A short 40-minute train ride—going west from Lisbon—brings you to Sintra, a small town that feels a world away from the conjested streets of Lisbon. Like most scenically beautiful places, It all starts with the geology! In this case, a blob of granite (small pluton for you geologists) has created a high ridge that looms over the surrounding region, with 360-degree-views that encompass the Atlantic coastline, Lisbon, and countryside. The high ridge is here because the granite is a more resistance rock type than the surrounding sediments that are weaker and more subject to erosion.
Because of its incredible location, people have been inhabiting this ridge for millennia, and building castles and palaces for both their enjoyment and their defense. The Castelo do Moros (Moorish Castle) looks well situated for defense, appearing to grow directly out of the granite bedrock. It was built in the 9th century by the Moors, who were then in charge of the area. It’s fun to clamor along the castle walls and take in the ever-changing vistas.
The fantasy aspect of Sintra comes from the many palaces that have been built over the ages. The most “over the top” is the Palacio da Pena (Pena Palace), which sits on top of the ridge like a giant, colorful confection. The guidebook describes it as “a compelling riot of kitsch”, a good description! Once used as a convent, it was remodeled for family living by the royal family in the nineteenth century and was used into the early twentieth century. Now its possible to wander through the walkways, towers, and maze of rooms, and gawk at the extravagant furnishings within.
Adding to the fantasy feel is the town itself, which snuggles into the base of the mountain, with Carmel-like quaint buildings and narrow, winding streets. In the middle of town is the Palacio Nacional (National Palace), which was built by the Moors but modified many times over the years. This view from the Moorish castle shows the town of Sintra. The conic tower is part of the National Palace.
The interior of the palace has been decorated in fine style. One example is the Sala dos Cisnes (room of swans) where the entire ceiling is decorated with the swan motif.
From Sintra it is possible to ride an old tram to the coast, which faces the Atlantic Ocean and draws surfers and families seeking recreation. Like the U.S. West coast, the currents are flowing from the north, and the water is cold and rough. This is why the south coast of Portugal, where the water is warmer and more gentle, gets more summer vacationers.
Also visible on the coast are the sediments that form the less resistant lowlands surrounding the Sintra ridge. These are marine limestones and mudstones that have been uplifted by the active faults now affecting the area.
Many people visit Sintra as a day trip from Lisbon. But it is well worth staying a few days. There are lush gardens around the Pena Palace for walks (the high ridge draws more rainfall); with more time it’s possible to hike from town to ridge and vice versa; excellent seafood restaurants are dinner time attractions; and it’s possible to ride the quaint tram to the Atlantic coast!
Note: Internet struggles caused the draft to get published prematurely. It is now complete! Sorry about that!