About an hour northwest of Portugal’s capital lies Sintra, a town best described as a picturesque fairy-tale land that transports the average traveler into a inevitable state of bliss. After rushing through the chaos of Lisbon, the peaceful, intimate atmosphere of Sintra acts as a breath of fresh air that lifts the spirits and cleanses the mind. I mean this literally as well as figuratively, as every inhalation while walking through Sintra contains crisp scents of surrounding nature and a refreshing clarity from the nearby Atlantic.
Though I am perfectly content wandering around the quiet streets, admiring the soft, rosy sunsets, and napping in the relaxing garden of Nice Way Hostel, I decide to fit some popular tourist attractions into my four day vacation. While the flowery parks, adorable architecture, and constant presence of little old men playing wooden flutes in the street all contribute to the town’s fairy-tale feel, I find that these touristy spots only enhance the element of fantasy in Sintra.
Castelo Dos Mouros
Sintra’s city center rests under the watchful eye of a prominent fortress known as Castelo Dos Mouros. Built in the 8th Century, this tangible representation of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula stands strong in the form of fierce stone walls, sunny courtyards, and tall towers. From the highest lookout points, the surrounding view is simple and breathtaking. The pale periwinkle sky sinks into a darker blue where the horizon links ocean with atmosphere. The landscape is a rich forest green that slopes up and down into endless hills which occasionally break for little mosaics of white and orange villages.
Unfortunately, a picture cannot capture the powerful essence of history that snakes through the passageways of the castle grounds. The sun’s exposure bleaches out the colors of the gorgeous view, and the rugged harmony of the smooth moss infiltrating the rough crevices of the castle walls does not reflect in photos. But I try nonetheless.
The best part about Castelo Dos Mouros, it does not seem to fight with nature. The stone walls appear to grow out of the mountain itself, emerging upwards and bringing some of the forest along in its ascent. Inside the castle’s spacious courtyards, where everything is composed of stone, tall trees and scruffy bushes grow between gaps in the ancient rock. The surrounding forest embraces the fortress into a symbiotic relationship, where the man-made structure and the natural world share the same space and drift into a beautiful coexistence.
Quinta Da Regaleira
If there is one spot that epitomizes the fairy-tale essence of Sintra, Quinta Da Regaleira is that place. This luxurious estate resides amid a hypnotizing maze of exquisite gardens, tiled fountains, and white marble statues. I feel as though I have entered a sort of pleasant trance as I follow the winding walkways that lead me through flower gardens, into mossy tunnels, over sloping bridges and around glassy lakes.
Every now and then I stumble upon mysterious caves connected to underground tunnels, where inside, damp darkness and thick silence overpower the warm sunlight and subtle hum of outdoor life. These caves add a sense of secrecy to the gardens; every time I enter a cave and follow the twisting paths I never know where in the park I will emerge. The entire park can be covered in under two hours, but the enchantment of the Quinta Da Regaleira lingers in my mind all day.
Offering a more refined sense of modern elegance, Pena Palace is truly a treat for the eyes. At first glance, the building resembles something out of a Dr. Seuss book, with its eccentric design and domination of the three primary colors. The bright yellow archways, rustic red towers, and blue tiles corridors mix captivating artistry with a raw childlike excitement for vibrant hues and interesting shapes. Every kind of pattern imaginable makes an appearance on the palace’s surface, including railings laced with flowers, checkerboard tiles, cone-shaped towers, wavy windowpanes, twisted trimmings resembling ropes and zig-zag figures sitting atop the roofs.
Multiple different styles mingle within the architecture, from Arab-inspired archways and tile designs, to Art-Nouveau shapes, figures, and faces, to layers of Neo-Gothic detail and intricacy, to Romantic style pillars and towers. With every glance at this magnificent palace, something new catches the eye.
The palace’s interior overflows with lavish decoration and remnants of a luxurious lifestyle. All the shimmering chandeliers, Renaissance paintings, velvet furniture, intimidating portraits, elaborate ceilings and spacious terraces reek of royalty and maintain the image of impressive fantasy that the Pena Palace implants in the mind.
Exploring Sintra transports me into a mystical world of indescribable beauty and peace, but simultaneously suspends my existence in a hazy space between reality and a dream. Physically, the town could be the location of any Disney princess movie, or the inspiration for some ancient folktale. The freshness of the air soothes the senses and invites me to lose myself in the intoxicating charm of this heartwarming town. As I awaken from a light sleep in one of the grassy parks, and observe my magical surroundings, I hardly know whether Sintra is real or if I’m still in a dream.