Uday K Chakraborty explores the scenic small towns and royal remnants of Portugal’s glorious past
For most people Portugal means Lisbon. However, just beyond Lisbon lies a country of ancient towns, walled villages, beach resorts and captivating scenery. A sense of the past of this once great sea faring colonial power could still be sensed in an area between Sintra Mountain Range down to the nearby sea shores. Quite accidentally, I discovered parts of such relatively unexplored Portugal.
To this day I continue to give thanks to the spirit which guided me to Sintra – with its unique palaces and restorative greenery. Through my patient cab driver I stumbled upon the three-star hotel Central and blessed my good fortune. A most romantic setting at a most reasonable price. My room was almost palatial: cherubs and birds in nursery-rhyme pastels played upon the ceiling within a bas-relief border of flower. Strange and erratic creaks made the place seem suitably haunted – the ghost of Portugal’s past, perhaps.
The gentle town of Sintra is one of the oldest in Portugal. Its mild climate and lovely gardens have made it a favourite summer spot for kings and nobility from the time of the Middle Ages. In the morning I fell in love with Sintra, cosily nested amongst the verdant hills of the Sierra de Sintra, the beauty of which has been sung by many poets including Lord Byron.
Thus, many of Sintra’s sights are the legacy of aristocratic lines. The Paco Real de Sintra, for example, was the royal palace of the Aviz dynasty. It is a 14th century extension of a 13th century fort, and its two conical kitchen chimneys are distinctive landmark of Sintra. Elegant but somewhat stark, the palace contains both Moorish and Gothic elements and is a virtual museum of azulejos or blue tiles.
The magnificent Palacio de Pena nests atop a 450 metres high crag like some exotic, lovably pretentious bird. Winding hill road is lined with some very impressive villas and chalets, before the palace is entered via a drawbridge. The palace itself is a true work of art, a European castle in Moor’s clothing. Built around 1850, it is a masterful blend of several styles from a variety of European architectural periods, with Moorish influences. Nearby is a Capuchin monastery from the 16th century and Monserrate Park, landscaped on the slope of the steep hill.
Crowning yet another nearby hill is yet another castle, the Castelo do Mouros, a Moorish fort dating from 800 AD. It is all a fortress in ruin should be: isolated and piquantly eerie; obdure, but yielding its stretching, staggering walls to the whistling wind and to the rustling brush that will be their conqueror. Crenellated walls, triumphal if not triumphant, in the hushed tones of ageing stone, complete this sombre picture.
On the outskirts of Sintra is an elegantly revived piece of Portuguese history, the Hotel Palacio Seteais. Built in 1787, it was the residence of a rich baron. The Portuguese king often stayed here as a guest and allowed it to put a stone crown over the entry archway, a trademark usually restricted for royal palaces. In this opulently appointed hotel one can live, eat and sleep like a king. The hotel is almost an anachronism, a stray wildflower flourishing in a field of bittersweet memories.
Elegant beach resorts
One can travel from Sintra to the sea by bus in little more than an hour. The seaside towns of Cascais and Estoril come one after another. Once a simple fishing village, Cascais now rivals St. Tropez as a chic beach resort. Cascais is a favourite among the jet set and the international aristocracy. It is also a hot spot for all kinds of water sports. But still a lingering schizophrenia is evident: fishing boats alongside luxury yachts; modest fishermen’s homes alongside modern apartment houses and villas. Its summer Sunday bullfight attracts many aficionados and Artists’ Fair is where handicrafts from all over Portugal are sold.
Somewhat smaller Estoril became internationally famous during World War II when both Allied and Axis spies were tripping over each other, notably at the aristocratic Hotel Palacio. Since Portugal was neutral, there was a gentlemen’s agreement not to interfere in one another’s affairs. Immediately after the war, it became home for numerous members of Europe’s exiled royalty. Main resort hotels, gambling casinos and night clubs are clustered around Parque Estoril, a lovely park of stately palm trees and purple red bougainvilleas, which faces the esplanade and the beach. Its mild climate makes it popular even in winter.
Land of the sea explorers
Between Sintra and more famous sea side resort towns lies Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point of the European mainland. Those who make the slight detour can purchase a certificate stating that they have visited the spot where land ends and water begins, where the Spirit of Faith and Adventure, which guided the Portuguese explorers’ ships resides.
In its heydays, Portugal’s colonial empire was more than hundred times the size of the mother country. Now, nothing remains. Post-imperialist days have left Portugal somewhat behind. The tables have indeed turned and today’s explorers from all over the world are taking the reverse journey to discover the Old World, home to a half forgotten heritage.