The Jewels of Sintra
By Ilona Kauremszky

SINTRA, Portugal, - The Romans dubbed this place, “mons lunae” or the hills of the moon. Centuries later, Portuguese royalty flocked to these mystic mountains to set up their summer palaces. Later, Lord Byron proclaimed the village of Sintra, “the most beautiful in the world.”

With development money pouring into this country from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for Expo ‘98, it is too early to say whether the modernizing of the ancient infrastructure will alter the area’s old charm. But, one thing is sure. Visitors swarming into Lisbon for the last big buzz of Expo (which closes next month), can break away from the crowds and take a leisurely day trip to nearby Sintra. AS I discovered on a recent two week trip to Portugal, this storybook region rich with legend has sparked the hearts and mi8nds of poets, princes and paupers.

Leaving a bustling Lisbon behind, our van packed with sightseers enters into a green sea of rolling pastures lined with stork nests perched atop telephone poles. Nestled in the province of Estremadura on the cusp of the Atlantic Ocean, the mountain (serra) of Sintra is punched with holes where spring water courses down the cliff sides. Ancient volcanic activity gave the valley floor its rich soil that feeds a fertile forest.

I imagine myself walking in Byron’s shoes. What did he see on his first visit? Was it a misty fog hangs over the hillside castles? Was it the cool wind descending form the mountain tops? My day dream ends with a quick jolt as our van stalls on an empty tarmac. “We’re here,” announces Manuela, our guide.

“What is this Sintra? Asks Jack, a fellow Canadian. Not quite. It is the Queluz National Palace, a quick 15 minute drive midway from Lisbon to Sintra, and one of the most extraordinary examples of baroque architecture remaining in Portugal.

Often referred to as the mini-Versilles, the sheer scale of Queluz is unimaginable from the road where a stone wall obscures the palace. Painted in a raspberry pink, the grand summer home rest in a u-shape, cupping a formal symmetrical garden in its center.

“After the great earthquake of 1755, Queen Maria for whom this castle was built was so fearful of fires that she insisted on having her palace built on one floor with every room having an escape door to the garden,” explains Manuela.

Much of the interior design of the Queluz Palace draws on the 16th century voyages of Vaswco da Gama who explored Africa and India. In one room, the walls were animated with strange frescoes of exotic lands. An African guenon plays a bamboo flute, while a naked Indian boy sleeps under a banana-laden tree from Brazil.

The 33 rooms on display gives one a glimpse into the lifestyle of the rich and famous during the 1700’s. However cheerful the brightly colored frescoes may b, I felt a sadness behind the opulence. For it was here that a young emperor, Pedro, died from tuberculosis at the age of 36, and his mother, the mad Queen Carlotta endlessly roamed like Ophelia from room to room. Some say Carlotta never recovered after the death of her first born son.

Back in the van, we resume our drive to Sintra. Along this stretch, lazy sheep graze in rich pastures while local farmers tend roadside stalls brimming with bunched roses and fresh vegetables. Soon, the (i)serra Sintra peeks on the horizon crowned by the ruins of a Moorish Castle. The sight soon disappears as a swift dark cloud descends like a black hijasb, covering her face from strangers.

In 1995, UNESCO designated this area which is littered with ancient monasteries, castles and wooded mountains, a World Heritage Site. Today, visitors can wander through the castles, hike nature trails, enjoy local cuisine or explore the step narrow streets that seem to climb to the heavens.

At the Hotel Tivoli located in the town center, I munched on fresh sea bass, spicy sausage soup and queijadas, a decadent cheesecake. After lunch, we encounter a bustling local market where vendors hawk embroidered napkins, handmade lace, copper pots and cork shaped figurines. One man selling caged pigeons and rabbits is busy slapping the curious hands of children. A gentle dog stands in the shadows, his old eyes filled with secrets. I leave the peculiar canine and head to the Sintra Palace where its double gothic chimneys dominate the town square.

Built on the remains of a Moorish Mosque in the 1500s, the palace served as a residence for King Manuel I, the pioneer who introduced the art of Moorish influenced azulejos to Portugal. Today, the Sintra Palace is a magnificent museum that houses a rare Manuelian tile collection and frescos filled with different fairy tales.

One such tale flies on the ceiling in the Magpie Room. Here, 140 painted magpies circle A white rose bush. Unlike most royal marriages of the timewhere couples united to forge political alliances, the marriage of King Dom Joao I to his British rose, Phillip of Lancaster, was one of true love. To show his love for the British beauty, Joao, had his crest -the magpie- painted around the rose which symbolized the House of Lancastor.

But, over the years, the story has undergone alterations. It is said that when the palace opened over 30 years ago, the local guides decided to conjure a more salacious story. “one day, Phillipa entered this room to fetch her husband, but when she arrived at the threshold, she stopped and ladies-in-waiting heard the news, they became jealous and gossiped.” Thus, the saying began, “You talk like a magpie.”

As anywhere in Portugal, a licensed tour guide needs to usher you through the castle. Withy a wave of hand from our guide, we were off to our next castle, the Pena Palace on the serra Sintra. The clip clop of horse hooves the carriage that takes passengers to the mountain top. But there is no free ride for us.

“This is where we start our trip to the Peno Palace on foot,” says Manuela. Be forewarned, it takes a good twenty minutes of heavy trekking on a step trail, but the climb rewards you with a breathtaking view.

I spot my first glimpse of the towering fortress hiding behind the think foliage. The dog I spotted earlier in town in now leading me onward across the rampart. “I’m here,” I whisper, wiping the sweat off my brow.

Partially constructed from an ancient monastery during the mid 1800’s the Pena Palace’s bright canary yellow plays off the sunny Mediterranean blue and melon pink. “The locals hate the newly painted colors,” Manuela says and adds, “but like everything else, the Portuguese shall get use to it.”

Despite what the locals think, the brightly trimmed turrets and spires that tip this hodge podge of Moorish, Bavarian and Victorian design have become a tourist’s favorite. Resembling the signature castle of Disneyland, the castle is no doubt an influence of its architect, the Baron Eschgwege. A queer statue of this Prussian nobleman as a medieval knight stands outside the palace walls, offering his gloved hand in benevolence.

I climb the narrow spiral staircase. The magenta sun light dances on the stone walls. Stained glass windows radiate a rainbow of color over a large ebony dining table carved in an intricate lace pattern and set for a royal banquet. In every corner stands a life size bronze figure of an Arabian lad, holding 25 lit candles. “Pena’s creator enjoyed the good life,” I think to myself.

Indeed. King Ferdinand was energized by the enchanting setting of Sintra and the whole romantic movement of the 19th century. His whimsical imprint is everywhere. Outside, the ballroom window is supported by the torso of a straining Neptune laden with seashells. Perhaps the Roman god’s grimace is due to the stress of keeping up aristocratic appearances.

I gaze into the horizon, past the quintas, the rectories and the forested hill tops to view the dance of ocean waves. Breathing in the fresh mountain air, I see the vast Atlantic stretching out as far as the eye can see. For centuries, this area protected by the jagged cliff edges of Cabo da Roca was known as the place where the world ended.

The magic of Old World casts its spell on me. In the distance, the waves become hypnotic. My daydream breaks when I feel a tug at my leg. It is my new friend, the wandering dog I’ve named Lord Byron. He seems to be leading me with a nod of his head to some other magic place.

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