On a 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.
The Town of Sintra
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. The area is close to the Capital of Portugal, Lisbon and is in a forested region with mountains overlooking it and the villas and architecture is stunning to behold and very photogenic.
The buildings are in pastel shades and the castles with elaborate features and turrets are a must-see feature of Sintra.
Places to visit on your visit to the area should include the Initiation Well which is on the property of Quinta da Regaleira and said to be linked to stories of Knights Templar and of freemasonry.
The well has tunnels and has the look and feel of buried towers.
The Moorish Castle is a wonderful tourist spot with amazing views. Below the royal palace is Vale dos Lagos e Pateira, or the Valley of the Lakes is a peaceful countryside area.
Palace of the Pena
A trip to the Palalce of the Pena, (Palácio da Pena) A fairytale castle with many turrets, domes, battlements and walls of yellow, pink and blue – was a real highlight.
A Romanticist castle in São Pedro de Penaferrim, in the municipality of Sintra, on the Portuguese Riviera. The castle stands a top of a hill in the Sintra mountains above the town of Sintra.
One of the seven wonders of Portugal and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Before the castle was built, in the Middle Ages, a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena was built on the top of the hill above Sintra and according to tradition, construction occurred after an apparition of the Virgin Mary.
In 1493, King John II, accompanied by his wife Queen Leonor, made a pilgrimage to the site to fulfill a vow. His successor, King Manuel I, was also very fond of this sanctuary, and he ordered the construction of a monastery on this site which was donated to the Order of Saint Jerome.
The monastery was a place for quiet meditation and was home to eighteen monks. It was in the 18th century that the monastery suffered damage by lighting and following that the great earthquake of 1755 reduced the building to ruins.
In 1838 King Ferdinand ll acquired the monastery and surrounding lands including Castle of the Moors and a few other estates.
The monastery had fascinated him in his youth, and he decided to transform the monastery into a palace that would serve as a summer residence for the Portuguese Royal Family.
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.
Penha Longa (“Long Rock”) has a lot of history and a multitude of natural beauty. Friar Vasco Martins built his monastery here in 1355, and the palace at Penha Longa later became a favourite retreat for the Portuguese royal family in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Over the years of the royal family using the monastery as a retreat, many extra features were added such as fountains and special gardens, even water mills.
Much still remains to this day and now a perfect setting for an escape for those who which to relax at a spa, enjoy a round of golf or partake in the many activities as you wish, they have 194 guest rooms and 5 restaurants with world class food and wine, gyms, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and outdoor tennis courts, squash, jogging tracks, and horse-back riding.
A wonderful place of history turned luxury resort.
Cabo da Roca
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.
A cape which forms the westernmost point of the Sintra Mountain Range, of mainland Portugal, of continental Europe, and of the Eurasian land mass.
The point has a lighthouse that started use in 1772. The area was known to the Romans as Promontorium Magnum and during the Age of Sail as the Rock of Lisbon.
The lighthouse, Farol de Cabo da Roca in Portuguese, is a beacon/ lighthouse 165 metres (541ft) above the Atlantic Ocean on Portugal’s most westerly point on a promontory that juts out into the ocean, made up of granite boulders and interspersed limestone.
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.