A short train journey out of Lisbon took us to the magical fairytale land of Sintra. One of Portugal’s most popular destinations, Sintra is a small town with extravagant palaces, residences and gardens nestled in the hills of Serra de Sintra. Over the course of the day we visited two of the many homes that have helped secure UNESCO status for the area. We realised how much we missed walking through forests and felt like kids again when we wandered through the crazy estates that created a real life wonderland.
The small town centre of cobbled streets and small shops is based around the National Palace; a gothic structure with two large oddly-shaped chimneys. Portuguese royalty used the palace from the 15th to 19th centuries, and now it is a museum with queues forming well before opening time. I had my sights set on two other palaces however, so after a quick look around the outside, we set off to make the most of our day.
Our first stop was Quinta da Regaleira. There is a reasonably stately home and accompanying chapel there but the main attraction is the incredible garden. In excess of 40,000sqm, it’s easy to get lost on the winding paths lined with lush foliage. I’m not sure we would have minded though! It was completely magical. Carvalho Monteiro was one of several owners of the property and he was the one who wanted to build it into a fantastical place with a touch of magic. The architect, Luigi Manini, went nuts with designs utilising Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline styles. What exists today was mostly completed by 1910. We explored underground tunnels, grottos with the calming sound of trickling water, and stone walls with narrow towers to climb – words cannot describe the fun we had there.
Between attractions, there are various bus and tuk tuk services but we found the most enjoyable way for us was to walk. The roads don’t have footpaths but there isn’t a lot of traffic so it’s safe. We appreciated the quiet forest where all you can hear is the rustling of leaves in the wind and birds in the distance. The hills all around us prevent sound from travelling too far and almost seemed to wrap us in a comforting blanket of fresh air.
After about 45 minutes, we reached the Park and Palace of Monserrate. The home itself is a marvel of North African and Indian architectural influence with the most insane details carved into the walls and ceilings. Sitting atop the hill, the home looks down on a sweeping expanse of gardens that include a startling variety of flora from all corners of the earth. We were stunned to find a pohutukawa tree had made it all the way to Sintra and had grown up right beside the house! On our way back down from the palace we walked through a section populated with plants from home – how bizzare to walking through the bush we know but in Portugal.
It took over an hour to walk to the Park and National Palace of Pena, including a short cut through a narrow path that was completed deserted (I’ll admit, we weren’t even sure if it would take us to the right place – but it did!). Pena Palace is most striking because of it’s bright pink and yellow exterior boldly shouting from the hilltop. It’s one of the most popular attractions but due to time constraints, it was another we saw from the outside only. Too soon, it was time to head back to the train station. We paid €5 to ride a tuk tuk down the hill and if you’re going to use motorised transport, I would highly recommend that! The drivers are great, and it’s the same price as the bus but way more fun.
Sintra exceeded expectations and it’s a place worthy of more than a day trip. There are at least 10 main residences to explore, some you could spend the entire day wandering through. A trade boom opened Portugal to an astounding array of materials, architectural styles and of course, money. The wealthy residents of Sintra let loose when building the homes, experimenting with materials and styles in a way that has produced a vibrant town unlike any other. We now know why it’s such a popular destination! Writing this post and looking back at the pictures makes me wish we had time to go back. A couple of weeks after returning from Portugal, we headed off for a totally different landscape in Iceland. Keep an eye out for the upcoming posts on the most incredible country that has become one of my favourite places on earth (after NZ of course!).