I am just a Portuguese girl, exploring my own country as a tourist. And feeling great about it.
Sintra mountains are the peaceful guardian of Lisbon’s constant chaos, standing right next to it. For those of you who are visiting Lisbon, it is definitely worth it to take one or two days to explore this contrasting reality.
Inside of the picturesque city of Sintra, the Pena Park opens the doors to a very unique aura of magic. Passing the gates, it is easy to quickly sense the humid silence of this enchanted forest, drawn with fabulous lines. I found myself drinking from the magical sensation airborne, daydreaming about a kingdom of princes and princesses, and walking around while expecting a dragon blinking from each corner or a hobbit to run out from the small doors disposed around the park.
In the real world though – the one happening outside of my head-, you can actually get a chance to see a few rare species of animals and plants. Plus, if you are strong enough to climb the beautiful hill to the top, you will feel an unspeakable sense of victory, finding one of the most beautiful palaces in Portuguese history.
My suggestion is: dive into it and let the magic into you.
The route to find the top
If you find yourself somehow trusting my words and coming here, you will certainly be able to admire the graceful shapes of the greenery surrounding, playing an interesting game of shadows. Somewhere in between the small doors and benches sprinkling the corners, the background gains an interesting and even mystical life.
Instead of following the advisable route, we chose to climb the hill through the Valley of the Lakes till the two highest points: the ‘Cruz Alta’ (meaning High Cross) and the hill right next to it. It’s probably more inclined than the original road, but we didn’t regret at all since all the creative details of the garden gave us a lot more energy for the trail.
In the end, it totally worth the effort because the view up there is outstanding, with a clear vision to the surrounding park, to the humble city, and even to the sea, peacefully displayed in the horizon. Of course, the privileged look to Pena Palace and the Mouros Castle is also what makes it so admirable.
I was surprised to notice that I preferred the second highest hill over the Cruz Alta, though, and so did my companions. The smaller viewpoint kind of made it more personal, cheering us for the climbing effort. We regret not to take a small picknick with us, to celebrate the perfect view. (Please, please, if you steal this dream of mine, don’t let any garbage back. Let’s take care of mother nature!).
Anyway, from there to the palace is just 1 Km to go and a way down. At that point, an all-new adventure begins.
It takes probably 3 hours to explore that part of the garden and the exterior of the palace. However, the park is really big, with a lot more interesting features then those I was able to explore. And the palace is absolutely gorgeous with a very interesting history behind. We will go there next.
A true story of princes and princesses
I usually skip the boring history facts. But some stories are worth to be told.
We are in 1836. The entire world is in a process of change, and Portugal is no exception.
The monarchy runs the country with a soft hand, desperately trying to find a way to coexist with the wild and firm liberal ideas rising each day. They come from all over the world in a form of newspapers, novels or poetry. Probably the Romanticism was the only period in which the arts gained an exceptional representation around the country. We have never been very strong about our national artistic expressions, not even nowadays. A Portuguese artist is a poor man, everyone knows that.
Anyways, back to 1836, Fernando was a lucky man. He traveled all the way from German Baviera (not in a plane as you can imagine), to marry our widowed queen Maria, the second, later becoming Fernando, the second, himself. The ceremony occurred as soon as he got to Lisbon, and everything went exactly as planned. Yes, he was lucky, not only for marrying our royal figure, but mostly for arriving in an artsy time.
You see, Fernando was a man with an artsy soul. He was raised between the Austrian-German aristocracy, two countries with a powerful artistic history. It always reminds me of my very first trip. I was a 6-year-happy-child in the streets of Vienna. At the time I visited the palace of Elizabeth of Austria, where you can get a really vivid idea of what life back then looked like. I always picture a living room where princesses were sitten around chatting in their beautiful dresses doing embroidery, while children around them, also dressed and behaving impeccably, receive a straight and diversified education, listening to opera, analyzing paintings, doing gymnastics and so on.
Well, that’s where Fernando came from. He was not interested in ruling the country, or even in helping his wife doing so. Actually, during his life, he denied invitations to assume two very important thrones: the Greek and the Spanish ones. That was not his thing. In fact, he didn’t seem to have that much in common with our dear Queen Maria. That’s the beauty of arranged marriages.
He was a refined man, he was interested in the intellect, in the culture and evolution, more than in power. So, when he found the breathtaking Sintra mountain, with the reminiscent of some lame monk building on the top, partially destroyed after our huge earthquake in 1755, he didn’t take too long to realize what a waste it was. In a blink of an eye, he arranged a meeting with Von Eschwege, a German architect, who was good enough to design the most fabulous romantic palace this country has ever seen, but whose reputation wasn’t big enough to get in the way of Fernando’s personal touch.
And so it was, Fernando put his heart and soul into the romanticist, neogothic, medieval, neo-islamic and all the other architectural styles the palace incorporates, in order to transform it into the perfect outcome.
Personally, my very favorite detail is this huge merman standing in the top of the portic. The merman is a dual creature – half of him belongs to the sea, while the other half, to the earth. Kind of like Portugal. The contrast of the surrounding elements comlementing this duality representes a beautiful war of opposites.
A merman differs from the mermaid because he preserves his legs, with fish scales all over them. If you take a closer look, he stands there so angry and with his mouth open in a way that you can almost hear him screaming. In fact, some people swore they did, over some full moon nights. Well, I will never try.
We can argue about the multiple possible meanings of this representation, the choice of a mythical creature, of a sea element or of a strong facial expression. The truth is this algorithm proves what a brilliant mind Fernando was, bringing such a flame after so many years.
After the construction, the royal couple started to take some breaks in the Sintra mountains, a place for fresh air, and stress relief. From the top of the mountain, it was easier to get some peace and to leave the world behind. They made sure the decoration was detailed and adequated. If the queen had to do all the politics by herself, at least she should make use of some of her husband’s quality.
When she died, Fernando ruled the country briefly, until his son, Luís, could take over. He never wasted too much time with crown stuff. He was the king of the arts.
A real love (not so royal)
A few years later after his queen passed away, Fernando went to an opera show that took place in Lisbon, and his eyes laid of her. She was elegant, she was a woman of arts, a singer. And just like that, he fell in love.
From there on, it started another beautiful forbidden royal affair. Maybe one of the originals. He was from the crown, she was no one. Charles-Diana, Harry-Meghan, those are just a copy. We have always had our slice of drama in Portugal too. Maybe Fernando was just wishing for a spouse who would share his passion for arts, who knows. Maybe that was why he didn’t give up. Maybe that was why, despite everything he proposed. And she said yes.
Some liberals took that chance to bring the monarchy down, but in the end, nobody cared and life went on. After the marriage, they started to spend some passionate times along the Sintra mountains together, with an almost insignificant Lisbon far away, taking long walks, sharing their love for botanics, for music, for literature, and for each other.
Memories of the one who loved
After Fernando died, the palace and his beautiful garden were left to Edla, as a precious memory of his talent and of their times together. However, the public opinion didn’t take it well, after all, she was a foreigner, and especially, a nobody. That said, she sold all the property to the new king – Luís the first, Fernando’s son – returning the palace to the Royals. She sold everything, except her little corner of the park, a piece very close her heart.
You see, during life, Fernando and she had built a little cozy chalet down the hill, easier to reach, to be their love nest – known today as The Chalet of the Countess of Edla. They even decorated the surroundings with an impressive diversity of plants from the four corners of the globe. And so, they all agreed that should be hers, and it still keeps her name all over it.
(The current place is a reconstitution of what once was The Chalet of the Countess of Edla. The original building was destroyed in a fire in 1999.)
New love. New life. New tragedy.
Once the palace returned to the royal family, Amélia declared herself as the new true lover of this palace.
After she married the new king, Carlos (Luis’ son and Fernando’s grandson), she fell in love with the property and started to spend long periods relaxing in the pure atmosphere of Sintra. Those times were probably the happiests of her life. Soon everything would be vanished.
In fact, Amélia came from good families but the destiny had something else reserved for her. During her path, she lost every close family member. It all started from the top of Pena Palace.
We are in 1908 and Amélia, the queen of Portugal, is standing in the terrace of the most fabulous palace this country has ever seen. But her face is filling up with tears. In the center of Lisbon, in her horizon, an open shooting orchestrated by a republican revolution is happening, and both her husband, the king, and her oldest son are being killed. It is the beginning of the Republic for us portugueses, and the end of life, for her, Amélia. After that, she left Portugal never looking back.
She was the last and probably the strongest queen this country has ever seen. But that is a passionate tragedy for another chapter.
How to get there
About how to get there and all the boring and very useful details, check the official website.
And yes, there are very cool stuff to do besides wandering around. Enjoy.
All the photographies are original.