Have you ever wondered why so many people recommend Sintra as part of your trip to Portugal?
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If you talk to anyone who has visited Portugal, chances are that someone has been to Sintra. Plain and simple. But why is that? Why is Sintra almost as famous as Lisbon or even Portugal as a nation? There’s something that undoubtedly appeals to the majority of people. People from all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of interests. If you’re a history addict, you’ll love it. If you’re seeking instagrammable content, you’ll love it. If you’re a thrill-seeker, you’ll love it! It really is a place that pleases most people, and for that reason is one of the most visited locations in Europe.
So what’s really in Sintra that appeals to most people? Well, there isn’t one single reason, but rather a combination of factors that combined produce a place with an unmistakable aura: It’s the history of the place, the monuments, the characters that lived there, the mountains, the landscape, the proximity to Lisbon, the proximity to the Atlantic, just to mention a few factors.
So what about the history and the monuments? Well, Sintra is really old. Meaning really, really old, with evidence of human presence from the early Paleolithic onwards (that’s about 20.000 years BC). But more interesting, is the fact that the region has been important throughout the ages, mostly due to its proximity to Lisbon, or as it was known in classical antiquity: Olisipo. The nearby mountain range that stretches to the sea, albeit not that big (529m – 1736ft), also played a strategic role during the more belligerent times of the dark-ages and further contributed to the importance of the region. As such, Sintra has produced many interesting “older” monuments and heritage for which the Castle of the Moors (9th century) and the National Palace of Sintra (15th century) are the best examples.
Perhaps more important, however, are the events that took place after the 18th century. Sintra was then the nostalgic and mysterious place always mentioned in the itineraries elaborated by foreigners, intellectuals, and aristocrats in the second half of the 18th century and throughout the 19th century: William Beckford, Lord Byron, Almeida Garrett, Eça de Queirós, just to name a few, found in Sintra a great source of inspiration for their work and established a movement that would be known as the romantic period, or romanticism.
Lord Byron, Ferdinand II and Sir Francis Cook – Famous charaters of 19th century Sintra
Beginning in the early stages of the 19th, the artistic/intellectual movement known as Romanticism, quickly spread throughout the western world to protest the rational ideal held so tightly during the Enlightenment. Emphasis was placed on emotion, not reason like in the enlightenment period. As such, much emphasis was put on the past and nature as a means to further enhance the comprehension of human existence.
Sintra changed during this period and was no longer a place meant to be lived by royalty and aristocracy, but by a whole generation of foreigners, entrepreneurs as artists that valued greatly its Romantic potential and the cooler weather (compared to Lisbon). William Beckford, novelist and one of the richest men in England, was one of these early characters that flooded Sintra and was arguably the herald of Romanticism in Portugal, thus marking a period of property development that lasted well until the early decades of the 20th century. As such, in the 19th century, Sintra became the first center of European Romantic architecture. Many are the living examples of the romantic period: The Monserrate Estate, the city hall, The Regaleira Estate, to name a few. But of course, the great artistic enterprise of the period is without a doubt the Pena Palace and Estate, by the hands of a foreign prince from a relatively new royal house.
The Monserrate Estate is the perfect example of the 19th century Romantic movement
Pena Palace and Estate
Ferdinand II was a German prince of the house Saxe-Coburg and Gotha-Kohári. Catholic and with family ties all over Europe (he was 1st cousin of Queen Victoria of the U.K and Leopold II of Belgium), he was a good candidate to marry Queen Mary II of Portugal in 1836. Their marriage didn’t last long given the Queen’s premature death in 1853, due to childbirth complications, but it did produce 11 children thus making him king (according to Portuguese law of the time, only when the first child was born we would be made king).
Pena Palace – The most famous of the Portuguese palaces.
Ferdinand had many positive things, but he is perhaps best remembered for his sensitivity and artistic inclination. It was with these traits, and lots of money of course, that he purchased an old convent on the 2nd highest point of Sintra Mountains and made his Romantic vision real by projecting and building one of the most iconic palaces in the World: Pena Palace. The construction of the palace started in 1839 and was mostly finished by 1847. It’s the second most visited attraction in Portugal, but why is this place so admired?
It’s not certainly because of its size, luxury or richness, which, compared to its other European counterparts such as the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna or the Royal Palace of Caserta in Naples, seem rather small. No. Much like its contemporary Neuschwanstein castle in Germany, what attracts people to Pena is the atmosphere. The truth is that the Palace itself cannot be determined by one single idiosyncrasy. Everything boils down to the atmosphere and everything contributes to the atmosphere: the location on the mountain, the gardens that came along its construction, the mix of multiple architectural forms, the interior design, the majestic views, the list goes on and on.
The funny thing about the 200 hectares (494 acres) of gardens that surround the Palace, is that they didn’t exist before Ferdinand’s construction project. Much of the current landscape was actually planted at the request of the German monarch, to fulfill his romantic vision of what Sintra Mountains should be. And much of what Sintra is, is due to the mountains!
Without secure and credible sources, it’s said that the Celts gave the name “Cynthia” to the mountains of Sintra, most likely in devotion to the moon. Even so, one can confirm only the intention of devotion to the moon, since the Romans called Serra de Sintra “Mons Lunae”, “mountain of the moon”. This offers a mood, energy and mythical overtone, that together with its fauna and flora created the perfect frame for the 19th-century romantic movement that thrived in the region.
The mountains are not particularly big as we said above (529m – 1736ft), but what they lack in size they make up in sheer character! Much is due to the vegetation which was planted by a handful of affluent personalities such as Ferdinand II in Pena or Francis Cook in Monserrate. In fact, these two remarkable characters engaged in a friendly competition and changed the look of the mountains with their Romantic ideals, by planting lush vegetation of all sorts and from multiple regions of the World. This changed the face of the then mostly vegetation deprived mountain, to create a bucolic landscape to respect the romantic view of the World.
Another thing that contributes to the mystic aura of the mountain is its proximity to Sea, which, besides providing us with majestic views from the top, produces a peculiar microclimate that envelops the mountain in mist much of the year, thus further enhancing the romantic mood.
Itinerary proposal for Sintra
Sintra is a major tourist destination in Europe, famed for its picturesqueness and its numerous historic heritage. With so many things to visit, it’s certainly hard to decide what to do! Fortunately, Rootfarers is here for you. As a tour company, we already have a 1-day tour of Sintra in place. However, we recognize the limitation of what we created. It simply isn’t enough! As such, we decided to create A 3-day itinerary for culture thirsty romantic travelers, so that you grasp what Sintra is! Be sure to read our tips to survive Sintra during high season to better prepare your experience.
Where to stay: You must stay in a Romantic villa to get fully immersed in Sintra! The most famous one is the late 18th-century Hotel Lawrence’s where famous writers Lord Byron and Eça de Queirós stayed. Apart from that, you can check Casa de S.Miguel Guesthouse or Chalet Saudade, both conveniently located near the historic center.
The mystic Regaleira Estate located in the historic center
Day 1: To get familiar with the place, the first day should be dedicated to the city center. There’s plenty to see! Spend the early morning sipping coffee (or tea for that matter) in your Romantic townhouse, then head out for a lazy stroll in the village’s narrow streets where you can try a “travesseiro” pastry in the famous “piriquita” café. When ready, you can head to Regaleira Estate for 2H packed with mysticism and symbolism. In the afternoon, you can digest your lunch by taking a walk in some of the local gardens, and for an introduction of Gothic revival, check out the city hall building. If you still have energy and will, you can finish the day with a visit to the amazing Royal Palace of Sintra with its 2 unmistakable chimneys and its rich 5 centuries-old Mudéjar tilework.
Day 2: This should be a day 100% dedicated to Sintra’s Romantic heritage. Get up early in the morning and be sure to get to Pena Palace’s main entrance by 9:30 am. As described above, this is THE ATTRACTION in Sintra, so expect plenty of travelers there. A proper visit to this place should take about 2H. In the afternoon, you can visit Francis Cook’s Monserrate Estate, with its exotic collection of plants and its heavily influenced Moorish architecture. At the end of the day and with a nice “imperial” (beer) to hydrate, it will be great to exchange remarks about these two places with your fellow travel companions.
Entrance to Capuchos convent
Day 3: If you didn’t get a car, then for this day you should. The whole idea is to get out of the busy city center and away from the hordes of culture thirsty travelers (no insult intended), to drive along the Sintra Mountains and its shoreline. Hiking some of the trails seems the obvious thing to do, but if you aren’t really into sports, there is plenty to do as well. Perhaps the best place to visit is the stripped-down Capuchos Convent, a 16th-century Capuchin convent set within Sintra’s lush vegetation that contrasts immensely with the plentiful post-card rich villas you visited before. In the afternoon, and before heading towards Europe westernmost point in Cape Roca, you can drive to the Sanctuary of Peninha, which provides views over the coastline and inland areas… Farewell Sintra!
We hope this article was useful! We don’t claim to be experts in the subject and most of our knowledge comes from infield experience guiding clients. That being said, we do believe the value of people like us that dedicate their time to improve quality of the travel experience in our beautiful Portugal. As such, if by any chance you felt compelled to hire our services, don’t hesitate and contact us!
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