Royal Duck House, gardens of the Pena Palace, Sintra, Portugal
Sintra and its mystical hills dotted with fairytale palaces and extravagant villas have bewitched visitors for centuries.
The Romans made it a place of cult moon worshiping and named it “Cynthia” after the goddess of the moon. They were followed by the Moors who also fell in love with the lush vegetation and built a hilltop castle, a palace, and several fountains around the town. Later it became the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family and attracted a number of wealthy aristocrats who built huge mansions and villas.
Famous British poet and traveler Lord Byron stopped by in the 18th century, writing that the town is “perhaps in every respect the most delightful in Europe,” and calling it a “glorious Eden” in his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. His fellow countryman Robert Southey followed him and saw it as “the most blessed spot on the whole inhabitable globe.” Others made it their own private retreat, such as William Beckford (one of 18th century England’s wealthiest men), who lived in the splendid Monserrate Palace, later bought by Francis Cook.
It is indeed an extraordinary place with a surreal mixture of history and fantasy, protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Its fairytale palaces, incredible vistas, and notable museum collections make it a destination you should make the effort to see, especially if you visit Lisbon.
But the most famous building in Sintra is Pena Palace. Built in the 1840s, it is one of Europe’s most fantastic palaces, often compared to Neuschwanstein and the other mock-medieval castles of Ludwig of Bavaria in Germany, although it was actually built more than two decades before those. It includes a drawbridge, a conglomeration of turrets, ramparts, and domes, and a gargoyle above a Neo-Manueline arch, all washed in an array of pastel shades. The extravagant interior is decorated in late Victorian and Edwardian furnishings, rich ornaments, paintings, and priceless porcelain preserved just as the royal family left them. Other highlights include the spacious ballroom, the marvelous “Arab Room”, and an impressive 16th-century chapel altarpiece (part of an original convent founded to celebrate the first sight of Vasco da Gama’s returning fleet).
Surrounding the palace is the mystical Pena Park, filled with a variety of trees and exotic plants from the former colonies of the Portuguese empire, ponds, fountains, and black swans. There is also a charming lodge hidden among the trees that can be visited. At the highest point is a statue of King Ferdinand looking towards his palace, and a viewpoint called “Cruz Alta” overlooking Pena Palace and surroundings.
Canon 5D Mkii. Canon 17-40mm F4L USM.