach the Chamber of Magpies, Mermaid Room and Galleon Room you have a good idea what you are about to see!

The Chamber of Magpies (Sala das Pegas) was the highlight of our tour round the building. The astonishing fifteenth century painted ceiling displays 136 magpies, each holding a banner with the motto ‘Por bem’ in their beaks (the motto of King João I) and a rose in their claws (the emeblem of his wife, Queen Philippa). It is said that this unusual decoration came about after the king was caught in a compromising position with a maid. The scandalised women of the court began to gossip and the ceiling of chattering magpies was supposedly painted as a rebuke to them.

I am not sure that I buy this story – painting such a visible reminder of your infidelity seems an odd way to silence the rumour-mongers!

Chamber of Magpies

Chamber of Magpies

Another wondrous sight in the palace was the Blazons Hall (Sala da Brasões) which displays the coat of arms of the royal family and the most distinguished families of the land, as well as eight large stags. As if that wasn’t enough the walls are tiled with blue azulejos. It wows on every front. No photograph can really do this room justice – it’s one of those rooms that you have to wander into and see for yourself.

Towards the end of our tour, when we thought the arsenal of gasp-inducing rooms was exhausted, we entered a gallery overlooking the interior of the fourteenth century Palatine Chapel. It was impossible not to gasp one last time at the sight of walls decorated with the invocation to the Holy Spirit – hundreds of doves carrying olive branches.

Doves in the chapel

Doves in the chapel

The National Palace of Sintra is amazing from start to finish, packed with surprises and the most wonderful decoration. It made the perfect final stop of our day. I would highly recommend visiting these sights in the order we followed (Monserrate Palace, followed by Quinta da Regaleira and then the National Palace) as each built in splendour from the last, at least in our eyes.

Practicalities

The National Palace of Sintra is easily reached on foot at just ten minutes from the railway station, but it is also a stop on the 434 and 435 Scotturb bus routes. The walk is quite pleasant and offers some particularly appealing views of the palace that should tempt any photographer!

On the subject of photography, the rules at the National Palace permit the use of cameras, but not with tripods or flash (the same is also true of Monserrate Palace and Quinta da Regaleira).

If you are planning to visit more than one of the sights managed by the Parques de Sintra it is worth mentioning this at the ticket office as the combination tickets they offer can save you money (they evidently also dissuade visitors from attempting too much if the conversations we heard ahead of us in the queue are anything to go by!).

You can pick up an excellent pocket guide/map in the ticket office, which includes a schematic for the palace and a particularly helpful diagram of Blazons Hall.

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Playtime in Sintra

Posted in Portugal, Sintra by folkestonejack on March 13, 2015

The second stop on our tour of Sintra brought us to Quinta da Regaleira, a six minute ride by bus from Monserrate.

Although the estate takes its name from the Baroness de Regaleira, who owned the property in the mid 19th century, it is most famous for the vision of a later owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, who is often referred to as Monteiro dos Milhões (Monteiro the millionaire) on account of the vast family fortune that he inherited and subsequently grew larger still.

Monteiro was responsible for a complete remodelling of the estate in a highly distinctive style. From the moment you enter the estate you cannot help but be struck by the most fantastical of gothic mansions standing in front of you, surrounded by an equally striking chapel and bridge. Beyond this, the park is filled with a wonderful collection of decorative delights. It is not hard to see why this place has been described as a millionaire’s playground!

Quinta da Regaleira

Quinta da Regaleira

The impact that the building has is testament to the talent of Italian set-designer and architect Luigi Manini (1848-1936) who not only delivered a highly unusual family home, but also dressed the landscape with all manner of follies which still have the capacity to delight visitors a century later.

The upper floors of the mansion are home to an exhibition about the unusual design of the building and the other buildings on the estate, drawing on the unusually rich collection of architrectural drawings that have survived in his Italian homeland. The exhibition also talks about other high profile projects that Manini worked on, such as the Palace of Buçaco, last palace of the Portuguese kings. On our visit we also found a cat rather sweetly curled up asleep on one of the warm display panels!

It seemed impossible that the interior of the villa could be anywhere near as striking as the exuberant exterior, but it manages to deliver just as many delightful surprises. The rooms on the first floor are the most incredible, drawing in elements inspired by the baroque, reniassance and manueline periods. The highlight is ‘the hunting room’ which demands your close inspection from floor to ceiling with the richness of its decoration.

The mansion at Quinta da Regaleira is not the only example of Manini’s work in Sintra. Other buildings include the Villa Sassetti, currently undergoing renovation, and the Chalet Relogio, currently in use as a guest house.

The spire of the chapel (with the mansion in the background)

The spire of the chapel (with the mansion in the background)

A wander around the grounds is a delight from start to finish, the quirky features ensuring a constant succession of gasps from adults turned into big kids. These include five underground tunnels (bring a torch!), a 27 metre deep underground tower (the initiatic well), an unfinished well, multiple towers, four grottos, three fountains, two lakes, a waterfall, a loggia, a chapel and a mini-fortress. It’s hard to convey the scale of this, but you start to get an idea when you look at the map of the estate.

Monteiro was buried in the Cemitério dos Prazeres, Lisbon, in a tomb designed by Luigi Manini. Although I did not get a chance to visit the cemetery, it sounds as though it is as striking a construction as any to be found in Quinta da Regaleira and equally laden with layers of symbolism.

Practicalities

Quinta da Regaleira can easily be reached by public transport (Scotturb bus 435) which takes five minutes from Sintra Railway station. If, like us, you visit Monserrate first you should pay close attention to the bus timetable as the gaps between services are quite varied – the shortest gap during the day is 20 minutes whereas the longest gap is 55 minutes. The ride from Monserrate takes six minutes. It is also possible to walk to Quinta da Regaleira from Sintra Railway Station in 20 minutes – it is just ten minutes walk further on from the Sintra National Palace.

The estate was purchased by the municipality of Sintra in 1997 and opened to the public in 1998 following extensive restoration work. The CulturSintra Foundation, which now looks after the site, has produced a rather wonderful map of the mansion and grounds showing the main routes through the park, although it can’t hope to include all of the small paths that thread through the grounds! You should be given a copy when you purchase your tickets.

You really need a reasonable amount of time to do this place any justice. Our visit lasted two and a half hours, which was sufficient time for us to have covered the grounds and the mansion in their entirety at a leisurely pace. We also stopped off at the small cafe on the site which serves up some tasty fare, including savoury croissants and custard tarts, with the additional benefit of a lovely garden terrace overlooking the mansion. There is a small bookshop close to the entrance which is open through the day, except for an hour or so at lunchtime.

Don't forget to take a torch!

Don’t forget to take a torch!

It is worth bringing a torch if you want to explore the tunnels – there is some strip lighting at the beginning of the tunnels, but no further than this. You can just about get away wiuthout a torch on the shorter stretches of tunnel, but not the long tunnel that runs from the Grotto of the East to the Initiatic Well.

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The domes of glorious eden

Posted in Portugal, Sintra by folkestonejack on March 13, 2015

Our first stop in Sintra was the Palácio de Monserrate, an exotic looking villa with a rather surprising series of British connections, beginning with the construction of the original neo-gothic mansion by English merchant Gerald de Visme in 1790 and its subsequent rental to the author William Beckford (most famous for his gothic novel ‘Vathek’) just a few years later.

Monserrate Palace

Monserrate Palace

The label of ‘glorious eden’ comes from Byron who visited the by now ruined estate in 1809, describing the place in his narrative poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’: ‘On sloping mounds, or in the vale beneath, | Are domes where whilom kings did make repair; | But now the wild flowers round them only breathe: | Yet ruined splendour still is lingering there.’

Byron’s vivid description of paradise in Sintra prompted a long line of British tourists to make the trek out to Monserrate. Amongst the travellers was a textile millionaire, Francis Cook, who resolved to buy the estate and restore it after his visit of 1841. However, the lengthy process of acquiring the property on Portugal at this time took over a decade, with Francis Cook only completing the purchase in 1856.

The redevelopment of the villa in the distinctive neo-moorish style that we see today finally began in 1858 under the direction of the architect James Thomas Knowles. After its completion in 1860 the villa served the family well as a summer residence for four generations, before its sale out of the family in 1946. To the horror of many, the new owner immediately proceeded to auction off the contents of the palace and made plans to divide the park into plots for development.

The main hall

The main hall

After an outcry the estate was purchased by the Portuguese state in 1949 but this proved no protection for the villa which slowly fell into a state of disrepair over the course of the century. The turning point came with the establishment of the Parques de Sintra in 2000, a public company with a remit to restore and manage the cultural heritage in Sintra. Restoration of the villa began in the early years of the 21st century and continues to this day (at present you can see works under progress on the ground and first floors).

The villa suffered badly from water penetration over the years, resulting in extensive damage to ceilings and wall panels. An oak tree had even grown through the wall of the kitchen, requiring the dismantling and reconstruction of the wall. The achievements of the restoration team are remarkable and give a feel for just how incredible this place must have been in its heyday. Many of the guidebooks draw comparison with the Royal Pavilion in Brighton , but in places I was also reminded of Strawberry Hill House (Horace Walpole’s gothic villa in Twickenham).

Mexican Garden

Mexican Garden

It’s worth saying that the grounds are wonderful too, including a variety of follies and water features, although as we were visiting in March we probably didn’t see the botanical wonders of the park in the best conditions. It was a surprise to see that the rather diverse collection of plants even includes Pohutukawa and Kauri trees.

Practicalities

The villa is among the farthest flung of the attractions in Sintra but can easily be reached by public transport. We caught the first 435 Scotturb bus of the day, which departs from Sintra railway station at 9.45am, arriving at the gates just a few minutes before they opened (the hop on/hop off tickets also cover the Palácio de Seteais, Quinta da Regaleira and the Palácio Nacional de Sintra). It is only a mini-bus, due to the tight and windy roads, but on our trip we were the only passengers.

As this was off season we had the place to ourselves for most of our visit, which was delightful if slightly strange. I am sure it must get alot busier in the summer! The ticket office provided us with a rather neat map that did a great job of guiding us around the park and the palace, although it would be just as pleasant to wander randomly amongst the waterfalls, ruined chapel and gardens if you don’t have any time pressures. In any case, the park is well sign-posted.

Before the trip I had a hard time working out whether it was worth visiting or not as reviewers seemed to veer between extremes – it was either the highlight of a trip or not worth visiting at all! Now that I have been, I can say that I certainly enjoyed my visit and simply loved the interior decoration of the villa. It is quite different to the other villas/palaces in Sintra and still a work in progress, so perhaps it won’t deliver the wow factor for some visitors but it is worth a visit in my eyes.

You can find more information about visiting the Park and Palace on the website of the Parques de Sintra and you can read about recent developments on the Friends of Monserrate website.

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Hook, line and Sintra

Posted in Lisbon, Portugal, Sintra by folkestonejack on March 12, 2015

My plans for the spring originally revolved around a trip to see the remarkable Prison Railway in Rongshan (my third attempt) but when this line unexpectedly closed in November I needed to come up with a new destination. The first place that came to mind was Sintra, a rather remarkable spot just outside Lisbon which is home to an impressive collection of castles, palaces, parks and villas.

Palácio da Pena

Palácio da Pena

I must confess that I had never heard of Sintra until recently but have felt drawn to the spot ever since seeing the most incredible pictures of the colourful Palácio da Pena sitting astride a gloriously green forested landscape. The photographer in me was hooked instantly!

Sintra was granted the special status of ‘cultural landscape’ by UNESCO in 1995 with the observation that it held universal value for its ‘pioneering approach to Romantic landscaping’ which would later influence develoments across Europe. Nevertheless, the authors of the evaluation report concluded that it is difficult to find any true parallel in Europe, or indeed, the world.

There are too many sites to visit in one day, so we plan to use two days to cover the key attractions of Sintra – taking in the Palácio de Monserrate, Quinta da Regaleira and the Palácio Nacional de Sintra on the first day, followed by the Palácio da Pena and Moorish Castle on the second. Splitting the sites over two days should allow us to take our time at each location, rather than hurtling round and missing stuff in our drive to meet the schedule.

Although we could have stayed in Sintra itself we opted to make Lisbon our base and take the train in each morning (it is only a 39 minute journey with frequent trains throughout the day). In this way we could enjoy the beauty of Sintra in a leisurely fashion, but still enjoy the culinary delights (and sights) of the big city.

Sintra’s sights

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