Sintra, and especially Pena Palace, are extremely popular during the summer season. If you can’t visit off-season, try to go early in the day!
Pena Palace is the crown jewel of Sintra, a town twenty five kilometres west of Lisbon’s centre. It is frankly extraordinary, and gives Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein in Bavaria a run for its money as the most outlandish castle in Europe, and possibly the world. It looks like something from Alice in Wonderland, or like it must be made of marzipan and gingerbread and candy cane, such is its stylistic exuberance.
Rising from a thickly wooded peak, its pink and lemon crenellated towers are often wreathed in mists, like whipped cream. The palace was a wild dream of Ferdinand of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, the artist-husband of Queen Maria, who commissioned the Bavarian-Manueline epic, complete with an armoured statute of himself on a nearby peak.
The statue looks over both the palace and its extensive gardens. The mystical Pena Park is full of trees and exotic plants from the former colonies of the Portuguese empire, along with ponds, fountains and sinister-looking black swans. Twenty minutes from the palace by foot there is the Cruz Alta viewpoint, the highest peak in Serra de Sinta, from which you can catch marvellous views of the palace, the Tagus estuary and the ocean beyond.
The interior of the palace is just as wacky and extravagant as you would expect, and has been restored to how it would have been before the fall of the Portuguese monarchy in 1910. It is packed with precious porcelain, trompe l’oeil murals and nude sculptures of buxom nymphs, all set among late Victorian and Edwardian furnishings. The effect is gloriously kitsch.
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