Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

We’re standing on a mountaintop west of Portugal. We’ve lucked out. It’s one of those perfect days when the blue sky extends all the way to the horizon.

To get here, we drove west from Lisbon to Sintra, parked the car, walked partially up the hill, stopped to think about it, hired a mototaxi, arrived at the ticket booth of Pena Palace and climbed the final path to the entrance. This is not an easy place to get to but no good view comes without a cost.

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

According to the experts, Pena Palace is an example of Romanticism in architecture. It’s definitely romantic and inspires visions of Rapunzel unfurling her hair from the turrets. With its fanciful spires and crenellations, it looks more like a castle than a palace to me. But either way, Pena Palace is a Unesco World Heritage Site that was built as a chapel, developed into a monastery in the late 1400s, destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 and rebuilt in the mid-1800s by King Ferdinand as a residence for Portugal’s royal family. It became a national landmark in the early 1900s.

The palace’s madder and yellow exterior projects happiness but I imagine all the history, all the love and fear, all the sunny days and terrible storms, all the glorious moments and sad departures that have happened at this mountain monument throughout the last 600 years.

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

The interior tells less of a fairy tale and more of a biography. Weathered tiles cover the interior courtyard and residential spaces display the furnishings of the day. The dining room drips with character and I imagine a royal dinner for twelve or a candlelight tryst between two lovers with Madeira wine and the silence of the stone walls. The kitchen, bright with sunlight and an enviable range of copper cookware, feels almost luxurious with its farmhouse style and arched ceiling. But there’s no refrigerator, or dishwasher, or even running water back in the day.

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

I remind myself to mind the gaps here at Pena Palace. The battlements are thick but plenty of precarious viewpoints will be death drops for anyone who gets carried away with photography or a quest for the perfect selfie.

Mythical Triton at Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Mythical Triton at Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

And then there’s this guy — a mythical Triton on the front of the palace. I’m not sure what he’s doing in that clam shell but he’s eternally posed and begs for a photo.

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

We mototaxi back down the hill and find some lunch in the lovely town of Sintra. We tuck around the back of Lawrence’s Restaurant and have the balcony to ourselves.

After lunch we debate about driving back up the hill to see Castelo dos Mouros, the Moorish Castle. Can it really be that spectacular after seeing such an overwhelming example of Romanticist architecture? We drive up the hill, park the car and follow the path.

There are no pretty colors or spires, just old stone walls and staircases following the contours of the mountain. Archaeological evidence reveals this site was occupied as long ago as 5,000 B.C. The castle we see today was built by the Moors in the 8th or 9th century. It’s far less comfortable than Pena Palace but just as strategically positioned.

The Castle Keep, Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Castle Keep, Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The entire castle is open for exploring so after walking through the entry we turn right and climb up to the Castle Keep. Much like Pena Palace, Castelo dos Mouros requires careful steps along the narrow wall-walks and parapets throughout the site. High on the hill, the Castle Keep was one of the prime places to watch over the land for approaching invaders.

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

We descend the north side of the castle and climb the south side to the Royal Tower. The staircase is like a ribbon of stone up the mountain and turning around to see the view is truly breathtaking. The village of Sintra sits directly below us.

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Looking south we see a complete view of Pena Palace that was impossible to see when we were standing there looking up at it. From here it looks proud and less of a caricature as it catches the thin fog that’s drifting around the mountain.

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

These sites are so close to each other yet they have such different stories to tell. I can’t help but wonder, was there ever castle envy as the shiny new Pena Palace took form in the 1800s while Castelo dos Mouros looked on with its raw fortitude? We’ll never know.

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

17 comments

  1. I’ve read about Pena Palace before, but I didn’t know there’s an impressive 8th- or 9th-century castle not too far from it. In spite of the lack of embellishments at Castelo dos Mouros, but its location and strategic importance in the past really make it special. The view of Sintra from the castle is absolutely enthralling!

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    1. Hey Bama! Isn’t it kind of fascinating that these two castles are so close to each other? Together they really provide a unique historical context for the area. And yes, that view is to die for. Feels like the top of the world. Thanks for your sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Such wonderful photographs Kelly. They have convinced me we must get to Portugal if only to see *both* castles. Pena is a must of course – exactly my kind of place, but as your telling, and photos, of the Moorish Castle unfolded I realised it is equally compelling.
    Alison

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    1. Thanks, Alison! I had the same initial reaction — as we walked up to it, I expected that the Moorish castle was going to pale in comparison to the fancy palace. But the way that old stone wall snakes up the mountain and the feeling you get when you top those steps is just magnificent, and incomparable. Both castles are special but in very different ways. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I honestly think seeing both castles made each one more interesting! Sometimes I feel castled- and palaced-out, but these two counterpoints up there above Sintra on a perfect day were pretty spectacular, especially seen in relation to each other! I wonder if we would have done both … I can hear my husband grumbling about one, not to mention two, of these visits in one day! Loved the triton’s impolite pose (haha) and those scenes looking down on the town – wow!

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  4. ‘Fanciful’ is the word I would use to describe Pena Palace too 🙂 We went to Sintra on a typically rushed escorted tour as an add on to a Spain itinerary many years ago. We have more or less decided to skip it this time. Your fantastic photos have me rethinking my decision.

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    1. Hey Madhu! I’ve been off the grid for a week or so. Thanks for your comment! So many places to see in Portugal, I don’t blame you for skipping Pena Palace the second time! Can’t wait to read about your discoveries.

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