On a recent short break to Portugal I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful hilltop town of Sintra. It’s an easy day trip from Lisbon, the capital, and was, in days gone by, the summer retreat of the Portuguese royalty.
The old heart of the city is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s full of pastel-coloured estancias, old churches and grand palaces. The city has captivated writers including Byron, Hans Christian Anderson and, more recently, JK Rowling – who named Salazar Slytherin, founder of Slytherin house in her Harry Potter books, after the former Portuguese dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar.
Sintra is also a popular excursion for cruise ships stopping at Lisbon, and the narrow streets echo with the sounds of sandals on cobblestones and the clicking of cameras. But get there early or late in the day and you’ll miss most of the crowds.
A trip to the Palace of the Pena – a fairytale castle with many turrets, domes, battlements and walls of yellow, pink and blue – was a real highlight.
A short ride on a shuttle bus takes you to the hilltop palace, where you can wander through the royal apartments and take in fabulous views from the battlements of the surrounding park and gardens and the city below.
Like other parts of Portugal, the region is well known for its golf courses. In the forested Sintra Mountains, a short drive from the city, is one of the best in the area. Penha Longa is another historic royal retreat that’s now a spa and golf resort set on the site of a twelfth century Franciscan monastery. It’s a great setting for a round of golf – winding around the old monastery grounds and taking in ocean views from the Atlantic course.
From Sintra it’s just a few kilometres to the windswept and rocky Atlantic coast at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of mainland Europe. It was from this wild cape that Portuguese explorers set off for the New World. The next landfall from here is somewhere on the other side of the Atlantic, several thousand miles away.
Today, surfers come to tackle the pounding waves on this stretch of the coast, although more sheltered beaches can be reached a few kilometres further around the headland at Cascais and Estoril. Shops, casinos and seaside hotels line the streets behind the small curves of yellow sand.