Sintra: A Tale of Two Castles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.