Thursday, January 13, 2011

the green hills of Sintra

I have to say that examining gaudy interiors of buildings and palaces where the rich and royal once lived and played  ranks low on Ed’s list of favorite things to do when traveling. And truthfully, I’m only a little more enthusiastic about it myself. We both love history and even visuals depicting it, but walking through many ornate spaces – room after room of an extravagantly decorated existence feels stifling and after a while, I tune it all out. (Ed I don’t think ever tunes it in).

I don’t feel the same about gardens. An artfully designed outdoor space is, to me at least, dazzling. Richly planted landscapes, with an abundance of trees and vines and flowering plants are sensual and soothing and I can walk endlessly through them, listening to the sounds of the outdoors, taking in the smell of a natural world.

Sintra offers both: palaces, castles, manor houses on the one hand and elaborate gardens and forested parks surrounding them on the other.

It seemed warmer in the morning sun and so I take the brave step of leaving my jacket behind as we set out to explore the major sights.

They’re not easy to get to and initially, we can’t seem to find our way out of the maze of narrow roads. What does the map say – I’ll ask. The map doesn’t help very much in a three dimensional town – Ed’ll tell me.

And so we end up approaching the first – the Sintra National Palace from the back – where years of moist air have left dark marks on the cement walls.

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The Palace faces the main square of the old town, but it’s a chaotic space of many elevations and it lacks the feeling of openness and magnificence.


 We linger just for a little while, study the maps again and hike along the winding road (with an occasional pause to admire a gush of water or a splash of green)...

DSC05718 - Version 2 the next great sight – the Quinta da Regaleira – a summer residence of the Monteiro family, built in the neo-manueline style toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Richly decorated. I don’t know how else to describe it. Beyond extravagant.

as viewed from our bedroom window

and now, from close quarters

The entrance fee covers both the gardens and the interiors and we begin with a walk through the gardens. You have to build your nerve up to enter the residence itself.

And it’s not that the gardens bespeak of simplicity. There’s a story of the cosmos linking the vast terraces into one coherent (or incoherent, depending on your inclination) story and I’ll not mention the details except that we have mythology, Dante’s Inferno, mysticism, philosophy – all depicted through passages (including subterranean ones), lakes, grottos, wells – you name it, it’s there.



And I have to say, predictably perhaps, I like the walk. Of course, I’m going to be delighted anytime I can find something blooming in the middle of January.

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And the moss-covered stone, the Cyprus, chestnut, oak, the ferns – so many ferns! – all create an extraordinary green space that is at once overwhelming and soothing.


I do balk at entering a well through a dark underground tunnel (you’re to then climb out of it through the stairs along its side), but Ed can coax me to do strange things at such times and so I manage to overcome my distaste for closed and dark spaces and follow along there too. Groping through the darkness.

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And the manor house? Well, can I leave you with just two photos? One gives a sense of the interior, the other shows off the absurdity of it all (it’s not a mere library – it’s a room imitating a library and it has strips of mirror on the floor so that it looks like you have even more books than the shelves would have it.

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Odd place. Though I suppose fun to sketch. And it does offer nice views onto the hills of Sintra and beyond.

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We leave the manor and now it is early afternoon and the sun has nearly hidden itself behind a gray layer of cloud. I pause for a tea and a cake at the only expensive café in all of Portugal (who knew)...


...and we continue on to the third big sight – the Palace of Pena – again a nineteenth century marvel, built for the royal family of Portugal (the last royal lived there during his brief reign at the beginning of the twentieth century).

The Palace of Pena is perched on a mountain summit and it’s a five kilometer trip up a winding road. We take the city bus. Once there, we hesitate. Explore the palace, or the park? There may not be time for both.

We opt for the park.

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It’s a good call. We do walk up to the palace and poke around its monstrously opulent exterior...


...and then we retreat into the deep forest – Cyprus, sequoia, ginkgo, and the ever lovely camellia. And of course the beautiful ferns and mosses.

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It is a sublime hike from the palace to the next summit of the High Cross and we have the path to ourselves. From the peak...

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...we can look back at the palace...


...and to the ocean – gray now against a gray but not altogether sunless sky.


So this is Sintra. Gaudy, but subdued by nature. Lovely, especially when explored on the outside. Oddly grand, especially from afar.

In the evening we walk down the hill for dinner at a place called (curiously) “the G Spot.” It’s a partnership of three young men – two of them cook, one attends to the tables. They do superb new Portuguese (local, seasonal) foods. Crustacean soup with raviolis, sole over cannelloni, richly chocolate something or other. All delicious!


The walk back up is invigorating. An occasional light will illuminate a house or a courtyard...


...and a street lamp will help you spot the irregularity in the road.


Funny how easy it is to get used to it all – the constant up and down, the rough surface, the dark night.