A King’s Fever Dream and Flaming Sausages: A Return to Sintra

I once wrote a pretty long Sintra themed entry about how I really don’t think going for a castle tour to inspect the gilded bathing quarters of royalty is worth the hassle. And then, returning to Sintra, I went ahead and very literally checked out the bathrooms of Portuguese royalty. Spoiler: they are not all that grand, 19th Century sanitation, even with fine china generously lavished on all imaginable surfaces, just doesn’t cut the mustard when compared to an average modern day arrangement.

I still think that going for the full palace tour in Sintra is an overkill, opening here the possibility of returning in a year’s time with an ecstatic account of how I catalogued every nook and cranny of all palaces, castles, ruins and other assorted buildings in the municipality. But this time around, staring out into the great wide open of the Atlantic we said, let’s just see one of the palaces. The fanciest one, if we’re at it. Or to be more precise, we stared into the great wide nothing, as the ocean was covered in milky fog, and it was our taxi driver who volunteered the idea of taking us to one of the palaces. There was obviously a lucrative side to his proposal, but for a four person party it does make a lot of sense to agree on a fee with a taxi driver to be taken to Cabo da Roca, back, and then up the hillside to the Pena Palace. While the trek to the palace might qualify as pleasant, if a little strenuous physical exercise, Cabo da Roca involves a rather lengthy bus trip, and connections are not all that frequent (roughly once every half an hour).

You save a lot of time, precious time you can spend inspecting the royal knick-knacks. But first you need to buy a ticket. Ideally, you are a modern, digitally enabled tourist, and have already bought them online, to save even more time for the knick-knacks. This was obviously not our case, but in all fairness, the ticket queue moved pretty fast, and we were soon in the possession of our ‘timed’ tickets. Having a disturbing Swiss watchmaker side to my personality, these timed tickets were a concern to me, as we were supposed to be at the palace entry in 10 minutes. Fair enough, but there was quite a long stretch of lush park between us and the palace itself, most of it uphill. A small bus was also available, but it was already packed, and some rather Byzantine ticket administration was happening at the front door, so we passed on the opportunity, come what may.

We needn’t have worried. Portuguese time is malleable. Everybody had tickets, but the entry time slots on these tickets varied wildly. People had got lost in the park.Had eaten cookies and sandwiches. Had taken selfies on the outside terraces. And then decided to go in on a whim, and were let in. There were many of us. Way too many for my taste, but apparently royal knick-knacks are tantalizingly popular. We progressed at a painfully slow pace, an ouroboros of tourists snaking through the narrow corridors and swallowing itself. In some rooms you could only stay for a few seconds, questions ringing out in a Babylonian multitude of languages. What is this? The bedroom. The office. The dining room. The kitchen. The other bedroom. I suddenly remembered the moment I almost lost my sanity in the Musei Vaticani, when in the umpteenth room we were faced with a hideous swan one of the defunct popes had received as a present from an overseas congregation. At least there you had the promise of the Sixtine Chapel. Here, though, an eerie feeling was creeping up on me. While the building itself, a Romanticist fever dream with Moorish touches, fits the Iberian Peninsula, there was something decidedly familiar about the knick-knacks, a gilded opulence not always in the best of tastes I associated with visits to Austrian castles. Disparate fragments rushed back from my history classes and it dawned on me that, of course, in a painfully complicated affair involving the rule of both freshly independent Brazil and Portugal, Queen Maria II ended up marrying an Austrian prince of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty. Ferdinand II was born in Vienna, and became first prince regent, and then, once his first male heir was born, in 1837, King of Portugal.

Ferdinand took a liking to what had once been the Hieronymite monastery of Our Lady of Pena. The monastery, damaged by lighting and the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, lay mostly disused, so Ferdinand acquired it along with the nearby Castle of the Moors and the surrounding estates, with the intention of turning it into the royal family’s summer retreat. He commissioned Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, a geologist and amateur architect (because why not), to redevelop the structure, which von Eschwege enthusiastically did, drawing inspiration from the classical German castles of the Rhine region, then spicing everything up, on the King and Queen’s behest, with Medieval and Islamic elements. As such, the castle and its interiors hover somewhere between a cabinet of curiosities and a visual indigestion. Given its overwhelming juxtapositions, perhaps the best way to enjoy the castle is from a slight distance, emerging among the treetops on a foggy day, more of a dream vision than a real building. In keeping with the castle’s over the top feel, the surrounding park, another brainchild of Ferdinand’s, is a collection of strange flora from different continents, including six sequoia trees, which the blog’s industrious co-photographer was very delighted to locate and hug.

After Ferdinand’s death, the castle was inherited by his second wife, the Countess of Edla, before being bought back by the royal family. In 1910, Amelia, the last Queen of Portugal spent her final night in the castle, before leaving the country in exile. Upon reaching the final room (the kitchen) I also felt ready to be exiled, but then discovered that the outer walls are actually striking and unexpectedly beautiful, their strong yellows and reds spectacular against the verdant backdrop.

It has to be added, though, that we could not have done this any more wrongly: we visited the Pena Palace in high summer season, on a week with two bank holidays in Portugal, and around noon, when even the laziest tourists had stirred and begun their relentless cataloguing of local sights and sounds. Perhaps some other time empty corridors will reveal mysteries obscured by the throng. But now it was time for another mistake. Lunch in Sintra before we head back to Lisbon for the evening. And sure enough, everyone had the same idea, and all terraces were packed to the brim, even with the increasing threat of a summer shower darkening the horizon. We did, however, find an establishment that wasn’t even there on the map, hidden in a cellar: Binhoteca, it seems, is the outpost of a wine store, and functions as a wine bar with a wide array of Portuguese wines and some local staples, among them, to the delight of the blog’s industrious co-photographer, sausages on fire. I, for my end, had something called chicken à Brás, which is thin shreds of chicken mixed with onions and thinly chopped potatoes, held together by what is fundamentally an omelette. It is exactly as filling as it sounds, surprisingly delicious and excellent to prepare the stomach for some wine tasting. Since I am not necessarily a wine connoisseur but have some clear preferences, I very much appreciated the way our host recommended wines based on my likes, in a highly competent way, but without the usual wine knower’s disdain for the less oenologically enlightened. The rain having passed, with just the right amount of Tejo whites onboard, we emerged into the light, ready for fresh mistakes.

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