sintra, glorious eden

words & images anna weber

I don't remember the exact photograph of Lisbon that first caught my eye, but I remember there was something in the way the that the light bounced off the stucco rooftops, the faded and chipped walls of azulejos, the graffiti tags scrawled on the sides of a yellow tram chugging its way up a steep hill, the glimmer of a wide river in the distance. That something put a hand on my heartstrings and tugged, hard. Come here. Vem aqui. A few years later, I answered the call accompanied by a friend, planning only our arrival in Porto and our departure from Lisbon, letting Portugal fill in the rest of the blanks.

One of the blanks was Sintra. I read somewhere in passing that Lord Byron, self-defined hero of my favorite era in literature, had fallen in love with Sintra on his European and North African wanderings. If Byron loved it, so will I, went my reasoning. I was following in the footsteps of a poet that I have loved since I was fifteen. Makes sense, right?


Weary from the fury and thunder of the many wars that had rattled Europe during the second half of the eighteenth century, suffering from disillusionment with the Enlightenment philosophers and values, melancholy, cynical, and looking for distraction—within this context, Childe Harold embarks on a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean and Western Europe.

Childe Harold—"childe" meaning a candidate for knighthood—was the first Byronic hero: a brooding, handsome anti-authoritarian, and a self-destructive seducer who reappears over and over in literature and film. Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, based on Byron's own life and voyages, is an early travelogue, documenting the beauty of the Alps, gushing over central Portugal's lush forests and calm rivers, admiring remnants of antiquity found in Greece and Italy.

Sintra, in particular, meets Harold (and Byron) as an oasis of thick pine and cypress, mist cloaking the craggy hillsides and catching on the mossy vines. On clearer days, the stone ruins of the Moorish castle rise high overhead, looking out to the waves of the Atlantic crashing on the cliffs of Europe's westernmost point of land. It is hard to imagine, even when staring right at it until the horizon pulses yellow on the inside of your eyelids when you blink, the size of the Atlantic Ocean, the thousands of miles of blank blue, ripple after wave after whitecap, between Portugal and North America.

Lo! Cintra's glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen,
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium's gates?

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto the First, Lord Byron


Taking the half-hour long bus from our villa in Almoçageme, I understood Harold's predicament: How to describe Sintra in words? The valley below the hills was scattered with red roofs of white-washed houses, jammed together on cobbled roads and separated by lichen-covered stone walls and rusty barbed wire. Lemon trees, bearing clusters of fat fruit, pruned by wrinkled men wearing wool caps and sweaters, lined the streets and the edges of fields left empty during the winter months. The manors of the former aristocracy, remodeled and refurbished for tours, dot the hillsides, their bright colors and neat gardens contrasting with their tangled surroundings. The roads were narrow and bumpy, twisting abruptly, throwing passengers into one another, sending bags and damp umbrellas skittering across the floor of the bus.

I was glad I'd brought my four-euro grocery store umbrella; the mist and light drizzle would glide across the hills late at night and in the middle of the afternoon, snaking their way through the dense, dark foliage, catching on the thorns of the lemon trees, tapping Morse code on their way down the gutters. But we needed the grayness to appreciate the light, to value our few precious hours of strong sunshine, streaking joyfully across the granite bluffs.


We had the choice of riding a bus, taking a taxi, or walking up to the circuit of Sintra's most famous castles and palaces. No-brainer—we snagged a trail guide from the office of tourism and headed up the hill on foot. Not long after finding the trailhead, we ducked through a gap in the first exterior wall of the Moorish castle, slimy and malachite green from the blankets of moss and ivy draped across its ridges. We followed a narrow path along the wall, always working our way up. I ran my hand along the blocks as I jumped from log to stone to slick patch of mud, marveling at the sensation of touching something that had been in place for well over a millennium.

A laissez-faire kind of tranquility enveloped us, drifting upwards from the ferns that we crushed under our feet, floating on the rich fragrances of unfamiliar flora, resonating in the gaps between the only sounds we heard: our footsteps, birdsong, the faint whistling in the tops of the conifers— echoes of the ocean thirty kilometers away. I learned later that the Serra, Sintra's small mountain range, has a long mythological and supernatural history, mixing legends from Roman, Muslim, Moorish, and Christian traditions, among others. It made sense: I'd distinctly felt the spirits, gods, and goddesses dallying in the halcyon quiet of the forest.


Antiquity does not, has not ever impressed me—one of those things that's not my cup of tea. The only Roman or Grecian ruin or artwork that has ever moved me to silence and reverence was the Parthenon. I could picture the gods communicating with humans in those hallways, perched above Athens. But the sight of the Castelo dos Mouros emerging from its jungle setting stopped me short, urged me to incline my head to marvel at the winding walls and sturdy ramparts tucked into the topography of the peak. The highest point of the Serra, Sintra's small mountain range, is called the Monte de Lua, or "mountain of the moon"; it is easy, as it was with the Parthenon, to imagine celestial beings, spinning in their eternal orbits, close enough to the Serra and to the civilization of the Castelo as to brush its rocky heights.

The tower at the highest part of the Moorish castle is called the Torre Real. It might be named for King Ferdinand II, consort to Queen Maria II, who would climb to the highest point of the Castelo dos Mouros to look south towards the Hieronymite monastery, which had fallen into disuse and disrepair after a major earthquake almost a century earlier. He was fascinated by the ruins, returning again and again to wander the marble and alabaster quarters, watching the way the sunlight struck the hill through the fog from his standpoint at Torre Real.

In the middle of Romanticism's most vibrant years—inspired by its fond relationship with nature and influence on architecture, pulling heavily on Gothic and Moorish themes in the arches and azulejos, setting a template for his uncle's Neuschwanstein to be built some decades later—Ferdinand decided to construct the royal family's summer home upon the site of Our Lady of Pena, dedicated to the Virgin Mary who was sighted on the hilltops hundreds of years earlier.

The Torre Real is where Zoe and I dropped our backpacks and sprawled out for our lunch break. We sat on the rock ledges of the castle with our knees against our chests, ripping through our sandwiches and bags of chips. Behind us, long clouds cast their shadows on the valley, and the windmills on the cliffs at Azenhas do Mar glinted every time their spires turned. Indeed, after spending a winter in the region of Reims, France, where a chill just above freezing hangs so heavy and stagnant you could squeeze the moisture out of the air with two hands, those deep gulps of mountain air certainly felt like bubbling water from an oasis.


Pena impressed me less, which was not what I would have predicted or expected. The palace, inspired by the very movement of arts and philosophy that spurred me to come Sintra, was carefully designed, built, and decorated, with many objects and rooms serving purposes tied to aesthetic beauty as well as utility. The facades had recently been restored, and the yellows, ochres, and pinks soaked up the early afternoon sunlight, dazzling all of us who had been tilting our heads backwards to gaze up.

The blend of influences in style and architecture was surprisingly harmonious, as diverse as the Serra's history: Moorish, Gothic, Romantic, Renaissance, and Manueline. Even the large statue guarding one of the main entrances—half-man and half-fish, or perhaps newt, possibly an analogy for the birth of the world, or the incarnation of a fabled beast living in the forest—tapped into the supernatural elements of the Serra.

And yet, my one goal in wandering the renovated halls and chambers of Pena was to find a good vista looking down towards the Moorish castle, in order to see the whole sprawling monument from above, blending in with its natural surroundings. I wondered how Byron would have felt about Sintra in the decades that followed his first visit; then again, it's likely that if he'd never visited in the early nineteenth century, Sintra wouldn't have become the aristocratic playground that it did.


I haven't been able to pinpoint where the name Pena comes from. It has conflicting meanings in Portuguese. Many people assume that it means "feather" and reflects the pastels of the palace Ferdinand commissioned. But, the word existed in association to the mountain long before Ferdinand did. Another meaning is "punishment" or "pity." Could it foreshadow the obliteration of the royal family not even one hundred years later, beginning with the assassination of King Carlos I and the child-prince Luis Felipe, hinting at penance for the upper class's excesses?

Lining the switchbacked roads on the lower slopes of the Serra were abandoned villas—windows broken and boarded, scarred wooden doors padlocked shut, illegible graffiti tags in black clustered above the foundations, caving roofs and a dusty For-Sale signs hanging crooked off a sill.

I realized, as we took the train back to Lisbon a day later, that there were two Sintras—the Sintra inside the national park where the tourists visited, and the Sintra outside of the national park where the locals lived. Outside of the park, blocks of apartment buildings waving flags of drying laundry rose along the main roads leading into the town. Highways and bridges criss-crossed and clover-leafed between factories and construction sites, some abandoned. The Serra mist became rain as the train picked up speed, leaving Sintra behind. I tried to catch a last glimpse of the Castelo dos Mouros, but its peak had long since disappeared in the clouds.

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