Travel

History, Royalty, Playful Clouds Make A Magic Place Of This Portuguese Town On The Edge Of Europe

SINTRA, Portugal — Eccentric millionaire Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro would have gotten a good laugh.

We're exploring the mystical grounds of his romantic Quinta da Regaleira mansion, inching through pitch-black tunnels, climbing medieval-like turrets, and traipsing along serpentine paths.

Negotiating the darkest caves with our camera's flash, we become bolder with each shortcut we conquer. In the Initiating Well, stairs lining the brick walls wind down 90 feet, where we escape to the Terrace of the Celestial Worlds.

"Here's another shortcut," my wife, Valerie, says excitedly, urging us to take what looks like two emerald-green paths split by a large rock.

"Wait," I warn. "That doesn't look like a path."

"It looks like grass on a miniature golf course," our daughter Rebecca, 17, says confidently as she and Valerie venture — kerplunk — into algae-covered water up to their chins. Their shrieks turn to uncontrollable laughter as I help Valerie out of the man-made pond, our camera miraculously dry.

And I wonder: Is this what Carvalho Monteiro and his Italian architect, Luigi Manini, a onetime opera-set designer, planned when they built this 10-acre compound inspired by mythology and the Knights Templar in the early 1900s?

Carvalho Monteiro definitely captured the spirit of this magical town only 19 miles northwest of Lisbon, where Portugal's kings and aristocrats once spent their summers and tourists now flock on holiday. Tour books recommend it as a day trip — it's an easy 35-minute train ride from the capital — but we're glad we set aside two days for the place poet Lord Byron called "this glorious Eden."

The Romans called Sintra "The Mountain of the Moon," and we recognize we're in another world as we take the scenic 20-minute walk from the train station to town. Pieces of modern art lining a park greet us, and we glimpse two towering white cones peeking through the trees.

Wispy gray clouds shroud the peaks of the lush green hills, then part in the blink of an eye to reveal the stone walls of the Moorish Castle. Blink again, and the Gothic towers, Renaissance domes, and Moorish minarets of the neighboring Pena Palace appear.

Blink once more and, poof, they're gone.

Sintra is hopping on this balmy spring Saturday. Tourists are browsing shops, dining at sidewalk cafes, and riding quaint trams driven by what look like miniature train engines from the town's 40,000-piece Toy Museum. Looking more touristy than the day-trippers with our suitcases rattling over the cobblestones, we come face-to-face with those white cones. They are the distinctive chimneys of the National Palace, which dominates the historic town center. Dating to the Moorish rulers of the 10th century, the country's oldest surviving royal palace still hosts official banquets.

Continuing down narrow residential side streets, we reach our lodging, Cinco, a one-apartment B&B. I had stumbled upon it on TripAdvisor and was lucky to book it, even though it meant canceling our reservation at Lawrence's Hotel for the suite named for its famous guest, Lord Byron. Lawrence's and the National Palace are the only landmarks that survived the earthquake of 1755, which also leveled most of Lisbon.

Our host, Carole Haynes, greets us warmly as the e-mail pals we've become making reservations and getting directions and weather reports. The apartment is spacious — a bedroom, living room with futon, kitchen, and bathroom — the refrigerator is stocked with breakfast, and the grounds are almost too serene to leave.

But we've come to explore the town and its gems, which make the cultural area of Sintra a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Carole gives us a map, recommends her favorite restaurants, and suggests we start with a short walk to the Quinta da Regaleira. She just doesn't warn us about the "green paths."

After Valerie and Rebecca squish their way through the Gothic, Renaissance, and Manueline mansion, they change into dry clothes before we head back to town. It's still bustling, but we have the National Palace to ourselves as we wander through the 16 rooms, chapel, patios, and squares built mostly in the 15th and 16th centuries. Portugal's kings used the palace as a hunting lodge and summer retreat for 500 years, until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1910.

Interior walls are decorated with various styles of tiles and mosaics, including what is said to be the most extensive collection of Mudejar azulejos, or Spanish colored and glazed tiles, in the country. We marvel at the breathtaking ceilings, which also tell some of the palace's most colorful tales.

In the Swans' Room, long-necked white birds were painted to soothe a king pining for his swan-loving daughter, who had married into a royal family in Belgium. The dome in the Coat-of-Arms Room displays the emblems of all of Portugal's royal families, except for the one that had planned a revolt.

And magpies seem to flutter overhead in the Magpies' Room, thanks to King Joco I. As the story goes, Queen Philippa caught the king kissing a lady-in-waiting, so he had the chattering birds painted with his slogan, "for the best," to quiet the gossiping women.

After touring the palace and circling the town on the tram, we settle at a bistro table for a late-afternoon drink and snack. The crowds are thinning, but the shops are still selling souvenirs, antiques and wine, a street performer is dancing on a corner, and the palace is reflecting the waning sunlight.

Sipping my new Portuguese drink — white port and tonic — and picking at a fruit cup, I savor this Continental setting. Weeks later, Rebecca tells me that the Bachelorette also came to Sintra, and sat at "our table."

For dinner, we take our host's recommendation of Restaurante Tulhas, close enough to the town center to attract tourists but more a local spot at night. In Portuguese, tulhas means granary, according to the history on the menu. In the 1980s, workers renovating the building found remnants of a grain storehouse, including coins and pieces of ceramics dating to the 15th and 16th centuries.

A pitcher of fruity homemade sangria is refreshing, and we empty two baskets of crusty bread while we watch a club soccer match on TV and wait for our made-to-order meals. The popular baked codfish and potatoes in cream sauce looks too heavy for a late supper. Instead, we enjoy Portuguese-style steak, lamb chops, and grilled black grouper.

For dessert, we return to the town center, now all but deserted, and share two decadent treats, chocolate mousse and crepes suzette, at Cafe Paris. Hours earlier, this stylish restaurant across from the National Palace was packed with tourists, many from Spain and Brazil, but now we're the only diners.

As we walk back to our apartment, the fresh late-night air feels the same comfortable 68 degrees it's been all day and would be the next day, perfect for exploring the hills of Sintra.

Using the convenient bus system, we visit three of the most popular tourist attractions and still have time to eat lunch and attend Mass with the locals.

At the imposing Moorish Castle, an invigorating walk up the long trail takes us past granaries, a guard's house, and the shell of the first parish church, built in the 12th century. Stairs lead to the top of the ramparts and a series of lookout spots.

Standing at the highest point, the Castle Keep, I can see the hazy Atlantic and the town as clouds drift by. No wonder the Moors fortified this position in the ninth century to monitor the coastline, and Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, took control of it in 1147.

The mix of medieval and more modern stonework reminds us that most of today's castle was rebuilt in the mid-1800s by Fernando II, a German-born prince who also commissioned its neighbor, Pena Palace.

Fernando built his fantasyland on the site of a 12th-century chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena and a 16th-century monastery, which he restored. His German architect designed the sprawling complex at the height of Portuguese romanticism, mixing Moorish, Gothic, Renaissance, and Manueline features — with a touch of Bavarian castle on the Rhine.

Walking through a Moorish arch, across a faux drawbridge, we enter a courtyard bounded by watchtowers, domes, minarets, and tile facades. All that's missing are Muslim sentries, jousting knights, and a cuckoo sounding from the clock tower.

From this vantage point nearly 1,500 feet above sea level, Lisbon can be seen on a clear day — but when is that, I wonder as the continuous cloud cover releases a shower on us. Sintra has its own microclimate, a staffer explains, adding that they do get their share of sunny days.

Inside, the lavishly decorated Royal Dining Room, Noble Room, Arabian Room, and King's and Queen's Bedrooms are much as Queen Amelia left them during the 1910 revolution. Furnishings are heavy and dark, and knickknacks fill every available space.

The 403 bus quickly leaves the town behind, winding through the rolling countryside on its 35-minute drive to Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Europe.

Along the way, we pass a few clusters of white- and cream-colored houses and produce stands. Squat Old World windmills contrast with cell towers and satellite dishes.

At the point, a short cream-and-red lighthouse and a stone marker topped with a cross stand as sentries, and the yellow flowers of Hottentot fig plants from South Africa add a splash of color.

Smoke from a chestnut roaster's stand adds to the overcast sky that blocks the sun, and a whipping wind chills us. Yet the Atlantic's swells 460 feet below glide gently toward the rocky shoreline, and a small white fishing boat bobs playfully.

The view of endless blue-green ocean is surprisingly dramatic, dotted by islands of sunlight formed by breaks in the clouds.

It's the clouds that enhance Sintra's mystique and magic, teasing us with its charms. And when they part, we find a beautiful, romantic, timeless land — as Lord Byron called it, "this glorious Eden."

IF YOU GO:

To get to Sintra, you can take the Aerobus (about $5) for the 20-minute ride to Lisbon's Rossio Station, then the train (about $2.20) for the 35-minute ride to Sintra. It's about a 15-minute walk into town — longer when you're loaded down with luggage, so consider grabbing a cab.

The 45-minute taxi ride from Lisbon airport to Sintra costs about $40.

PLACES TO SEE:

—Quinta da Regaleira

Built in the early 20th century, the mansion mixes Gothic, Renaissance, and Manueline styles; the gardens feature tunnels, terraces, and the dramatic Initiating Well, inspired by the practices of the Freemasons and the Knights Templar. Self-guided tours, about $7.70.

—National Palace

Dominating the town center, the former summer home of Portuguese royalty is still used for state banquets. Self-guided tours, about $9.

—Moorish Castleand Pena Palace

Buy a combination admission for about $12 and take the loop bus from town to both of these sights for about $5.75.

Climb the castle's reconstructed walls for panoramic views of the town and countryside, plus a glimpse of the neighboring palace.

At the palace, ride a tram (about $2.50) from the main gate to the Moorish archway. Rooms are fully furnished as they were when the royal family fled in 1910. It's higher than the castle; balconies provide even better views on clear days. The gardens offer a 90-minute trail.

Information:www.parquesdesintra.pt

—Cabo da Roca

It's worth the 35-minute bus ride (about $4.50 each way) to stand at the westernmost point of the continent — you can buy a certificate to prove it. Better yet, buy an ice cream cone or lunch and gaze at the Atlantic and the rocky shoreline.

—Monserrate Palace

Three Oriental-style buildings built in the mid-1800s, surrounded by gardens displaying more than 3,000 exotic species.

Admission: about $6.40.

Informaton: www.cm-sintra.pt

—Queluz National Palace

Built in the mid-1700s, it is compared to France's Palace of Versailles because of its graceful facades and gardens dotted with baroque fountains and statues. Admission: about $9.

—Seteais Palace Hotel

A majestic arch connects the original wing, built in the late 1700s, to the neoclassical east wing, added in 1802. Now, it's a deluxe hotel and restaurant.

Information:http://tivolihotels.com.

—Capuchin Convent

Built in 1560, Franciscan friars lived in the tiny cells, chapel, and outbuildings with cork-lined walls. Admission: about $6.40.

Information: www.cm-sintra.pt.

—Toy Museum

About 40,000 toys from the third and second centuries B.C. to the 19th and 20th centuries, including lead soldiers; wax, porcelain and paper pulp dolls; puppet theaters, circuses, clockwork trains, and steam machines. Admission: about $5.15.

Information: www.museu-do-brinquedo.pt

PLACES TO STAY:

—Cinco

Roomy one-bedroom apartment overlooking the countryside, a few blocks from the town center.

Rates: About $90-$96 a night for 1 to 2 adults, including fruit, cereal, eggs, and yogurt for self-made breakfast. Web: www.stayatcinco.com.

Phone: 011 351 91 450 2255.

E-mail:carolestayatcinco.com.

—Lawrence's Hotel

Eleven rooms and five suites, including one named for its famous guest, Lord Byron. Also has a restaurant. Rates: About $154-$179 (rooms), $269 (suites). Web: www.lawrenceshotel.com. Phone: 011 351 21 910 55 00. E-mail: lawrenceshotelgmail.com.

MORE INFORMATION: —Cbmara Municipal de Sintra www.cm-sintra.pt —Turismo de Portugal www.visitportugal.com (SOURCE: Cbmara Municipal de Sintra)

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