I wanted magic. I wanted castles, gargoyles, and to feel like I was on the set of a movie. I wanted history, grandeur, and adventure.
Well, I got those things in Sintra, Portugal, and so much more.
I took a quick 25-minute train from Rossio station in Lisbon to Sintra at the crack of dawn in order to beat the 9am rush, and yet upon arriving I found myself struggling to keep my head above water in a sea of tourists. In April.
Sintra is a quaint little town at the bottom of a mountain, the Serra da Sintra, but the town itself is not the main attraction. When people think of Sintra, they usually picture in their mind two things – Pena Palace, and the Castle of the Moors, which are both at the top of said mountain.
To get to these attractions, I had one of two options, wait in line for the 434 bus, which only cost 5 euros, or take a hired car, which cost roughly 15 euros. It probably wasn’t the smartest decision, but I opted to wait for the bus, which I ended up waiting almost two hours for.
The bus was very crowded and smelly, but the passengers on it were jovial to say the least. I soon found myself belting out the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself” with everybody else on board as we bolted uphill and around tight corners at a frightening speed. A fun change of events, but not my most pride-filled moment.
Visiting Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors in Portugal
My first stop after boarding the bus was The Palacio Nacional da Pena, also known as Pena Palace.
On the site where the palace stands today, there was once a religious sanctuary, and later a medieval monastery. The religious sanctuary was a place pilgrims would often trek to, as it was said that an apparition of the Virgin Mary once made an appearance at the site. In 1493, King Manuel I, who was rather fond of this sanctuary, ordered a monastery to be erected in its place, which would be a quiet site for meditation and prayer, and would house no more than eighteen monks.
However, in the 18th century, this monastery was greatly damaged first by lightning, and then by the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which reduced the monastery to rubble.
The site of this crumbling monastery intrigued Ferdinand August Franz Anton from Austria, who became King Ferdinand II of Portugal in 1836 when his wife, Queen Maria II of the Portuguese Royal Family, bore him a child. In the monastery’s place, the king wished to build a castle that would rival the Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, and so he commissioned Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege to bring his wishes to life.
In 1854, Baron Wilhelm Ludwig completed the castle in what is considered a prime example of 19th century romanticism architecture. The walls of the castle are painted in vivid hues which stand in stark contrast from the lush greenery of the landscape, and grotesque gargoyles beam down at visitors upon arrival.
In 1995, the palace was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
My 14 euro ticket got me into both the grounds as well as Pena Palace itself. The grounds were exquisite; the brightly colored hues of the palace met with the vast, see-for-miles view from the mountain felt absolutely decadent.
The inside of Pena Palace, however, I found myself less than enthused. By all means, if you are super interested in 19th century architecture and furnishings, a tour through the palace will entirely be up your alley. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy those things, but what I don’t enjoy is slow, single-file shuffling along narrow walkways with the cries of restless kids ringing in my ears. If you visit Pena Palace on a busy day, remember this and weigh your priorities.
My next stop on the tour was the Castelo dos Mouros, also known as Castle of the Moors
I’ll admit, I did absolutely no research on Castle of the Moors before I showed up. In fact, I didn’t even consider this site a must-see when I headed up the mountain on the bus that morning, I was so focused on Pena Palace. I only walked the 200m from Pena Palace to the castle because the day was young and I wasn’t ready to head back to Lisbon. In retrospect, I’m so thankful for my ignorance and lack of research, because the shock to the system I got when I viewed the site for the fist time was absolutely worth it.
Still, despite me educating you right now on Castle of the Moors, I have no doubts in my mind that if and when you visit, you’ll be as delighted by it as I was.
The castle was originally built in the 8th and 9th centuries by the North African Moors, during the period of Muslim Iberia, and was positioned to be centrally located in order to protect the population. However, in subsequent centuries the castle changed rulers, both involuntarily and voluntarily. In 1031, the Moors lost the castle to the invading Almoravid, and after the conquest of Lisbon in 1147, the castle was surrendered to Christian forces, after which it fell into disrepair.
The castle’s first reconstruction began in 1375 when King Ferdinand I of Portugal demanded its fortification. However, by this time the castle’s use as a military base was diminishing as people were opting to live in the village of Sintra instead.
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 greatly affected the structural integrity of the castle, and by 1838 the towers were completely in ruins. In 1840, King Ferdinand II of Portugal took up the task of conserving and refortifying the condition of the castle. He consolidated the walls, preserved the chapel, and landscaped the grounds.
I spent a solid few hours of my life skipping up and down the stone steps of the castle walls, taking a million photos and imagining how great this site would be for a massive water gunfight.
While standing on the walls of the castle, you’ll get a view of the Portuguese countryside that will take your breath away. Beyond the giant moss-covered boulders, pre-medieval architecture, and the wind gently sweeping itself around you, you’ll find a lush agricultural landscape dotted with homesteads that is beautifully capped off by a bright blue sky.
If you are heading out in the Sintra direction for a day, definitely do not miss this site!