Sparkling Sintra

Top Stories

Sparkling Sintra

An old world charm, combined with nature's bounty, makes this portuguese town a fascinating destination

By Neeta Lal

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Thu 12 Jan 2017, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Sat 14 Jan 2017, 3:06 PM

A 45-minute bus ride from Lisbon on the butter-smooth IC19 highway brings us to the UNESCO world heritage town of Sintra. A fairytale landscape of wooded hills, turreted castles and romantic ruins, the town seems a world away from the heat and hubbub of the Portuguese capital. The glistening blue Atlantic coast opens expansively before us as we near the town fringed by rugged cliffs, crashing waves and sandy beaches, and then veers into the view of Sintra rising from the majestic Serra Mountains, which is studded with honey-hued villas, churches and quirky architecture.
Cosseted along Portugal's western coastline, Sintra's ocean-cooled climes enticed the Portuguese royalty in the medieval ages to spend their summers here. They got so enamoured with the region that they ended up building a putative architectural legacy here - exquisite palaces, extravagant residences, decorative gardens - that endures to this day. The town also teems with larger-than-life museums, art galleries and adventure trails entrenched amid pine-scented hills. For a town of its size, Sintra punches far above its weight, attracting over two million tourists in 2015, nearly as much as its population.
We flag off our city tour by nipping up to the Moorish-meets-Manueline-style Sintra National Palace, its twin chimneys scraping the sky. Goggle-eyed, we tour through the palace's Arabesque courtyards admiring its elegant courtrooms inlaid with beautiful 15th- and 16th-century ceramic tiles. The ceilings - displaying paintings of gold-collared swans, magpies, court scenes, gossipy ladies - are breathtaking in detail.
The Castle of the Moors seems to pop out of a story book. Looming at over 1,300 feet, its colourful flags add a dash of colour to its stony ramparts. "The building dates back to the Moorish era circa 12th century," our guide Alessandro informs as we 'ooh' and 'aah' over the structure, while soaking in a panoramic sweep of Sintra from the top. Below us glistens the Atlantic, regal and restive.
Pena Palace rises from a densely wooded peak and is Sintra's standout monument. The vividly painted 19th century residence occupies one of the town's highest points amid pine forests. There are decorative towers, battlements and statues of mythological creatures here. The interiors have been retained to how they appeared in 1910, when the Portuguese nobility fled the country during the revolution. Each room whispers the story of royal intrigues, unrequited love and enchanting history. "The palace was lived in till the fall of the monarchy in 1910. The Portuguese queen Amelia was so in love with the palace that she spent her last night in Portugal in the castle before leaving for her exile," explains Alessandro.
To take a break from history, we amble across to the Regal Palace and Gardens. Adrenaline junkies can take a trip down an 'initiation well' here, a tower that sinks some 27 metres into the earth's womb.
After following labyrinthine tunnels winding their way down, one enters a spiral well with the walls towering above, giving us the illusion that the earth has just opened up and swallowed us inside!
We eschew the crazy excursion and head instead to experience the vibe of a place that has resisted gentrification - the historic town centre. Lined with cobbled streets hosting traditional shops and cafés, the atmosphere here transports us back to the medieval ages.
The area bustles with people. We rifle through the racks of a few souvenir shops and pick up a few trinkets - the ubiquitous and irresistible Portuguese insignia - the rooster, decorative tiles, colourful pendants and a straw hat. Sintra's cuisine is, unsurprisingly, ocean-centric, showcasing fresh seafood and other fruits of the ocean cooked simply in olive oil. There's cod from the Atlantic, full-bodied grape, and platters of fish so fresh they could have jumped from the water straight onto your plate. This is the stuff that's sure to have aficionados of the good life singing with approval.
Post a meal at a seaside café, we head out to the beach to inhale the salt-infused Atlantic air. Fishermen are pushing their boats out to sea while a kayak returns to the beach, reinforcing the local connect for, of and to the sea. As we stand rooted on the sands, the ocean mist spraying our faces, the moment seems no less than surreal.

More news from