A Fine Day for Castling

2018-06-30-15.12.10I didn’t spend my entire time in Lisbon having pneumonia and eating pastry; I also left the city twice on day trips, once I was well enough to walk more than a block without having to take a nap immediately afterward.

30 June, 2018: What do you do after you’ve been basically laid up for two weeks and haven’t managed to eat more than one small meal a day for most of that time? Head to a mountain town and spend the whole day walking up and down steep hills and stairs looking at castles, obviously. My doctor had encouraged me to try to take deep breaths and work to get my lung capacity back (probably only partly with the ulterior motive of gaining a vocal new fan for Portugal in the world cup, as previously mentioned), so as soon as I felt somewhat recovered I hopped on a train and went to Sintra.

Sintra is a lovely historic town about 45 minutes north of Lisbon, with multiple castles and a very cute (if touristic) downtown. It’s situated on a high, steep hill with stellar views to the surrounding countryside all the way out to the ocean. There are lots of places to explore; between having just a single day and the pneumonia, I only managed to see two of the castles, one of the parks, and part of the town. It was well worth the trip, though!


I started at Pena Palace, which is, according to Wikipedia, “one of the major expressions of 19th-century Romanticism in the world.” It is quite a stunning outpouring of Romantic expression, particularly the gardens. Built on the site of a semi-ruined 16th century monastery by King Ferdinand in the mid-1800’s, it’s a wonderfully extravagant folly.


Ferdinand was cool: he was modern, liberal, and artistic. He was a very good painter and also did etchings, and he designed the palace and gardens as a summer residence and artistic retreat of sorts for the royal family. To design his palace, he hired a German mining engineer named Baron von Eschwege (what, wouldn’t YOU hire a mining engineer if you wanted a romantic palace? It seems like it would take such a similar skillset), and told him to make it look like an opera. The baron made it look like something, anyway: he went on a few inspirational tours to Algeria and central Europe, painted the original monastery red and the main part of the new palace yellow, and then added on pretty much whatever struck his fancy from there. The result is a wild amalgamation of different styles from across time and place — Moorish, Victorian, you name it.


He also had 500 acres of gardens created surrounding the palace with Romantic ideals in mind (admiration of wild, untamed nature, the sense of the sublime), so it’s full of winding paths, elegantly overgrown forests, artistically-disheveled flowerbeds, and dark, foreboding bits including a highly poetic grotto. It’s also a reminder of the exploratory/colonial history of Portugal, featuring 500+ species of trees from around the world. Sections of the garden were designed specifically as spots for for Ferdinand to paint his favorite views, and there are picturesque stone benches and bowers scattered throughout.


Spectacular as it is, though, Pena Palace is only one of several castles in Sintra. The other one I managed to visit at my unusually-slow walking pace was the Castle of the Moors, which I liked even better.

It was established by, as you might have guessed, the Moors, during the 8th century. It has three layers of walls, which was an important measure of a castle/town’s importance. The idea was that you started with a castle, to fortify and protect an area of strategic value — in this case, a bunch of agricultural land near the coast.


If your castle is good enough and successful at protecting the folks who live near it, more people move closer and you get a little town growing up around the outside — shops and trade to support the inhabitants of the castle, and a little extra protection for the folks clustered around the outside. Once that town gets bigger, it itself becomes economically important enough to protect, so you put up an outer wall around the town, which also acts as an extra layer of defense for the inner castle. As the inner town grows, more folks are attracted, and the process starts over again, with a new layer springing up outside the new wall. The Castle of the Moors was well-established enough to put up a third wall to protect those folks, which means it was around for quite a while. It’s very atmospheric:


It’s mostly in ruins (although Ferdinand did quite a bit of renovating and it has some of his romantic touches added as well). There was one particularly nice monument: while he was renovating they found a lot of bones, but they didn’t know whether they were from Moors or Christians, and they were all jumbled up together anyway. To cover all their bases and make sure the deceased got whatever divine intervention they needed, they piled up the bones and various other grave contents and built a stone monument over top, and added both a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent side by side. This kind of casual, lump-it-all-together approach to historical artifacts has made life a bit difficult for modern archeologists, but their hearts were in the right place.

The castle walls are quite dramatic, and it has the wonderfully European attitude regarding personal responsibility: if you decide to ignore a sign and walk up on a stone wall with a sheer drop, and you fall off it doing something silly, it’s your own darn fault, so they don’t fence much of anything off. I had a nice time exploring and thoroughly wearing myself out on all the stairs, and some of the heights were positively dizzying. After I finished it was nearly 5pm, so I walked down another zillion steps to the town and wandered around for a little while. It still has these cool old handpainted tile street signs:


And this cute little train station, where I caught my train back to Lisbon:


Even the train stations in Portugal have incredible tile art:


It was a tiring day, but it was also beautiful, and a great way to confirm that I was nearly recovered in order to hike properly in Italy a few weeks later. More on that coming soon!


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