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Palaces in Sintra
While it had been hot and sunny on the day of our arrival in Sintra, Portugal, it was foggy and pretty chilly the next day. We were really excited to visit Sintra's palaces, though, and so we set out to our first destination of the day: Castelo dos Mouros or the Moorish castle, an Arab construction dating back to the 8th century.
Castelo dos Mouros: a bit of history
The Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish Castle), a popular tourist attraction situated atop the two peaks of the Serra de Sintra, offers a fantastic view of Sintra. It was classified as a National Monument in 1910, and together with the Serra de Sintra, gained the recognition of UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 1995.
Considered the oldest structure in the city, the castle was built in the 9th century by the North African Moors as a fortress against invaders and to control all land routes linking Lisbon to Sintra, Cascais and Mafra. It was strategically located on a mountaintop overlooking the Tagus River. Sintra’s valued and protected resource at that time was its rich agricultural lands.
King Alfonso VI of Castile conquered the castle in 1093 but because of his limited forces, the Moors regained control of the castle.
When Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, conquered Lisbon in 1147, the Moors surrendered the castle to him. He had the Church of St. Peter of Canaferrim built to further establish the reign of Christianity.
The castle’s glory years were during the first and second Christian crusades. King Sancho I had the castle reconstructed during his reign. In 1375, King Ferdinand I had the castle rebuilt.
Castelo dos Mouros eventually lost its significance as a military fortress in the years that passed. Most of its inhabitants started moving to the old village of Sintra and took residence there. A small Jewish community occupied the place for a time but were later expelled by Manuel I and the castle became totally abandoned.
A major earthquake hit Lisbon in 1775 that caused extensive damage to the church and turned the fortress into ruins. In 1839, King Ferdinand II had the castle restored—he ordered repairs on its walls and had access roads built. The castle then became one of the highlights of Pena Palace’s gardens.
At present, what’s left of the old church are its two Romanesque entryways, traces of fresco paintings near the altar and several tombs from the medieval graveyard.
In 2009, a project called “Conquering the Castle” was launched to restore the Moorish Castle. This was done in partnership with the Faculty of Social and Human Sciences at the Nova University of Lisbon and the Centre of Human and Social Sciences of Madrid.
This undertaking started with preparatory studies that included archaeological research and excavations especially in the tombs, the Old Stables, the Arms Square, the perimeter of the water cistern and the Keep. Artefacts unearthed and other discoveries made during the excavations gave the researchers a better understanding of the battlement’s rich history over the centuries.
And we went to check them out!
Visiting Castelo dos Mouros
We had entered the address for the Moorish castle in our GPS to get there, but you can just as easily follow the signs from the center of Sintra. I don't recommend going on foot. Sintra is really hilly and you'll lose too much time climbing up to the Moorish castle. On top of that there are no sidewalks and it's pretty dangerous walking up to the Moorish castle with buses and cars passing you on the winding streets.
When you enter the domain of the Castelo dos Mouros you have two options: or you turn left and go immediately to the castle ruins, or you walk downhill to hike the woods. Because we saw that downhill was really downhill and we realized that we'd have to get back up there to visit the castle, we didn't do the hike. Instead, we immediately went for the ruins.
And this is where I realized the enormous advantage of the foggy weather. You see, Castelo dos Mouros is located on top of a high hill and offers great sights over Sintra. You can walk the castle's walls and look into the abyss below.
The foggy weather prevented that, however. A real shame as we couldn't see the view, but so good for someone with a terrible fear of heights like me. I'm sure I wouldn't have walked the walls if I could've seen just how high up we were.
The fog did create a special atmosphere…
… and just asked for crazy photos…
When I was planning our stay in Sintra, Pena Palace was the palace I was most looking forward to visiting. I'd seen such beautiful photos of the colorful castle that I was convinced I'd be in total awe when seeing it myself. So after we'd seen the Castelo dos Mouros, we drove up to Pena Palace, full of expectations.
The history of Pena Palace
The Pena Palace, also known as “The Feather Palace”, is world-famous for its 19th-century Romantic architecture. It used to be the Hieronymite monastery of Our Lady of Pena built by King Manuel in 1511 during the Middle Ages. When the religious orders were suppressed in Portugal, it was eventually abandoned and partly damaged by a strong earthquake in 1755. The chapel made of marble and the monastery’s strong foundation was believed to miraculously withstand the natural calamity.
Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who later became King Ferdinand II, had the ruins of the former monastery reconstructed in 1838. He commissioned German Architect Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege to build and design the palace as a gift to his wife, Queen Maria II of Portugal. (Unfortunately, the queen died in 1853 so the couple never lived in the palace.)
Inspired by the castles of Bavaria, the king himself suggested to incorporate Islamic and Medieval elements in the design, which are evident in its vault arches and the main façade’s ornate window. The old monastery forms the northern part of the palace, also known as the “Old Palace”, which also features a clock tower and the Queen’s terrace—a wide terrace with a cannon and a sundial.
Its other sections are the foundations located at the lowest part of the building, the Arches Yard, and the cathedral style “New Palace” with its palatial zones and cylindrical bastions. The entrance to the inner yard features a peculiar sculpture of a newt—half-man, half-fish, with its hair turning into vine branches. This represents the creation of the world from four elements: fire, water, sky and ground.
The king also ordered to have romantic gardens with winding paths, pavilions and stone benches built in the 270-acre surrounding area of the palace. He had more than 500 species of trees and plants from different parts of the world planted in what is now known as the Pena Park.
Located at the park’s western end is the Chalet of the Countess of Edla, also known as the House of Indulgence or Casa do Regalo. It was built to serve as a private summer abode for King Ferdinand II and his second wife, Elise Hensler, the Countess of Edla. The countess inherited the estate after the king’s death.
In 1889, the palace was acquired by the Portuguese State. Queen Amélie of Orléans was the last to live in the estate until the Republican Revolution took over the castle in 1910 and the queen left the country in exile. The palace was then declared a national monument and turned into a museum.
In 1994, the palace was restored and the exteriors repainted with its original colors—pink for the Old Palace and ochre for the New Palace.
Pena Palace: a bit of a disappointment
I know it's never good to expect too much of anything, but for me Pena Palace was kind of a disappointment. I don't think that was entirely the palace's fault, though. Because of the foggy weather the yellow, purple, orange and pink of the palace didn't really come to justice.
On top of that, it was pretty crowded so we didn't really get to chance to just take a break somewhere and admire the architecture. But then on the flipside, I did feel as if the castle could use a good scrub to bring it colors out more vividly.
What I did like was that there was quite a lot to see inside the castle as well, which gave us an idea of how people used to live here. Plus, Pena Palace's large park was nice to walk in. There are different trails you can follow, all with interesting sights along them, like a huge cross, chapels and lakes.
Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira: just full of surprises
I loved absolutely everything about Quinta da Regaleira, except for the moment when I discovered we'd seen everything and our visit was over. This place is just so full of surprises that you'll quickly feel like a child again. There are winding staircases, hidden paths and even underground caves (bring a flashlight!). No kidding!
Oh and you could see the Castelo dos Mouros from the garden:
A great plus for me was the excellent exhibition put up in the Main House, explaining the construction of the building and the ideas behind it.
But I had just as much fun outside, wandering through the garden, discovering secret pathways and finding the famous well consisting out of nine levers that are supposed to symbolize the nine circles of hell, nine sections of purgatory and nine skies of paradise out of Dante's “Divine Comedy”.
There's also a smaller well called the “Unfinished Well”. It consists of straight staircases connecting the circular floors to each other. The spacing of the stair’s landings and the number of steps are also believed to be influenced by Masonic dogma.
The wells lead to a complex tunnel system running the entire length of the gardens and were are also called the “Initiation Wells” by those who believe that these were used for the initiation rites for the Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar were medieval knights during the Crusades but their order was dissolved in 1312 by Pope Clement V. However, in the 18th century, the Freemasons revived the symbols and traditions of the Knights Templar. A compass set upon a Knights Templar cross is actually found at the bottom of the well, which was also Carvalho Monteiro’s coat of arms. Some consider this as proof that Monteiro was a Freemason who also believed in Rosicrucianism.
About Quinta da Regaleira
The enchanting Quinta da Regaleira is a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated in the Old Quarter of Sintra. It was previously owned by Viscondessa da Regaleira, then it was bought by António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, a Brazilian coffee magnate also known as ‘Monteiro dos Milhões' (‘Moneybags Monteiro') because of his wealth.
Monteiro commissioned Italian architect Luigi Manini to design the vast four-hectare estate. Manini’s design incorporated Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline architectural styles. Construction started in 1904 towards the end of the reign of the Portuguese monarchy and was completed in 1910.
After the death of Carvalho Monteiro, Waldemar d’Orey acquired the estate and it stayed within his family until 1987 before it was bought by a Japanese business for private events. In 1997, the Sintra local government reclaimed the estate and made it open to the public in 1998.
Quinta da Regaleira has an elaborate façade designed with pinnacles, carved gargoyles, gothic turrets and other ornate elements. The main villa’s interior consists of five floors. Also found within the estate is a chapel. Both the villa and the chapel are intricately decorated with frescoes, wall stuccoes and stained glass windows.
Perhaps the main highlight in this estate is what is found behind the villa—intricate gardens filled with fountains, statues, grottoes, caves, ponds—and mystery. The gardens of Quinta da Regaleira are not just known for its beauty, but also for the hidden symbolisms that literally lie beneath the grounds. The mystical garden’s design is said to have references to the Knights Templar, the Masons and the dark alchemy.
I absolutely loved Quinta da Regaleira and if you're visiting Sintra with kids, I think this is the place to bring them.
The last palace we visited in Sintra, Portugal was Monserrate. Although the palace itself is definitely worth a visit, I especially liked the park of Monserrate, with its plants and trees from all over the world.
We were offered complimentary tickets to the Sintra palaces by the Camara Municipal de Sintra. All opinions expressed are, as always, my own.