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Spectrum » Travel

Posted at: Sep 9, 2018, 1:45 AM; last updated: Sep 9, 2018, 1:57 AM (IST)

A castle in the air

The many-tiered fairytale-like castle in yellow and pink almost hangs from the hilltop of Sintra in Portugal

Ranjita Biswas

From afar, it looks like a castle in the air. Palacio Nacional da Penais in Sintra, only an hour’s drive from Lisbon, Portugal’s capital. But once you start going up the winding road to the ancient hills of Serra da Sintra, you seem to leave behind the ambience of a busy city life. Being on the coastline of the Atlantic and also surrounded by hills, Sintra once served as a natural watch-tower to espy invaders from the sea. The 10th century fort was built by the Moors from Morocco who ruled the Iberian peninsula for more than six hundred years. 

The place has a mystic reputation too. The early settlers were the Celts who called it Sintia — goddess of the moon; the Romans called it Lunae Mons — mountain of the moon; the Moors called it Siantra — sacred place. Even today, many believers in earth’s natural forces come to pray here, especially on full-moon nights. The most visited place in Sintra is the ‘Cultural Landscape’ spread over nearly 960 hectares with its castle, fort and a park atop the hill. It has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1995, the first landscape in Europe to receive this recognition. The walls of the fort of the Moors — Castelo dos Mouros, greet you as you drive up the hilly road. If you want to explore inside, it’s a nice track with trees and brooks. The ruins, however, do not belong to a single period;different regimes built and rebuilt it as the current excavations prove.

The castle comes into view more uphill. If you are not enthusiastic about walking all the way up, not to worry. From the public transport arrival point, a mini bus shuttles the visitors up and down. Look through the glass top of the bus and an amazing site comes into view — a fairytale like castle in yellow and pink almost hanging from the hilltop. The castle was actually built over an old 16th century monastery, which was destroyed in the great earthquake of Lisbon in 1755. King Ferdinand and his wife Queen Maria II bought it and decided to turn it into a summer retreat with acres of planted forest around. Soon the many-tiered castle came up. The 19th century palace embodies the Romanticism of the age. According to music composer Richard Strauss, the castle was “the most beautiful thing” he had ever seen. 

A huge figure of a newt, half man and half fish, believed to symbolise evolution of living beings, greets you at the gate. There are artefacts galore in the rooms in different sections and the grand reception area. The walls are interesting too, painted in trompe-l’œil  style, a French art technique that creates a three-dimensional effect.

There are other little discoveries for a visitor. For instance, the surprisingly small royal bed. Apparently, those days people were superstitious about sleeping horizontally which denoted the posture in death. So they put lots of cushions on the head-stead and slept half-sitting!

The palace also shows off a ‘modern’ bathroom with a bath tub and bidet. What’s new about it? Actually, it was the first one to be built in the country. At one time, Europeans were wary of taking baths, thinking that it would cause fever and disease. According to some reports, France’s King Louis XIV bathed only thrice in his lifetime.

The kitchen in the palace is huge and glistens with shiny copper vessels. These were used for cooking during royal parties. Today, there is a restaurant by its side where you can have a simple nice lunch. After the tour of Sintra, visitors with own transport often drive down to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Europe. Beyond lies the vast Atlantic. You can also explore the beautiful coastline of Cascais and pretty Estoril, famous as a holiday resort. 

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