Somehow I never heard of Sintra until I began researching the region around Lisbon. Unlike Neuschwanstein in Germany, the castles and palaces at Sintra do not have the instant recognition and Disney associations, but they are just as breathtaking. I think I have new favorite castles.

From Lisbon, it was a 45 minute train ride to the end of the line at Sintra. Just around the corner from the station was a city bus that is purposely routed on a loop to stop at the main tourist sights. One of the main attractions about the area for the palace-builders was the forested hills; the road up is steep and windy enough that the bus had to back up to turn corners and had rear view mirrors that were more of a suggestion than functional (presumably because getting torn off on trees and other vehicles is a way of life).

Our first stop was the Moorish Castle, which looks out over the surrounding hills and plains all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Looking down to the National Palace of Sintra and the Atlantic beyond, very castley towers, moss-covered crenellations, Pena Palace on the next hill.

The Moorish Castle is a set of ruins that has roots at least as far back as the 1000s, and was added to and expanded by successive generations. Much of what is now standing was reconstructed in the 18oos by King Ferdinand II, who loved the idea of romantic palaces and ruins. It acted as a sort of fairytale escape with gardens and trees planted among the rocks and outer walls.

A real, live, and slightly angry black swan; in the Moorish Castle cistern; example of how rocks were broken – holes were drilled and wooden planks placed in them, then the wood was soaked with water and the expansion split the rock.

Set on a high hill and looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, February was not the best time to visit, but there were fewer leaves on the trees to obstruct views and fewer people. The ocean felt much closer at the Castle than in Lisbon, and the sea breeze was a constant during our visit. The trees with wind-honed branches reminded us of similar looking ones near the Washington coast. Of course, even with the chill part 1 of lunch was a chocolate Cornetto, though this was mostly because I wanted to see the ice cream vending machine in action.

The same bus took us uphill to the neighboring Pena Palace where part 2 of lunch was a lemon pastry. Most of this palace is more recent than the Moorish Castle, and it was actually used for a few years as a royal retreat in the mid-1800s.

It is the happiest palace I’ve ever seen. Sections of the building are painted in bright yellow, pale blue, and rust red, and others are covered in ornate tiles. There are towers, turrets, long entry tunnels, arches, and porches. Like Neuschwanstein, some of the features are a little faked – close up it looks akin a theme-park castle rather than a building to be taken seriously. But still, if central heating, a dishwasher, and wi-fi could be put in, I’d probably try to move in tomorrow. There were great views all around, and porches to take advantage of the sun at all times of day.

Pena Palace, statuary and tiles above some of the gates.
Closer to one of the towers, spikes on a decorative turret, from a view in the gardens.

Of course, the inside is just as ostentatious as the outside. The palace was built around the ruins of a monastery; an interior cloister was preserved and rooms added around it. While some of the more important rooms have mosaic or tile ceilings, many other are simply painted to give the impression of carved stone.

The interior cloister, and bright decoration in some of the castle’s rooms.

Not all the furniture is original, but all of it is museum-worthy. The old wardrobes and desks represent the best craftsmanship of the time and I would love to own any of them. However, seating has gotten decidedly more comfortable in the last two hundred years; stiff-backed leather chairs and couches with oak arms would not be good for relaxing.

Leather chair, the small dining room, and the chapel altar.

There are acres of gardens below the Palace, and we spent part of the afternoon walking the trails, happy to do something that resembled woodland hiking. There were a few small structures that served as picnic areas and viewpoints, as well as an active farm with horses and goats. A row of duck ponds filled a valley, and one of them had a pair of black swans feeding in it. Honestly, I didn’t think black swans were real until I saw these.

There are several other castles in the area, including some we could see, but I can only take so much royalness in one day. We will have to see the rest on another trip, and maybe in summer when hiking and biking in the area is less subject to cold wind.