Portugal Travel

Sintra – You Won’t Get Bored Here – Part 2

I had been to Sintra a few years ago while on business to Lisbon, Portugal. I knew one day I would have to come back, and I finally did. It is a short drive (or train ride) away from Lisbon (about 40 kilometers or 25 miles).

Sintra, Portugal

A view of Sintra and the surrounding countryside.

As I said in my original post on Sintra, it is one of the most enchanting towns in Europe, due to its multitude of fascinating sights. I don’t know of any other small town that offers so much for the tourist in such a compact area. Even after spending the better part of two days here this time, there are still things I did not get to see.

Sintra has its roots in Portugal’s Moorish past, dating to the eighth or ninth century. On my first visit I saw the Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros, a fine set of ramparts high above the town) and the Pena Palace (Palácio Da Pena), the polychromatic post card image of Sintra.

On this trip I added three more sights:

Quinta da Regaleira. This manor house with its gardens takes its name from Baroness da Regaleira, who bought the property in 1840. This was the summer residence of the Carvalho Monteiro family beginning in the mid 1800’s, and most of what we see now is from the late 1800’s and early 1900s.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

A view of the house and chapel. The chapel contains scenes of the lives of Mary and Christ, and symbols from the Templar Order (Knights).

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Ornate wood work and beautifully painted walls adorn this bedroom.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The Hunting Room. The mantlepiece depicts exceptionally well-carved hunting scenes.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The decorative exterior can be appreciated in this view.

The house exterior exhibits the ornate “neo Manueline” (named after King Dom Manuel I) style, but what really sets this incredible estate apart are the fascinating (and extensive) gardens.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

The Regaleira Tower, which provides a great view over the gardens and sits on top of Leda’s Grotto.

The Monteiros had quite an imagination in creating these gardens – which contain numerous grottoes, underground walkways, an inverted tower (that goes several stories underground), gardens, pools, towers, statues and a chapel.

Quinta da Regaleira,Sintra, Portugal

A view from the bottom of the inverted tower at Quinta da Regaleira.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

One of Quinta da Regaleira’s grottoes.

Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Entrance to one of the many tunnels in gardens.

Many of these features contain symbolism from mythology, ancient classical works and the medieval period.

The National Palace (Palácio National, or Palácio de Sintra). The palace occupies a prominent spot in the center of town. It was originally an Arab construction and became the residence of the Portuguese royal family from the 12th century. Later on it became a royal summer retreat. Although the outside looks rather plain, painted white, the interior is something to behold. It has a unique blend of styles, including Gothic, Mudéjar (Iberian Arabic), and Manueline, with incredible collections of tiles and other artistic treasures.

Palace of Sintra, Portugal.

A view of the Palacio de Sintra from the Castelo dos Mouros. The conical towers are chimneys over the massive the kitchen.

National Palace, Sintra, Portugal

The Grand Hall (or Hall of the Princes) at the National Palace.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

The Blazons Hall, built during the reign of Manuel I (1495-1521). The ceiling in carved gilded woodwork is crowned by the royal coat-of-arms and is surrounded by the armorial bearings of seventy two noble families. The late 17th to early 18th century panels of painted tiles depict courtly and hunting scenes.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

Grotto of the Baths, the decorated tiles depict scenes of nobility, fountains and gardens.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal

A view of the kitchen.

Palacio de Sintra, Portugal.

Another room in Palácio de Sintra.

The Convent of the Capuchos (Convento dos Capuchos or The Convent of the Holy Cross in the Sintra Hills). This is probably my favorite spot in Sintra and perhaps all of Portugal. This 16th century convent sits south of Sintra about 7 km (4.5 miles). It was abandoned in 1843 when religious orders were extinguished in Portugal.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

Courtyard of the Crosses. The courtyard leads into the Convent and contains three crosses representing Golgotha.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Courtyard of the Fountain, where visitors making the long journey to the Convent would take refreshment.

Built among the huge boulders of its hillside location, it embodies the ideal of universal fraternity of the Franciscan friars who lived here.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Hermitage of Our Lord in Gethsemane, with frescoes (near the door) of St. Francis of Assisi (left) and St. Anthony of Lisbon (right).

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

A view of the Cloister, a private space for the Franciscan community.

Covento dos Capuchos Entrance2

Entryway ceiling, lined in cork.

It is simple, small, very picturesque, and feels like something right out of The Hobbit. Many of the rooms (especially the dormitories) and corridors are tiny.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

Dormitory corridor. Note the ceiling and door frames decorated in cork.

The unusual extensive use of cork (that’s where the name ‘Capuchos’ comes from) throughout the monastery was for insulation, sound proofing and decoration.

Convento dos Capuchos, Sintra, Portugal

The Chapter House, with cork entry way.

We were given a brochure as a guide and allowed to wander the site on our own. Be sure to explore the nature trails above the monastery for a few other interesting sights.

All added up, I’ve spent about three days in Sintra and I could have easily spent one or two more. This is a special place. For more information on Sintra, visit www.sintra-portugal.com

Sintra – You Won’t Get Bored Here

A view of the Palacio Nacional de la Pena from the Moorish Castle.

A view of the Palacio Nacional de la Pena from the Moorish Castle.

Sintra, Portugal is packed with interesting sights and is only about 45 minutes by commuter train from Lisbon. I took a day trip to this enchanting town over a weekend.  I wish I had had another day at least. There are at least six primary sights to visit in this town, and in my available 2/3 of a day, I chose to visit two of them, the Moorish Castle ruins and the Palácio da Pena (Palácio Nacional de la Pena), since it’s a postcard landmark of Portugal. (For a map of Lisbon and surrounding area, click here.)

Sign listing all the sights in Sintra.

Sign listing all the sights in Sintra.

Other options to visit are discussed below.

Sintra has been the playground of royalty and the rich and famous for centuries, hence the collection of very interesting and unique sights here.

Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros) Ruins

On the Moorish castle ramparts.

On the Moorish castle ramparts.

Another of the defensive towers at the Moorish Castle (Atlantic Ocean in the distance).

Another of the defensive towers at the Moorish Castle (Atlantic Ocean in the distance).

A view of Sintra and beyond (looking northeast) from the castle walls.

A view of Sintra and beyond (looking northeast) from the castle walls.

The ruins (9th century) have a commanding view of Sintra and out to the Atlantic Ocean.  I recommend visiting here if for no other reason than for the views.  There is not much left of an actual castle, but the defensive walls and towers have been restored and make for a great walk, with LOTS of stairways up and down the hilly terrain. Wear comfortable shoes and bring water.

Palácio da Pena

This structure looks like something out of Disneyland. It sits on the site of an old monastery built in 1503, which was later largely destroyed by earthquakes and lightning.

View of the palace from the extensive wooded surroundings.

View of the palace from the extensive wooded surroundings.

Parts of the old monastery have been incorporated into the current structure which was built in 1844, as a romantic ideal of royal palaces—it’s a blend of Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance and Baroque influences, not unlike the fanciful Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. The reason to visit is mainly the interesting blend of architecture and less for the historical value.

Another view of the interesting architectural styles at Pena Palace.

Another view of the interesting architectural styles at Pena Palace.

Be forewarned, pictures are NOT allowed inside and cameras are everywhere. I didn’t notice the cameras and took a couple pictures, and then two seconds later a security guard was after me and made me delete the pictures off my camera. First time that’s ever happened to me. The extensive trails and grounds of the Palace are worth exploring, there are some good views of the Palace available from the wooded trails on the grounds.

In addition to these two sights, here are other major highlights in Sintra:

Palácio Nacional de Sintra: Home to the Portuguese monarchy for eight centuries. A lot of the visible artwork today was completed between 1505 and 1520.

Looking down on Palácio Nacional de Sintra (middle right of picture) from the castle walls.

Looking down on Palácio Nacional de Sintra (middle right of picture) from the castle walls.

Palácio de Monserrate: Built on the ruins of a 16th century chapel and a neo-gothic palace and transformed in 1856 by a Brit, Francis Cook, this palace is heavily influenced by Moorish and Gothic architecture. There is an extensive botanical collection and beautiful gardens here.

Quinta da Regaleira: A very weird palace, built in 1904, with lots of tunnels on the grounds and full of symbolism in the elaborate decorations.

Convent of the Capuchos: A 16th century (dates to 1560) Franciscan hermitage, showing life as a friar with chapels, living areas, dormitories, and a library built into a hillside.

Practicalities 

The train to Sintra leaves from the Rossio Station in downtown Lisbon, right next to the Rossio plaza. The train makes a number of stops, but the journey still only takes about 45 minutes, and trains leave every 30 minutes. The historical center of Sintra is just a 5 minute walk from the train station.

View of Sintra.

View of Sintra.

The sights are relatively close to one another; however Sintra is hilly and even after you arrive at a site by bus or taxi, there are some steep walks in front of you, at least up to and through the Castle ruins and around Pena Palace. Bus 434 will take you from the train station to Pena Palace. If you enjoy walking, take the bus up to Pena and walk back down to the town. You can get individual or combination tickets for the various sights. It cost €16 per person for the Moorish Castle and Palácio da Pena.  For more information on this area check out:  http://www.parquesdesintra.pt.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal

The Templar church (Oratory) was also a defensive tower, it has 16 sides, and was next to an exterior wall. The interior (see pictures below) is amazing.

The Templar church (Oratory) was also a defensive tower, it has 16 sides, and was next to an exterior wall. The interior (see pictures below) is amazing.

Huge fortress walls, a Templar castle-like church and a huge late-Gothic monastery all in one.  What more could you ask for? That’s what you get with the Convento de Cristo, in the town of Tomar, Portugal.

The entrace to the 12th century circular church from the 16th century chapter house.

The entrace to the 12th century circular church from the 16th century chapter house.

The circular ambulatory in the 12th century church.

The circular ambulatory in the 12th century church.

The 8 sided center column fans out to the 16 sided walls.

The 8 sided center column fans out to the 16 sided walls.

The fortress grounds and convent sit on a hill overlooking the town of Tomar—the walls are visible from the train station.  Ever since I got a book about the Great Monasteries of Europe (by Bernard Schütz) many years ago, I’ve wanted to visit Tomar. With my love of medieval history and interest in the Knights Templar, Tomar is a must do, and I finally had the chance to visit in 2012.

Tomar is 2 hours by train (137km) northeast of Lisbon.

Tomar is 2 hours by train (137km) northeast of Lisbon.

The fortified walls and entrance to the monastery.

The fortified walls and entrance to the monastery.

The original fortress was a Moorish settlement (9th to 12th centuries), and the Knights Templar made Tomar their headquarters in 1160. The Templars were heroes at the time due to their role in the Reconquista, helping push the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. The Knights brought with them architectural refinements from the Middle East (from their time defending the Holy Land) and the fortress structural design was considered ahead of its time for western Europe.

The intricate carvings of the main entry way into the church and chapter house.

The intricate carvings of the main entry way into the church and chapter house.

The highly decorated exterior of the 16th century chapter house addition.

The highly decorated exterior of the 16th century chapter house addition.

The famous chapter house west facade window, 1510-1513, late Gothic “Manueline” style (after King Manuel), symbolizes the Tree of Life or Tree of Jesse from the Bible.

The famous chpater house west facade window, 1510-1513, late Gothic “Manueline” style (after King Manuel), symbolizes the Tree of Life or Tree of Jesse from the Bible.

When the Order of the Knights Templar (or Order of the Temple) was disbanded in 1319, the fortress of Tomar was turned over to the Portuguese Order of Christ, becoming its headquarters in 1357. King Manuel and King João III in the 16th century added extensively to the site making this a very large monastery—the artistic work speaks to the wealth of Portugal as a world power at that time.

The monk's cells were finished around 1543 – 1545, the tiles are from the 17th century.

The monk’s cells were finished around 1543 – 1545, the tiles are from the 17th century.

The refectory was finished between 1535 – 1536 by King João III,  reserved for reading during meal times.

The refectory was finished between 1535 – 1536 by King João III, reserved for reading during meal times.

The kitchen of the monastery (16th century).

The kitchen of the monastery (16th century).

Tiles in the Portocarreiros Chapel, built 1626.

Tiles in the Portocarreiros Chapel, built 1626.

Practicalities:  Tomar is an easy day trip from Lisbon. It’s about a 2 hour train ride (€9.75 each way), and the train leaves from Station Apolónia (eastern side of Lisbon). It’s about a 15 minute hike from the Tomar train station up the hill to the Convento de Cristo. The entry fee was €6. There’s a lot to see, so allow at least a couple hours. I kept finding new cloisters (courtyards), rooms, and unique views and architectural features of the buildings at every turn.  The signage is comprehensive and in English. If you get hungry, there is a café on the site as well. Be sure to stroll out and see the terraces, gardens, walls and an aqueduct that was built in the 17th century and finally gave the monastery a consistent water supply.

Main cloister—started in 1530-1533, under King Joao III (1521-1557), considered a masterpiece of the European Renaissance.

Main cloister—started in 1530-1533, under King Joao III (1521-1557), considered a masterpiece of the European Renaissance.

References: Signposts throughout Convento de Cristo.

Belém—The Launch Point for World Discovery

Just southwest of the heart of Lisbon, Portugal along the Rio Tejo (River Tagus) is the suburb of Belém (or Bethlehem). This spot was the launch point for many voyages of discovery in the 1400 and 1500’s. In 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed from here and was the first to circumnavigate Africa via the Cape of Good Hope, thereby establishing a sea route to India. Reaching India was of course the goal of Columbus in 1492 when he sailed west and landed in the Caribbean. This feat would soon make Portugal the leader in world trade, displacing the Venetians who ruled the merchant routes in the 1400’s. At Belém, the river becomes wide as it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Don’t miss visiting Belém on a trip to Lisbon. For information on Lisbon and a map of sights I visited in Portugal, click here.

View towards Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Belem Tower.

View towards Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Belem Tower (the Discoveries Monument is in the distance at the river’s edge).

Getting to Belém

It is easy to get here from central Lisbon. Lisbon has a great subway (Metro) system.  Take the Metro to the Cais do Sodre stop and then take a bus right outside the station (about a 15 minute ride) to Belém just along the river front. There is a lot to see in Belem. Since I just had a couple hours, I visited the Belém Tower and the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.  You can get a combination ticket to theses sights for 10 Euros, there is a kiosk at the monastery.  In addition to the main sights, there are some beautiful gardens along the river front and the town is worth exploring too, with several restaurants nearby.

The gardens and fountain in front of the Belem Monastery.

The gardens and fountain in front of the Belem Monastery.

Belém Tower (Torre de Belém)

This tower is a symbol of Lisbon and dates to 1515—it was a defensive structure protecting the harbor of Lisbon. The tower’s decorative stone work is considered a classic of 16th century military architecture. It sits in the Tagus River’s edge, just in the water although when built it was on dry land—the water level has risen over 500 years. You can climb all the way to the top (6 levels, a great view from the roof level) and at each level there are exhibits about the history of the world explorations that began from Lisbon.

A view of the Belem Tower (built in 1515).

A view of the Belem Tower (built in 1515).

It was here where I learned why Brazil speaks Portuguese and the rest of Latin America speaks Spanish–due to an agreement (the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494) by King Manuel I (1469-1521) of Portugal and the Crown of Spain. They drew a north-south line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands (off Africa), which was halfway between the Cape Verde Islands (Portuguese) and Columbus’s initial claims in the Caribbean for Spain. This line happened to run through eastern Brazil, although they didn’t know it at the time.

The intricate stonework of the Belem Tower.

The intricate stonework of the Belem Tower.

Belém Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos)

This is where the explorers and merchants would worship prior to leaving on long voyages and upon their safe return. The monastery was established in 1496 by King Manuel I, and the church was constructed in 1501. This masterpiece is considered one of the great architectural achievements of the 1500’s. From a technical standpoint, it was so well constructed that it survived a devastating earthquake in 1755 that leveled most of Lisbon. The “Manueline style” of decoration and architecture is an acknowledgement of the King’s influence. Vasco de Gama’s tomb is here.

The intricate decorations above the doorway (south portal).

The intricate decorations above the doorway (south portal).

Inside the Sacristy with many paintings.

Inside the Sacristy with many paintings.

Interior view of the church.

Interior view of the church.

The cloisters of the monastery. The tracery decor is Manueline style.

The cloisters of the monastery. The tracery decor is Manueline style.

Discoveries Monument (Padrāo dos Descobrimentos)

Built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, the great uncle of King Manuel I. Just east of the Torre de Belém is the Discoveries Monument, paying homage to the many explorers and discoveries to come from Portugal. Inside is a multimedia exhibit on the history of Lisbon.

The Discoveries Monument. Henry the Navigator leads the way.

The Discoveries Monument. Henry the Navigator leads the way.

There are also several museums in Belém, including the Museum of Coaches (beautiful decorated old royal coaches), and the Maritime Museum; given more time these would be worthwhile to visit.

References:  Great Monasteries of Europe, by Bernhard Schütz, Abbeville Press Publishers, 2004; informational plaques at Belém Tower.

A Weekend in Lisbon, Portugal

A view of Lisbon looking northeast along the River Tagus.

There are some great sights in and near Lisbon (‘Lisboa’ in Portuguese). I had a free weekend and another free afternoon during a business trip in May, and didn’t waste a moment. I was able to visit Belém, Sintra, and Tomar as well as Lisbon.

Locations visited in Portugal.

Lisbon has a very scenic setting along the Rio Tejo (Tagus River), just a few miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Since an earthquake in 1755 leveled the city, most of the architecture is not old, but it is still quite beautiful. The Portuguese love white buildings with red roofs and that is the image in my mind that I’m taking away from my visit. May is a great time of year to visit; the temperature was in the low 80’s F, and clear. In this post I share a few key sights in Lisbon and some tips for getting around. In other posts I will share my travel experiences to Belém, Sintra and Tomar.

A view of Lisbon and the River Tagus from the Castelo de Sao Jorge (the Praça do Comércio (historical plaza) is in the middle left of this view).

Getting Around. Lisbon has a somewhat small city feel, making it easy to get around. There is a good bus and Metro (subway) system. The Metro is well-signposted, efficient, clean, and easy to navigate. The automatic ticket kiosks have an English navigation option, and an all-day ticket for the Metro and bus system is €5.50. I used it a lot during my stay. There is also a trolley system in the heart of Lisbon covered by the same ticket. For visiting sights, a ‘Lisboa Card’ available, which provides a cost-effective way to see a number of tourist locations. I found it easy to get by on English, even in less touristy places.

A Lisbon Metro station.

San Francisco? No, Lisbon! The street cars are a great way to get around this hilly city.

Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of St. George). This Moorish castle dominates a hill overlooking the heart of Lisbon and Tagus River. It dates from the 11thcentury, and was a royal palace for 400 years. It is a great place to visit in the afternoon, as the sun is setting to the west overlooking the city. The castle is mainly a series of walls, and it was very enjoyable to walk the walls and take in all the different views of Lisbon from this vantage point. This spot has been inhabited for millennia. There are some ruins near the castle (part of the castle entrance fee) dating from the 7thcentury BC, now protected by modern shelters. The entry fee was €7.50.

The entrance to Castelo de Sao Jorge.

The walls of Castelo de Sao Jorge.

There are many restaurants right below the castle in this old part of Lisbon.

Sé Catedral (Lisbon Cathedral). This Romanesque 12thcentury cathedral looks out of place since it was one of the few medieval-era buildings to survive the earthquake of 1755. I was impressed with the interior. It is an enjoyable walk up hill from the cathedral to the castle area.

The Lisbon Cathedral.

The interior of the Lisbon Cathedral–rounded archways, heavy, thick walls and small windows, all typical features of Romanesque architecture.

Plazas.The Praça do Comércio is right at the waters’ edge and commemorates the seafaring history of Lisbon.

The Praca do Comercio in Lisbon. This plaza is right on the river waterfront.

Rossio Square is the center of Lisbon, and also has a train station (just to the west of the Square) from which the train to Sintra leaves (see separate post on Sintra). These plazas are connected by several avenues, one of which (Dos Correerios) is a pedestrian street where many restaurants are located.

Rossio Square – the heart of old Lisbon.

Dos Correerios pedestrian street in old Lisbon.

Elevador de Santa Justa (The Elevator). This elevator structure was built in the early 1900’s and is simply a viewing platform overlooking the central part of Lisbon and a lift for people visiting Barrio Alto where the ruins of Covent do Carmo are located. One can walk up the streets behind the tower and then take the walkway to the Tower for free (just below the observation deck). Lisbon is hilly and several lifts like this were in earlier years scattered throughout Lisbon.

Take this elevator to the top for a great view of old Lisbon.