Portuguese town oozes old-world charm

WHIMSY: Pena Palace, which embodies the 19th-century Romantic movement, is set amid the lush hills of Sintra.


    Sep 03, 2014

    Portuguese town oozes old-world charm

    NO MATTER how well it begins or ends, every fairy tale has a villain. In my storybook adventure in Sintra, a Portuguese town about 32km west of Lisbon, it was the hands of the clock. Roaming the pristine grounds of castles high in the hills, I wished that time would stand still.

    Fifty-three minutes was all it took to travel back several centuries. The train that pulled out of Rossio station, a major transport hub in Lisbon, was filled with the distractions of the modern age. Amid a swarm of pressed suits and baby strollers, it felt promising to be the sole passenger with an overnight bag and unburdened by worry, free to skip suburbs and humdrum routine for the adventure at the end of the line.

    But it was not until we had passed the penultimate stop, where the only other passenger in my car stepped onto the platform, that the scenery started to feel otherworldly. Staring out the window in reverie, nose almost pressed against the glass, I marvelled at the swirls of colour whooshing past: grey apartment complexes giving way to quaint pastel houses, until even those were replaced by messy rows of stubby trees.

    By the time I stepped out of the train, all traces of Lisbon had disappeared. What greeted me were hallmarks of quaintness: a smattering of restaurants and mom-and-pop shops, pleasantly sleepy streets and a street clock as old-fashioned as they come. But despite the pleasant scene, I could not help but stare into the distance, recognising the steep slopes and explosion of greenery depicted in local postcards.

    For centuries, the municipality served as the preferred hideaway for the Portuguese royal family. A heartbeat away from the political and economic centre of Lisbon, the lush slopes provided the aristocracy with a quiet, breezy escape from the city air.

    According to local lore, inclement weather forced Christopher Columbus, in one of his lesser-known sailing misadventures, to dock nearby before continuing on to Lisbon. But it was not until Ferdinand II, king of Portugal, arrived in the mid-1800s and built an elaborate vacation home that the entire region became worthy of its current Unesco World Heritage status, with sprawling estates that showcase a millennium's worth of architectural influences.

    Sintra remains a crown jewel among the Portuguese regions, but two major developments have broadened its appeal to foreign travellers. Several new hotels, most notably the 18-room Sintra Boutique Hotel, which opened in the heart of town last year, have increased lodging options in a place where vacancies vanish during the high season. The year 2012 saw the return of a summertime 45-minute tram service (2 euros, S$3.30, each way) from Sintra to Praia das Macas, a budding resort town with steep cliffs that overlook the white sand beaches along Portugal's western coast.

    The mere sight of Sintra foliage is enough to understand why Lord Byron described it as a "glorious Eden". Verdant forests extend in every direction. Greenery envelops every surface, from moss-covered rocks to sinewy vines that wrap around trees. Thick roots of felled trees point skyward, and wispy sprouts break through minuscule crevices in stone walls. The lushness embraces you in a mystical sort of world.

    Shortly after my arrival on a warm June evening last year, after I deposited my bags at the Sintra Bliss House, a well-kept, design-oriented inn, my native New Yorker's instincts kicked in, and I set out to explore the area on foot. A serene sunset walk took me past a half-dozen ornate statues and sculptures, all part of a public art project reminiscent of a vast private garden. The surrounding castles glowed in the dark, illuminated by coloured spotlights.

    Popping into Adega das Caves, a bar in the centre of town, I paired the local speciality, Queijada de Sintra, a sweet pastry with a cheesecake-like filling, with a ginjinha, a tipple of cherry liqueur in a chocolate shot glass. Walking back to the inn around midnight on empty sidewalks flanked by empty parks - a situation I would avoid in Manhattan - I felt safe, as if the town were my own.

    My tendency to wander solo compelled the many travellers I met in Sintra to call me brave. What they did not know was that my father had died a month earlier in New York, and that in the aftermath, I had visited several friends abroad. In Sintra, I was travelling alone for the first time since his death.

    The next morning, my alarm clock at the Sintra Bliss House was a horse-drawn carriage clip-clopping past the window. But my ride that day would be a bus. Emerging from the tourist office with a stack of maps and a multi-site pass (starting at 25 euros), I chose one of the three routes that loop around the major attractions (2 euros).

    Given Sintra's layout, a good starting point is the eighth-century Moorish castle, a holdover from Arab rule and the oldest structure in the area. It is, above all, a military fortress: austere, uniformly grey throughout its granite and limestone walls, and not meant to be invaded.

    A 15-minute walk down a flat, scenic path leads to the main gate. Once inside, a 400m loop formed by walkways atop the castle's inner walls was none too taxing. "No matter where you start," a park ranger said of the simple path around the perimeter, "you can't get lost."

    The knights of old earned their stripes by remaining watchful - ducking beneath low entryways and tiptoeing up the tiny steps while ascending turrets. These days, the only enemies are rain clouds. As I stood at strategic vantage points, I could imagine the pride of guarding the kingdom. The most memorable panoramas were of Pena National Palace, my next stop, which loomed above on a nearby promontory. I looked forward to walking in the clouds.

    At the palace, gone was the no-nonsense nature of the armed forces, replaced by an unmistakable whimsy. Pena National Palace, a former summer residence of the Portuguese royal family, is a hodgepodge of cheerful colours (canary yellow, bright salmon and lavender) and towers (narrow and cylindrical, widely rectangular), generating an understated Alice In Wonderland vibe that architecture aficionados would attribute to 19th-century Romanticism.

    If the Moorish castle invited purposeful forward marches, Pena Palace encouraged aimless wandering. In the age of the selfie, three gathering spots competed for the most popular: a mythically significant but comically hideous gargoyle hovering above a main entryway, breathtaking mountain views seen through pointed arches, and the stained glass windows of the chapel.

    Back in the centre of town, I edged my way into Sintra National Palace just before the last entry at 6.30pm. Its faded white exterior belied rooms furnished with period pieces and ceilings covered in festive tiles, the most striking of which featured wall-to-wall azulejos, classic glazed white tiles with blue paint that are aligned to depict historical scenes.

    But what struck me was what I could not see - visitors. Between beautiful weather drawing everyone else outdoors and the late hour, I pretty much had the place to myself. Wandering around in solitude, with only the docents for company, provided the most authentically royal experience.