A Land of Fairytales

A land of castles, fairytales, palaces and princesses exists about thirty minutes outside of Lisbon. It’s a township called Sintra. It’s one of Portugal’s biggest and most popular tourist attractions and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Around the 9th century, the Moors built their castle (Castelo dos Mouros) on top of a nearby hill. In the 11th century, a lot of the town was built up by Arab geographer Al-Bacr. Hans Christian Anderson found literary inspiration here and Lord Byron christened the place “glorious Eden”. Later it became the residence of the Portuguese royal family, which attracted many wealthy aristocrats who built huge mansions in the area.

Looking up at the Castle of the Moors

It’s a mystical, romantic and totally extravagant place that you need at least two days, if not more, to see it properly. Not only are there many buildings (palaces, castles, chapels, monasteries) to see and explore but the gardens surrounding them are truly spectacular as well and you could easily spend a whole afternoon exploring just one of the many enchanted forests surrounding each palace.

Day 1 we started at Quinta da Regaleira which basically translates to Regal Farm. Hardly a farm, this place was spectacular, quirky and pure fantasy. It was built just before the turn of the 20th century in Roman, Gothic and Renaissance styles. It is also known as ‘The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire’ named after the first owner António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. The ‘farm’ contains a magnificent palace with beautiful turrets, gargoyles and towers. There are five floors within and there is also a separate chapel.

The Palace of Quinta da Regaleira
View of Quinta da Regaleira from the Castle

But for us, the gardens were the highlight with its mysterious wells, underground grottos, statues, lakes and gazebos. There are four hectares to explore and an underground tunnel system leading to different grottos, the chapel and a tunnel that opened out to the dubiously named ‘Initiation Well’. An immense stone staircase spiralled 32 metres skyward.

The Initiation Well
The Initiation Well

After many hours exploring the park, we went on to the next, to the Palácio de Monserrate (Monserrate Palace).

It was built in the mid-1800’s and they are currently renovating the inside of the palace. Its architecture is reminiscent of a combination of the Taj Mahal and the Duomo in Florence. It’s simply breathtaking. It was once the former private residence of an Englishman, Sir Francis Cook.

Again, the lush gardens were the highlight for us. There are fabulous pathways leading in many different directions to romantic subtropical gardens, lakes and waterfalls. It was a beautiful summers day and we just enjoyed the sunshine and getting lost in the 30 hectares of gardens.

It was an afternoon of fun in the sun but it nearly ended in disaster though as we took a short cut through the Mexican garden full of yuccas, palms and cacti. The tread of my shoes served no purpose as I lost my footing and went so close to tumbling down the decline covered in cacti.

Stay tuned for Day 2 of our visit to Sintra…..