A Short Getaway to Castles, Palaces and Historic Towns

It was only a short getaway for two nights, but we were able to visit castles built by the Moors and the Templar Knights, as well as enjoying a couple of palaces and some lovely historic old towns.

Our base for this short trip was the town of Sintra, located a short distance to the west of Lisbon and 326km (203 miles) south of our home in Vila Nova de Gaia (less than three hours driving time). To lessen the chance of crowds, we waited until the first week of September, when the busy tourist months of July and August had passed. We also scheduled the trip for mid-week, to avoid the weekend trippers. We had intended to do the trip by motorcycle but, as the dates drew nearer, the forecast predicted rain throughout our trip. We resorted to the back-up plan and rented a car for the journey. At only €57 for three days, including supplementary insurance, the car rental was a no-brainer. It would have been significantly more expensive in August. As predicted, it rained heavily on our drive down to Sintra!

Hotel Sintra Jardim

We checked into the Hotel Sintra Jardim for two nights. The hotel retains the character and feel of its former identity as a large private manor house. It is surrounded by private gardens that include a large swimming pool and has an enclosed courtyard for private parking for guests. It served as a pleasant base for our stay.

As soon as we had checked into the hotel, we wasted no time in heading out to explore the first location on our list – Castelo dos Mouros (the Moorish Castle). As the castle cannot be accessed by private vehicles, we set out on foot to walk up the hill to the castle. As we followed the steep cobbled lanes, we came across some other historic buildings.

12th Century Churches

A short distance from our hotel is the Church of Santa Maria, that was founded in the 12th century by Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques. It was originally a small Romanesque church but the larger Gothic-style church was built in the 13th century. It was renovated over the centuries, particularly after suffering damage from the 1755 earthquake. The church’s tower was built after 1755 but it contains a 15th century bell (1468) with Gothic inscriptions. The church is considered to be the primary Gothic building in Sintra and has been listed as a national monument since 1922.

A few yards beyond the church is a small pink house that bears a plaque, recognising that famed Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson once stayed there. The author had visited the home of his friend, José O’Neill, in 1866.

Moving further uphill, we came across a building that was once the Church of São Miguel. Like its nearby sister church, it was built by King Afonso Henriques, after he conquered Sintra and the castle from the Moors in 1147. The church collapsed during the 1755 earthquake, leaving only the apse standing. It was left in ruins until the 19th century, when D. Fernando II transformed the apse of the church into a residence, possibly to be closer to the Pena Palace during its construction.

As we got closer to the castle, we enjoyed views over Sintra below, including the National Palace of Sintra.

Castelo dos Mouros (the Moorish Castle)

We reached the second circle of walls, indicating that we were getting closer to the castle. These outer walls were built to offer some security and protection for the populations that settled on the hillsides below the castle, as well as their animals and crops. The Muslims who inhabited the castle area settled on the most sheltered hillside, where the remains of houses, an oven and silos have been found. After the conquest by King Afonso Henriques, this quarter was demolished and replaced with a Christian cemetery, with graves containing more than one person. Some of the excavated areas are now displayed under protective glass panels. Numerous articles dating back to the Neolithic period have been found in this area, the most outstanding being a complete vase from the 5th century BC.

As we reached the main wall of the castle, an information board showed which parts of the wall remain from 12th century construction, and which parts were reconstructed in later periods. It was interesting to see that a large percentage of the wall dates back to the earlier construction period.

The Moors built the castle in the 8th and 9th centuries, during their conquest of the Iberian Peninsular. In 1147, the Moors surrendered the castle to Christian forces representing King Afonso Henriques. Time took its toll on the castle and it was in ruins by the early 19th century. But, from 1840, King Ferdinand II commenced a series of renovations. It is now classified as a National Monument and is part of the Sintra UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It is an interesting site to visit, and is quite different to most castles. The defensive walls stretch along 450 metres of the cliff, overlooking the town and providing commanding views over the entire area. Of course, we walked the entire length of the wall.

Having enjoyed our visit to the castle, we walked down off the hillside to the historical old town, taking the steep dirt Vila Sassetti hiking trail. Between leaving the hotel and reaching the old town, we had walked for over two hours, covered over 5km distance, and saw an elevation gain of 237 metres.

National Palace of Sintra

The hiking trail took us to the old town, close to the National Palace. We considered going in for a visit but decided against it and, instead, just walked around the palace gardens, which are not subject to an admission fee. One factor that contributed to our decision was the fact that the palace has a very strict prohibition on taking photographs inside. From the palace gardens, we could see the castle looming above the town.

Historic Old Town of Sintra

We enjoyed wandering through the colourful lanes of the old town and found an outdoor table at one of the cafes, where we enjoyed a drink and a snack. Then it was on to another restaurant for dinner, whilst being serenaded by a couple of buskers. A pleasant, relaxing end to the day.

Quinta da Regaleira

After breakfast on our second day, we drove out to visit the Quinta da Regaleira and opted to join a 90-minute guided tour in English, that was scheduled to commence at 11.00am. The cost wasn’t much more than the regular admission price and it would ensure that we got to see all of the points of interest in the sprawling grounds. With only seven people in our tour group, there was no crowding involved (the maximum group size is ten).

Designed and built in the late 1800s, the quinta reflects the sensibility and cultural, philosophical and scientific interests of the principal owner, António Augusto de Carvalho Monteiro (1848-1920), together with the skills of the Italian architect and scenographer Luigi Manini (1848-1936). The combination of these two personalities resulted in an eclectic-revivalist architectural ensemble, with a particular focus on the Manueline, Renaissance, Medieval and Classical styles. Elements of the design reflect Carvalho Monteiro’s fascination with the Knights Templar and Freemasonry. A visit is billed as being a journey into an imaginary universe of symbolism and metaphor. The Sintra Town Council acquired the property in 1997 and opened it to the public in 1998.

One of the most notable features is the Initiation Well, which has been described as an inverted underground tower. It has a 27-metre spiral staircase that winds around the outside of the ‘well’, with a series of openings, or windows, all the way down. The number of steps featured in the well is said to be connected to Tarot mysticism. Other design elements are believed to have been influenced by Freemason and Templar rituals. Visitors enter the well at the top and make their way down to the bottom, from where they exit along tunnels. Our guide informed us that the journey is meant to symbolise movement from one realm to another and being reborn. It is certainly an intriguing structure that is worth visiting.

After emerging from the bottom of the well, our tour continued, visiting several interesting structures along the way.

The grand finale of the tour was a visit to the impressive Regaleira Palace, with its octagonal tower, pinnacles and gargoyles. An added benefit of being on a guided tour is that we didn’t have to wait in line to enter the palace. Our group was able to by-pass the queue and enter without delay. The palace has a ground floor, three upper floors and a basement. However, the upper floors are currently being renovated and were not included in the tour.

Park and National Palace of Pena

At the conclusion of the tour, we ate lunch at an outdoor cafe inside the Quinta, before taking the car back to the hotel. Our next visit would be to the Pena Palace, but access isn’t permitted for private vehicles. The Palace shares the same access road as the Moorish Castle, as it is located on an adjacent hill. Visitors can reach the Palace via bus, taxi, Uber or one of the many three-wheeled tuk-tuks that service the area.

We decided to call for an Uber, as the trip would only cost €4. However, we ended up waiting for over 20 minutes for a car to arrive, because the first three drivers who accepted the job subsequently dropped out before arriving. Whilst we were waiting, several buses passed by and a number of tuk-tuks stopped to offer us a ride (at €5 per person, so more than double the cost of an Uber for the two of us). The fourth Uber driver finally arrived and delivered us to the gate of the Pena Palace.

There are two levels of admission tickets for the palace. The more expensive ticket gives access to the grounds, the terraces and the interior of the palace. The cheaper ticket eliminates the inside of the palace, and that is the option that we chose.

The Park and National Palace of Pena is Sintra’s pre-eminent attraction. This brightly coloured palace stands out against the verdant backdrop of the hill upon which it sits. The history of this magical site reaches back to the 12th century, a point in time when there was a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena there. At the same location, King Manuel I ordered the construction of a monastery, the Royal Monastery of Our Lady of Pena. The earthquake which struck Lisbon in 1755 left the monastery almost entirely in ruins. However, even while stricken, the Monastery remained active and it would only be abandoned in 1834.

Two years later, in 1836, Queen Maria II married Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a prince in this noble household and nephew of the ruling Duke of Coburg, Ernest I and King Leopold I of Belgium. Ferdinand II was one of the most cultured men of 19th century Portugal. A polyglot, he spoke German, Hungarian, French, English, Spanish, Italian and, of course, Portuguese. In his childhood, the then Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha received a thorough education in which the arts, especially music and drawing, played fundamental roles. During his entire life, he maintained a deep connection with the arts, whether as an artist, collector or sponsor and became known nationally as the King-Artist.

Shortly after his arrival in Portugal, Ferdinand fell for Sintra and, using his own personal fortune, acquired the Monastery of Saint Jerome, then in ruins, as well as all the lands surrounding the property. This sixteenth century monastery held an enormous degree of fascination for the king, stemming both from his Germanic education and the romantic notions prevailing at the time, that attracted him to the hills and the aesthetic value of the ruins. The original project was simply to restore the building as the summer residence for the royal family, but his enthusiasm led him to opt for the construction of a palace. The building is circled by other architectural structures, such as the parapet paths, the lookout towers, an access tunnel and even its own drawbridge. The palace incorporates architectural references displaying Manueline and Moorish influences that together produce a surprising scenario recollecting “a thousand and one nights.”

The brightly coloured palace certainly makes a striking impression from afar, although on closer inspection, the painted surfaces are somewhat shabby in appearance. But the palace has some wonderful, intricate architectural features and it is very photogenic. I particularly enjoyed a large Moorish gate that features tiles with Moor knights in relief. Another elaborate entrance gate features a small drawbridge. The facade of one building features twin towers aside an entrance tunnel, with a finely decorated window above the arch. The entire facade is decorated with azulejo tiles.

The church from the original 16th century monastery remains as the palace chapel. Its walls were completely lined with polychrome tiles in the 17th century. The chapel features an altarpiece made of alabaster and black Mess-Martins limestone that was completed between 1528-1532 by French sculptor Nicholas Chanterenne. The stained glass windows were commissioned by King Ferdinand II in 1840, from the Kellner workshop in Nuremberg. The panels allude to the founding of the Monastery of Pena in 1503. The bottom panels feature King Manuel I and Vasco da Gama, with the Belem Tower in the background. Above those, the panels feature ‘Our Lady’ (Virgin Mary) and St. George. The smaller panels at the top feature an armillary sphere, the Cross of the Order of Christ and the coat of arms of Ferdinand II.

Unfortunately, rain set in whilst we were visiting the palace, making it impractical to try to visit the extensive gardens, so we shortened our visit. But not before walking around the walls of the palace and enjoying the view across to the nearby castle. To avoid a long wait in the rain, we hopped into a waiting tuk-tuk for the short ride back to the hotel.

Village of Ericeira

The tuk-tuk got us back to the hotel mid-afternoon. Rather than waste an afternoon sitting around our hotel, we took an impromptu drive to visit the traditional fishing village of Ericeira (about 45 minutes north-west of Sintra). Already a popular summer beach resort for Portuguese residents, it has also more recently become popular with the surfing community. We enjoyed wandering through the narrow lanes, admiring the white and blue homes that line them. We enjoyed dinner in Ericeira, before returning to Sintra for our second and final night there.

The following day, we checked out of the hotel and began our journey home. Rather than drive directly home, we opted to make a couple of stops along the way, so that we could enjoy a couple more historical locations.

Óbidos

Our first stop was to visit the medieval town of Óbidos. The town had already been settled prior to the Romans arriving in the Iberian Peninsular, but the town prospered after it became part of the estate of Queen Isabel in the 13th century. The historic old town is dominated by the castle and encircled by its protective walls. The narrow, cobbled roads and painted white houses create a lovely ambiance. We parked outside the castle walls and enjoyed wandering around the lanes, before having lunch at one of the outdoor restaurants.

The old town also features some historical churches and chapels. The Igreja de Sao Tiago (Church of Santiago) was built in 1186, by order of King Sancho I. It was damaged by the earthquake of 1531 and then destroyed by the earthquake of 1755. Rebuilding commenced in 1765 and took seven years to complete. In 1989, the church was loaned to the Town Council to be adapted for cultural uses. Today it functions as a book store.

Saint Mary’s Church (Our Lady of the Assumption) is listed as a national monument and features Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque architecture. It is believed to have been built in the 12th century and benefitted from additional construction in the 16th and 17th centuries. The church holds a Renaissance tomb for Joao de Noronha and Isabel de Sousa, dating from 1525. The altarpiece of Saint Catherine’s Chapel dates to 1661 and the azulejo tiles were installed in 1696. The ceilings are nicely painted and there are several oil paintings displayed around the interior of the church.

Saint Peter’s Parish Church features Baroque and Neoclassical architecture and was built in the 13th century. It was rebuilt in the 16th century and again after the 1755 earthquake. It features a gilt, carved Baroque altarpiece from the 17th-18th centuries.

The Town Gate and its Chapel-Oratory of Our Lady of Piety (patron saint of the town) is also listed as a national monument. The gate itself is believed to date to around 1376, during the reign of King Fernando. The chapel-oratory was added inside the gate in the 17th century. The blue and white tiles were added circa 1740-1750 and depict allegorical motifs from the Passion of Christ.

Convento de Cristo in Tomar

After Óbidos, we drove for another hour or so, to reach the town of Tomar. Our destination there was the Convento de Cristo, located on a hill above the town. The castle and convent were founded there in 1160 by D. Gualdim Pais, as the headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar. In doing so, the castle absorbed parts of a Muslim settlement that dated from the 9th – 12th centuries.

When the Order of the Knights Templar was disbanded in 1319, the castle was transferred to the Portuguese Order of Christ, becoming its headquarters from 1357. The Templars had been persecuted in France by King Philip IV and Pope Clement V, concluding with the burning at the stake of the last Templar Master, Jacques de Molay, in 1314. But the Portuguese King D. Dinis managed to retain the Templars and their properties in Portugal, by establishing the new Order of Christ.

New buildings were erected on the site in the 16th century by King Manuel and King Joao III. The Convent is a national monument and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a lovely old castle and convent that is well worth a visit.

The fortified structure shows Middle Eastern features that were new to Portugal at the time. These include an alambor – an inclined reinforcement built at the bottom of the walls. The sloping feature prevented siege engines from getting close to the walls, as well as deflecting projectiles.

Once inside the defensive walls, the stark, looming structure of the convent comes into view.

The most outstanding feature of the building is the Charola (or rotunda), whose first (Romanesque) phase of construction occurred between 1160-1190, with a second (Gothic) phase taking place between 1230-1250. The Charola also features an important set of 16th century paintings and sculptures. It is understood to have served as a private chapel for the Knights Templar. Unfortunately, the lighting in this section is dim (and flash photography is not permitted), so my photographs do not do justice to this impressive room.

The west facade of the Convent Church features a Manueline window that was executed between 1510-1513. It is a notable example of the late Gothic ‘Manueline’ style with an emphasis on hyper-realistic naturalist motifs.

The small Chapel of Antonio Portocarreiro was built in 1626. It features 17th century wall panels in ‘diamond-tip’ and ‘carpet’ patterned azulejo tiles. There are also eleven early-18th century panels with scenes from the life of Mary and Christ.

There are several cloisters throughout the convent, on different levels. One of them has a well that would have drawn water from a cistern below ground. Visitors can now enter the (empty) cistern.

After an enjoyable visit to the convent, we drove the final two hours to get home. We had been able to experience some interesting and varied historical locations in what was an enjoyable short getaway.

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