Lord Byron described the town of Sintra as “the most beautiful in the world”. He wasn’t far off the mark although the secret passages added since his day added a lot to our experience.
We walked up to the Moorish Castle, whose crenellations dominate most views of Sintra, through a lovely green forest full of singing birds. The Castle itself was built the best part of one-thousand years ago and looks just like a miniature version of the Great Wall of China. The minute you step out on to the battlements you can see why the Moors built a castle on this spot – the view is jaw-dropping. On a clear day, such as today, you can see for miles in any direction. Away to the East the buildings and bridges of Lisbon. To the West is Cabo de Roca, the Westernmost point in continental Europe, and then the Atlantic Ocean vanishing into the far distance. And beside and beneath are the palaces and mansions of ancient Sintra itself.
The castle walls follow the contours of the hill they were built upon – which leads to the likeness to the Great Wall. But unlike the Great Wall the battlements are only a couple of feet wide and so make for a precarious walk. Luckily the highest points can also be reached by for more solid winding paths up through the centre of the Castle, so even the most height adverse of us (me) got to enjoy the views.
Back down in Sintra we joined the crowds for a lunch amongst the plethora of restaurants and souvenir shops. We tried queijadas, a traditional sweet cheese tart – and liked it. Then it was off to the Palacio Quinta de Regaleira. Now, just so you know, Quinta de Regaleira should simply be the first stop for anyone travelling around here with kids, it is absolutely brilliant.
Quinta de Regaleira was landscaped around the early 1900s. If it was in England it would be described as a folly – the creation of an imaginative rich person with little regard for what others consider normal. The huge gardens are filled with grottoes, hidden spaces and secret passages. There are statues, little castles and chapels, groves and huge spreading trees. And did I mention secret passages?
The gardens spread up a hillside and near the top is a small irregular mound. Closer inspection reveals that the rock face is actually a swing door. Push it and you gain access to a deep, deep well. The well is 75 metres deep and has a winding staircase down to the bottom. At the bottom caves lead to dark passages cut into the hillside which lead to hidden grottoes. Some of the passages have a little light, many are pitch black. Occasionally, you’ll find a side-passage or stairs leading to some new place. It’s absolutely magical. We were amused to find many people think the well is actually magical with tales of electrical devices dying as you descend into its depths – no sign of problems from us other than lost telephone reception.
The well and subterranean passages are the icing on the cake. The garden itself is quite lovely and just full of fun places to explore. Playing hide and seek amongst the pathways, stairways and little buildings was a sheer joy. The fact that it was a warm clear day and the garden is full of tress plants and wildlife was an added bonus. We even saw a stag beetle that was a good 10cm long.
Today really was one of those wonderful travelling days when we saw things and had experiences we just would never have found at home.