WHEN I STARTED PHONING FRIENDS to ask about Sintra, in Portugal, I kept hearing the same refrain from those who had actually been there. “Sintra? It started out as a day trip from Lisbon, and we ended up staying a week.” “Sintra? We planned to stay a long weekend and left two weeks later.” It seemed that the spell cast by Sintra was strong indeed, and as I packed for a five-day stay, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever be coming back.
Sintra is one of those places that everyone has heard about but few have visited. All the better, since Sintra, despite the fame of its fantastic palaces, remains a flawless oasis. Carolina Zapf, a New York-based fashion designer, was so captivated by Sintra’s charms that she chose to be married there in the summer of 1999, even though neither she nor her husband John Josephson is Portuguese. “Everyone was perplexed as to why I would choose Portugal,” remembers Zapf. “The first time I visited Sintra I thought that this romantic town would make the perfect setting for a wedding,” she says. “I just didn’t realize at the time it would be mine?” As it turned out, most of her guests were equally enamored of her choice. “It’s as if there is a law there that says, ‘You must be romantic!'” muses Zapf. “Our guests, most of whom were coming from high-powered jobs and fast-paced lives, immediately stepped into the slow, easy Sintra rhythm, relaxing and having a terrifically fun time.”
The town’s fairy-tale charms are immediately seductive. But heading down the busy motorway from Lisbon, I wondered if such a reputedly peaceful haven could really exist so close to urban chaos. As soon as I hit the steeply winding road leading to Sintra, however, I was drawn into the lush and romantic setting that has made the town a summertime retreat for more than five centuries.
Sintra’s unique position accounts for much of its attraction. The village, with a population of 6,000, is located on the northern face of the craggy Serra de Sintra, a rocky promontory that runs north-south, only eight miles from the sea. This location means that the town enjoys a magnificent view of the ocean, with gentle breezes blowing across the wooded slopes. The sharp outcroppings, softened by sea mists that roll in without warning, have always made this a mystical spot. As far back as classical antiquity, the Iberians fell under the site’s spell and called it the “Mountain of the Moon.”
While the Romans and Moors were equally captivated by the setting, it wasn’t until the 14th century that Portuguese nobility claimed the place as its own, moving the entire court to the coolness of its slopes to escape the hot summers of nearby Lisbon. Fantastic palaces and extravagant villas sprang up, piercing the woods with their turrets and spires, giving Sintra the uniquely romantic and aristocratic feel it has today.
Though there is a long list of sites to see in and around Sintra–including palaces, parks and gardens–its attractions are not the kind that can be easily ticked off a list. Like the sea mist that blows in almost every evening, Sintra’s atmosphere sneaks up on you. Leafy overgrown paths that give way to vistas of the sea, or heavily wooded slopes topped by the spirited spires of turn-of-the-century castles–this is the backdrop to the way of life that Sintra offers.
“Sintra is a mystical place,” explains Michael Grant, a filmmaker who recently spent two weeks there. “It is the atmosphere more than anything else that I think of when I remember Sintra. The town’s fascination is perhaps explained by the kind of preservation that exists–and I don’t mean the physical preservation of monuments. It’s a preservation of a bygone era. I have the impression that Sintra doesn’t feel very different than it did a couple of centuries ago. There aren’t that many places left in Europe that evoke similar emotions.”
While there is much to do in Sintra, a stay here is not about frantic sightseeing. Charles Dubow, who succumbed to Sintra’s charms as a guest at the Zapf-Josephson wedding, says, “I found it much more relaxing than being in, say, Tuscany, where you feel you must make it into Florence to see the Uffizi or into the city of Arezzo to see the Piero della Francesca frescoes. Instead you have the allure of these places, without the pressure. Sintra is simply an enchanting, wonderful place to just be.”
Although the social life of many of Sintra’s residents takes place in the splendor of quintas, or private estates, one of the places to just be is the town’s center, which opens out from the main square. The fabulous white chimneys of the Palficio Nacional dominate the cobbled plaza. Cafe tables, shaded by umbrellas, offer a chance to people-watch before you explore the small alleyways that climb up the hill from the square. Sintra is famous for its queijadas, sticky-sweet cheese-filled pastries, and those in the know stop by Casa da Piriquita for a midmorning snack. Steaming cups of cafe com leite (coffee with milk) arrive at the table to be sipped slowly while you nibble the sugary sweets.
Portugal is well known for its hand-embroidered linens, and many of the shops around the main square offer high-quality items. “I often stop by A Camelia for distinctive embroideries from the north and petit-point carpets called arraiolos from the south,” says Francoise Baudry, a resident who first came to Sintra from her native France more than twenty years ago to visit friends. Like many visitors, she fell in love with the town and toyed with the idea of buying her own quinta. “One afternoon at about six o’clock, a friend took me to see an abandoned quinta that was for sale,” she remembers. “I stepped into the garden, and the light was so sweet and peaceful–I knew that I was at home”
An interior decorator who has worked on houses in Sintra as well as in France and Belgium, Baudry recently opened her own shop in town. A former horse stable, the shop is blinding white, a perfect backdrop for the objects Baudry brings back from her travels. Scented candles come from France and cashmere shawls hail from India, while her own line of table and bed linens features local embroidery patterns.
Strolling the town gardens or walking past shops like Baudry’s are two of the best ways to experience the town. “Sintra needs patience and time to work her charms. You can visit castles and palaces anywhere in Europe–but somehow Sintra is different” remembers Michael Grant. “My wife Susan and I took in the charms of Sintra during endless walks.” A perfect place to lose yourself is in the Monserrate gardens, located along the old road leading from Sintra’s center to Colares and nearby villages. This secluded park sums up Sintra in its romantic and lush abandon. The Palacio de Monserrate (which is currently under scaffolding and closed to the public) was originally designed by James Knowles Jr. for Sir Francis Cook, Viscount Monserrate. The gardens, which stretch for seventy-four acres, were designed in the 1850s and contain a collection of exotic plants unparalleled in Europe. It is a rare pleasure to wander along the twisting, sloping and generally unmarked paths.
Although Sintra was originally the summer refuge of Portuguese royalty, the town’s courtly life largely disappeared after the revolution of 1910 did away with the monarchy. A last vestige is upheld by the Duke of Braganza–or Dom Duarte, as he is affectionately called. With his wife Isabel, he has taken up residence in the part of town known as Sao Pedro, at the Quinta do Campo. As we walk through the leafy garden stretching behind his villa, he muses, “I often hear visitors say that Sintra can seem a bit gloomy. But Sintra is not simply about the weather–it’s a state of mind.”
Among the things that put you in that state of mind are the fairy-tale palaces. The most fantastic of the original royal residences is the Palacio da Pena. An amazing architectural extravaganza that crowns the ridge overlooking the town, its yellow domes and twisted turrets are visible everywhere. This Disney-like confection was commissioned in 1840 by Prince Ferdinand of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Queen Maria II of Portugal. He commissioned architect Baron Ludwig von Eschwege to build a “Gothick” castle on the ruins of a 16th-century monastery. What Eschwege delivered was a wild vision of towers, battlements, domes and turrets. The interiors, which have been left exactly as they were (down to the last bread roll) when the royal family fled the revolution, provide a bizarre time warp.
While most tourists head straight for the 15th-century Palacio Nacional, located in the central square of town, I opt for the more fantastic Quinta da Regaleira, a short walk away. Created at the beginning of the 20th century by a Brazilian millionaire, the palace looks more like a stage setting than a place to live. A labyrinth of underground tunnels and caves and the extensive gardens are incrusted with lavishly carved architectural details. Although the house is now owned by the town, it was a private home until only twelve years ago.
“The children treated the grounds of Regaleira as their private playground,” remembers Patricia d’Orey, a garden designer, who lived there with her husband Fernando and their four children until 1988, when they moved to a smaller house in nearby Eugaria. “The setting was so fun that I never had to buy the children toys–they amused themselves amid the statuary and carvings!”
Fernando, whose memories of his own childhood summers in Sintra trace a bygone era, remembers when the families who summered here were a select group and mainly socialized among themselves. “As children, we gathered at Regaleira, since we had terraces large enough for roller hockey–our sport of choice,” he explains. Another roller skater, Jose Lobo de Vasconcellos, still spends summers here at his mother’s Quinta Schindler. “It’s true that Sintra has changed a lot over the last years, yet we are lucky that much has stayed the same,” he says.
Visiting the beach is still a major activity in Sintra, and at Baudry’s urging I head out the next day. “We always go to Praia a Adraga” says Baudry. “It’s perfect for a morning swim and a freshly caught fish lunch.” Within the wooded slopes and gardens of Sintra, it is easy to forget that the sea is so near. The road to the beach passes through the heavily wooded Serra de Sintra, where dense forests give way to magnificent vistas punctuated by fantastic moss-covered boulders. I arrive at Praia a Adraga at midmorning. The secluded cove, once reached, is pure heaven. It is a weekday morning, and I have the place to myself. High rocky cliffs embrace the white sandy beach at both ends, and I settle in for a swim in the surf and some serious sunbathing. By noontime, though, I am ready to head to the cove’s one simple building, the Restaurant da Adraga. After a solitary morning I am surprised to see the place full of obviously local businessmen as well as the odd tourist. A fresh sheep’s-milk cheese immediately appears on the table, followed by a platter of grilled sardines, caught this morning and still tasting of the sea. A roughly chopped salad, topped with thick slices of onion and dressed with fragrant olive oil, rounds out my day at the beach.
Back in town that evening, I head to Quinta da Capela for cocktails. The coproprietor, Arturo de Pereira, and I sit in the exquisitely landscaped gardens, where peacocks strut their stuff and a flock of doves heads back to its cote. The 18th-century quinta still belongs to the Cadoval family and is rented by Arturo and his business partner Marc Zurcher, who have turned it into one of Sintra’s most charming hotels. “We have only seven rooms and two cottages,” explains Arturo. “I have tried to retain the feeling of staying in a private home, which is really what Sintra is all about.”
As we watch the sky turn from pink to purple, the mist comes in from the sea and licks our ankles. Hugging my shawl around me and sipping my glass of ruby-red port, I find it easy to convince myself that I have slipped permanently into the Sintra way of life, and easier still to forget that tomorrow I must head back to civilization. Perhaps I could stay just a few more days?