The outskirts of Lisbon sprawl gently right up to Sintra, and it’s impossible to tell (apart from looking at the signs on the retail parks) where one ends and the other starts. But when we did hit Sintra’s historic centre, there was no mistaking it. Horse-drawn carriages mixing it with large coaches, and the police wheel-clamping anybody who overstayed at the pay-and-display on-street parking, whilst street vendors of jewellery and art lined the footpath taking you towards the restaurants and craft shops.
The town itself may not have warmed the cockles of our hearts, but the Palácio Nacional did. It’s one of those buildings which you just can’t put a date on – there’s almost certainly been a palace of some kind on the site since Moorish times, and the current building has been constantly rebuilt and extended from the 15th century through to the 19th, as various monarches decided to tickle it to their tastes. What sits there today is a glorious mix, on the kind of scale where you could actually visualise it in use as a home, and slightly scruffy at the edges – intriguing enough that at the end of the circular tour, we ducked around the ropes and did it all again.
Most of the rooms were named so esoterically that you really couldn’t possibly follow the thought-lines. The Swan Room, the Magpie Room, the Galleon Room. Oh, wait. Look up.
The ceiling decorations were exquisite – apparently, the ceiling of the Magpie room was painted after a king was caught out whilst abusing his power with a lady-in-waiting – there was one magpie painted for every lady at court, giving a less than subtle comment upon their gossiping. There were two real stars for us, though – the Sala das Brasões, with a set of azulejo tiles around the walls which took the breath away even before you noticed the ceiling – domed, with the royal coat of arms in the centre, surrounded by those of the eight royal children, leading down to the arms of the 72 noble families; and the kitchens, which distorted perspective as they headed upwards into the two gigantic circular chimneys (not dissimilar to a Kentish oast house on steroids) which dominate the external appearance of the building.
Sintra’s much more than just the one palace, though. The town sits at the base of 500m high rocky outcrops, with views for miles in every direction – from the coast to the Tejo river. The Moors took full advantage of that, too, and built a castle across two of the highest and best placed outcrops. The road up the hillside is narrow, winding and steep, with various car parks tucked into little clearings. We dived into one at random, only to find that there was a very pleasant footpath around the hillside leading straight to the castle entry.
The castle’s walls are more or less intact, allowing a slightly nerve-wracking walk along the battlements from the watch tower at one end right across to the ruins of the keep at the other. Fortunately, the wind was calm, the day clear – and the views spectacular.
The 25km drive between Sintra and Mafra has already been described in another post…
Mafra, when we finally arrived, was initially unprepossessing. Then we got to the middle of town, and all of a sudden were faced with the reason for our visit. If the palace at Sintra is on a human scale, the Mosteiro-Palácio Nacional is anything but. It is immense.
The construction very nearly bankrupted the country, at a time when gold was rolling in hand-over-fist from the New World. When the Flemish bellmakers queried the size of the order, and asked for payment in advance, the king retorted with a huff that if that was their attitude, he might as well put a second bell tower on, so he’d need twice as many bells – and whilst he was about it, he’d happily pay twice as much for them… We started our visit soon after the palace opened in the morning, and – given that there was a party of about a dozen ahead of us, including umpteen small children, we ignored the posted route and leapt out of sequence – which meant that we could enjoy deserted views down the full length of the corridors linking all the staterooms. It’s difficult to describe just how ridiculously large this place is – but much of the support infrastructure is doubled up, with one set for the King’s private use and one for the Queen’s. Not just private chambers (the towers on opposite front corners, a good 200m apart – although we couldn’t see hers, closed for restoration), but chapels and even kitchens. The one thing they seem to have shared is the library. Not really a great hardship, since it’s about 100m long…
Oh, yes, and the main Basilica. That wasn’t available for tour when we were there, either – but not because of restoration. It was in use for what appeared to be a rather posh Christening – of which we had a great view from the main royal Balcony.
Downstairs, we wandered around the justification for the building – the monastery (with several grand dining chambers for the Friars) and attached hospital, all 16 beds of it.
And, with that, it was back to Sintra, to see the other palace there. Clearly, access to the existing one wasn’t enough for the Queen in the mid 19th century, so her husband decided to extend the monastery on top of the next hill to the Moorish castle. Palácio da Pena is the result. If Mafra was actually quite tasteful despite the size, Pena is the exact opposite. Small enough that it should work, with low ceilings and cozy room sizes, it’s a riot of OTT. Every single (no shortage) turret and arch and mock-guard-hut was full of people gurning for their family albums – with a queue… However, the main impression we took away from the place was one of weather. Whilst the previous day had been gloriously blue-sky-sunshine, we lost the various turrets and spires of Pena behind fast-moving cloud. Don’t even ask about the views. I think there might have been some. Probably.
We’d bought a joint ticket at the Moorish Castle, giving entry to both that and Pena for a sizable discount (Pena’s far from cheap), which meant we had to go – both ticket and timescales meant it had to be that day. Thank goodness we’d done them that way round, becaue the Moorish Castle would have been thoroughly pointless (if not actively dangerous) in the cloud and gusts.
And so we headed onwards. We’ve turned a corner – ever since we left the UK, we’ve headed generally South-West. Now, it was time to head North-East, with just over a week to get to Orleans for the 2cv World Meeting. Back into Lisbon (or, at least, around the CRIL ring motorway again) towards the huge Ponte Vasca da Gama bridge across the River Tejo. The longest bridge in Europe – Ellie’s response to this useless factoid was “Nah, can’t be longer than Øresund”, but it is… Just shy of eleven miles long, it links Lisbon and the north with the plains of the Alentejo. And, of that, more anon.