Magical Sintra is Portugal's fairy tale town

Magical Sintra is Portugal's fairy tale town

SINTRA, PORTUGAL — This charming town, located in the foothills of the Portuguese mountains and just over a half-hour train ride from Lisbon, is bound to delight all its visitors with their own fairy tale adventure. I had long ago seen photos of Sintra before even knowing the actual name of the town, and certainly before knowing how to pronounce it the way the Portuguese do — “Seen-tra” — with a delicately rolled ‘r.’ While the National Palace of Sintra is lucky enough to boast the name of the town, it is the more out-of-reach Pena Palace that I believe to be the true star of the show here.
We boarded the train at Rossio station in Lisbon bright and early, after a breakfast that consisted solely of the flakiest pasteis de natas we could get our hands on. The train meandered its way west through the countryside and dropped us off at Sintra station, which is right in the heart of the town.
In the 19th Century, Sintra was known to be the first established centre of European Romantic architecture. Very quickly, it became a favourite of the nobles and royals to build their palaces and summer residences. While Pena Palace is the castle most commonly found on the front of most postcards, you’ll find yourself equally amazed by the jungle of stone castles and palaces in the surrounding areas. If time is the one thing you are not short on, Moorish Castle or La Quinta da Regaleira is also worth a visit.

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Above: No matter what angle you look at Sintra's castles, they all look special.


After getting off the train, we headed straight for the main area of the town, our walking pace naturally slowing down to match that of the locals. This was a place known to be a summer town, after all. We poked our heads into each storefront, smiling and saying a cheery Ola to the shop owners who greeted us back with the same warmth. Portugal has one of the best souvenir offerings I have ever seen — I would have packed every multi-coloured ceramic and fish-shaped item into my carry-on, if only I had the room.
We sat down for lunch, indulging in yet another dish of bacalhau, the national delicacy that consists of salt cod. And despite already feeling beyond full from the meal, we still could not resist the temptation to go up to each gelato display afterward — faces pressed against the glass case —to eye all the flavours.

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Above: Sintra's palaces were built for Portugal's royal family.


We had reserved tickets for just the grounds of the Pena Palace, choosing not to opt for a self-guided tour of the interior. When we had purchased our train tickets in Lisbon, we had also purchased tickets for the local Sintra public transportation system. Pena Palace is almost a full hour’s incline walk from the main town. While we felt a feeling of admiration towards the tourists who were huffing and puffing as they set out for the hike, I would be lying if I said we didn’t also breathe a sigh of relief as we boarded our air-conditioned bus.
The first glance of Pena Palace takes your breath away. It is unlike any other palace or castle you have seen. It is a whimsical splash of colour, set against the backdrop of a clear blue sky and the rolling green landscape in the distance. The purple, red and yellow facades of the palace all fight for your visual attention as you marvel at the Romanticist architectural style. It’s hard to believe that the architect — a man by the name of Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege — didn’t pluck the idea straight from one of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.  

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Above: The turrets that adorn the palaces and castles are truly unique.


Back in the 12th Century, the site on which Pena Palace currently sits previously housed a medieval chapel and a monastery. However, the monastery was left in ruins after the devastating Lisbon earthquake in the 18th Century. Then, a young prince, Ferdinand, came along in 1838 and made the decision to acquire the monastery, along with the surrounding lands. For eight years, extensive work was done to transform the remains of the monastery into a palace which could then serve as a summer home for Portugal’s Royal Family (and a renowned attraction that draws tourists from far and wide.)
The Palace was classified as a National Monument in 1910 and was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.
That day, I allowed the palace to feel like my own summer home, imagining what it must have been like to bask in Sintra’s glory for even just a few months a year. We allowed ourselves to act like royals — chins up, heads held high — as we frolicked around the grounds and climbed up to various viewpoints and turrets of the castle. I felt like Rapunzel in a land far away, as the wind whipped through my hair while I looked out to the lush mountain range below us.
To end off our day trip to Sintra on an even sweeter note, we stopped by a café for a dessert even more heavenly than the views that day: the Travesseiro de Sintra. Travesseiro translates to “large pillow” because that is exactly what the dessert looks like. It is a rectangular pastry – fluffy looking on the outside — that is made of almonds and egg cream. It even tastes better than it sounds.
So, next time you find yourself in Portugal, don’t forget to visit the magical town of Sintra if you, too, want to add a little bit of magic to your European travels.

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