On our last day staying in Lisbon we decided to make a day trip to nearby Sintra, a true-to-life fairytale land filled with castles and palaces of seriously breathtaking splendor.
Being about 16 miles north of Lisbon and within the Serra mountains, this area has a higher elevation and a much cooler climate than its nearby capital city. Here, 8th and 9th century Moores built their castle overlooking the sea to protect from invading Iberians. Starting in the 14th century, it is where Portuguese monarchy spent their summers, escaping from the city heat to lounge in lavishly tiled palaces and mist-filled gardens. We had to see for ourselves!
When we got there, our first stop was the Quinta da Regaleira, which looked something like a real-life version of Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland. The pictures do not do it justice. We were amazed. Wandering around this estate was like being inside the fairytale books I read as a child; books filled with castles, royal families, haunted woods, secret gardens, and mystical creatures. Those stories, it was obvious, came from here.
The palace itself was fantastical–gothic pinnacles and an octagonal tower crested with gargoyles–but it was the gardens that made this place magical. In the garden, moss covered towers led to nowhere, their highest windows offering peeks at the grey castle walls of the nearby moorish fortress descending the distant mountainside. Secret passageways led to underground tunnels and grottos, lakes and eery wells. Ornate statues and fountains dotted the landscape, a bit alive in their own right, seeming to have grown out of the ground as well, alongside the lush vegetation and age-old trees.
Perhaps what made wandering through this garden feel much like wandering within a dream was the purposeful use of symbols. According to posted placards, the garden was designed as “a walk through consciousness”, full of “mythical-magical and sacred spaces” and dense with symbolic content linked to alchemy, masonry, the Knights Templar, and Rosicrucianism. I don’t know if it can be attributed to all the sacred geometry, but a feeling of mysticism was certainly in the air.
Our second stop was Monseratte, the summer palace of the Portuguese royals. We made it here close to sunset and the fading rays in the sky spilt over the intricate peach, gold and tan architectural details (a blend of Moorish and Indian influences) that covered the palace and made it glow. So beautiful!
Once again though, it was the gardens that we admired most. These gardens appeared more curated and were separated into themed areas like “the rose garden” or “the Mexican garden” (and made a happy home for local ducks :)). Here the music of streams and small waterfalls mixed with the otherworldliness of a ruined temple overtaken by a banyan tree, once again transporting us into a fairytale world.
We only wish we had stayed overnight and taken two days to explore. I really wanted to be a Portuguese princess……for just a little longer.