“Wind, tiles and hills”: those were the complaints my mother had when we first arrived in Lisbon. The tight, narrow streets lined with brightly coloured buildings (some even decorated entirely in elaborate tiles) set on the Portuguese capital’s hills definitely make for a spectacular site.
But for my mother, who did not pack any sensible shoes, found it hard to appreciate the steep inclines, where a yellow streetcars rattled up almost defying gravity. For her the mosaic-tiled streets poised a challenge to both her heels and her knees, so we found the best course of action was to get out of Lisbon for the next couple of days.
The Magic of Sintra
Sintra is a wonderful escape into the countryside and one of the best day trips from Lisbon, whether you want to hop on a train from Rossio Station or explore the Portuguese countryside by hire car.
The small village perched high up in the verdant green Sintra Hills has a magical quality to it. Crowning the village high up on the mountain, the ruins from a Medieval Moorish fortress and a brightly coloured fairytale castle. Sintra is a town of mysterious forests and romantic palaces, a place that even enchanted Lord Byron, not to mention it’s easy to get lost here for a while.
Quinta da Regaleira
While the house in Quinta da Regaleira, even in its gothic and neo-Manualine splendour, appears to be outshone by its more eccentric neighbours, nothing can compete with its garden. Filled with figures from mythology and slight nods to alchemy and the occult for those who have the eyes to spot them, this garden is more than just a peaceful retreat – it’s a poem set to landscape. References to Dante and the Freemasons embrace the romantic fairytale turrets, waterfalls and landscaped lakes, but Italian opera set designer and architect Luigi Manini certainly knew how insert drama into his work.
Again, I subjected my mother to even more inclines, but at least the path leading up the garden on a gravelled pathway was kinder to her feet than Lisbon’s undulating mosaic-covered streets. Half-way up the hill, we came to a cluster of boulders. On first impression they were just that, and my mother couldn’t understand why I was so excited by a group of rocks. The Sintra Hills were full of isolated rocks and giant boulders clinging to the side of the hill, but in the Quinta da Regaleira – nothing is what it seems.
I pushed a stone slab, and with a loud scrape, the hidden doorway revealed the entrance to the Initiatic Well, that plunged down 30 meters. This was no ordinary well, but rather an inverted tower whose spiralling staircase tumbled down into moss-covered arches and trickling water that culminated in a pool below.
Descending the stairs, the water level seemed to rise and each step felt like it had a higher level of water than the other. My mother began to worry, but looking up the spiralling inverted tower that was supposed to symbolise Danté’s descent, she realised down was a better option. From here, the only way out was to continue through a subterranean labyrinth, a pitch-black grotto lit up by a single string of fairy lights that came out at a waterfall. Despite her concerns, this was the highlight of the trip.
Palacio da Pena
Set at 1640 feet above sea-level, the you can even see Lisbon all the way from the bastion of this multi-coloured Moorish style fairytale castle. Painted in an intense palette of reds, yellows and purples, this eclectic palace is the perfect example of Moorish romanticism.
We found the interior of the Palacio da Pena itself a letdown after wandering the interior (which is surprisingly small), but the vast, untamed grounds enveloping it offered many secrets and mysteries too, like the Temple of Columns and the Fountain of Small Birds. Getting up close and personal with the palace though was worth it, and even if it lacked the mystery of the Quinta da Regaleira or even if we did spend most of the time sat on the terrace with terrible, overpriced instant coffee just to take in the view.
Parque de Monserrate
With so many palaces and so little time, it’s hard to see all of Sintra in a weekend. As a day trip from Lisbon, depending on when you leave and whether you rely on the train or drive yourself there, we split our excursion up into two days. Parque de Monserrate, a labour of love by English millionaire Francis Cook is furthest from the village itself, and will need to be reached by bus or car. The highlight was the indo-saracenic palace at the heart of it that captured a Moorish-Indian style, where even an arched gateway had been bought over from India. The grounds around the palace offer a variety of botanical gardens from different part of the world.
As we left the palace behind, the scent of jasmine enveloped the air. I turned back, looking through the Indian arch and the wisteria interlocked in the pergolas. While I missed Lisbon’s hilly streets, here in Sintra there was a different, quiet beauty, one that complements the capital perfectly. It’s hard not to fall in love with Portugal, and we vowed to come back – though next time, my mother will bring a pair of flats!