Fairy-Tale City

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

-The Stolen Child, William Butler Yeats

Thick fog cradled the top of the mountain in a frigid embrace, impenetrable by the sun’s warm rays. I could just make out a shadow of the imposing walls of Palácio da Pena looming behind the gray curtain. On a clear day, this colorful palace would look vibrant and inviting, but on this day it was eerie and foreboding. An icy wind sent a chill through my body and I pulled up the hood of my raincoat. Moisture had already condensed onto my eyelashes, adding a hazy filter to my vision that complimented the thick atmosphere. One was certain: This was not how I’d envisioned our visit to Pena Palace.

The previous afternoon, Vince and I had been able to see the palace from miles away on our seaside hike, a shining jewel adorning the mountaintop. In my imagination, we would have had the same lucky weather, and we would have explored the lush gardens that surround the palace. But there’s no use in counting on the weather to cooperate with your plans, so instead of the cheerful looking palace of the artist king, Ferdinand II, we got to experience a spookier version that looked like it had been lifted straight from the pages of a dark fairy tale. It was the impenetrable castle that our hero must brave in order to save the damsel in distress. Leave it to me to be melodramatic about a bit of mist.

There was no use in trying to get a view of the palace out in the gardens anymore, so Vince and I decided to go inside instead. I was relieved that we’d bought combination tickets for the palace and gardens even though we hadn’t initially planned to go inside. At least we had the option to shelter from the chilly weather. We got in line with some of the other members of our Percussive Tours group and waited for our timed entry to begin. As we waited, we got to see some of the palace’s exterior emerging from the fog.

The palace’s interior was crowded, and as expected, lavishly decorated with gilded chandeliers, hand carved wooden reliefs, and elaborate furniture. There was a large courtyard at its center, and wisps of fog drifted in from the outside, making stone gargoyles look as though they were exhaling smoke down towards us. We followed a line of visitors through a maze of resplendent chambers, eventually ending up in a jarringly modern gift shop where I bought a postcard that pictured the palace on a sunny day.

We still had a lot more sightseeing to fit in that day, so we regrouped with all of the other Percussive travelers in the gift shop and made our way back down the mountain and into to town of Sintra, where we stopped for lunch at a restaurant that had a hilltop view of the city’s orange rooftops. Down at the base of the mountain, it was a warm, sunny day, and Vince and I enjoyed the sunshine as we ate as quickly as possible. We didn’t want to waste any time in getting to our next stop, the Quinta da Regaleira.

After paying for lunch, Vince and I took a short walk to the entrance of the famous palace and gardens. We had purchased our tickets in advance, and were able to enter immediately. There was no line like there had been at Pena Palace, and since we were still at the bottom of the mountain, the weather was nice. This made the prospect of exploring a sprawling garden much more inviting.

Quinta da Regaleira was made what it is today thanks to the imagination of António Augusto de Carvalho Monteiro.  He hired Italian architect, Luigi Manini to help him create his vision for the large estate, and together they designed structures to reflect Monteiro’s scientific and philosophical interests. The gardens are filled with secret underground passageways, grottos, turrets, and of course, the famous Initiatic Well.

The well, which pierces more than eighty-eight feet into the earth, was once used for ceremonial purposes. Monteiro had interest in subjects such as masonry, the Knights Templar, and alchemy, and the well was used in particular for Tarot initiation rites. I couldn’t help but feel a bit like Nancy Drew uncovering a secret mystery as we wound our way to the bottom of the well. As we descended, the air changed from warm and humid to clammy and damp, and our footsteps thudded on the staircase ominously. Murmurs of other visitors echoed throughout the stone cylinder like the disembodied voices of ghosts.

At the bottom of the well, the intrigue only increased as we found an underground passage that led to the base of another well, and then out behind a trickling waterfall in a verdant grotto.

Once we’d resurfaced above ground, Vince and I explored more of the garden’s maze and finally entered the Regaleira Palace, an ornate structure with beautiful stonework. There weren’t many rooms open to the public inside, but as we exited we noticed that the fog on the mountaintop had lifted enough to reveal a medieval castle whose stone walls blended in so well with the rocky ridge line that it looked like it could have grown out of it.

It was the Castelo dos Mouros, the third of the three major tourist destinations in Sintra. While the city has many more historic buildings to see, there are three that most visitors try to do in one day trip, and we’d already been to two of them. We did a bit of quick Googling, I looked up admission prices and open hours for the castle while Vince looked up the city bus schedule, and then decided we would try to make it there before it closed for the day.

We raced back into town where we remembered seeing a bus stop, and caught a bus that dropped us off at the Castelo dos Mouros just in time to buy tickets. An uphill trail through a damp and misty forest led us up to the base of the castle, which has been standing since the 8th century when the Moors used it as a fortification. Unlike Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira, the castle was relatively empty of visitors. It was much quieter, save for a harsh wind that battered the hillside, and Vince and I both agreed that it was our favorite stop of the day.

Bundled up in jackets, we walked the length of the castle wall, its turrets emerging from the billowing mists periodically. Once again, I couldn’t help but imagine the ghosts that would surely haunt this place if it were set in a storybook, shadows doomed to pace the castles walls, back and forth, for the rest of time.

The wind was strongest at the highest tower of the castle, and we took a few moments to feel its full force before descending back into the forest, which now seemed like a warm and inviting heaven.

After leaving the castle, we returned to town where we wandered winding streets, shopping for souvenirs and trying Ginjinha shots. Ginjinha is a cherry liquor that is often served in a chocolate shot glass that you eat to chase the liquor. I was ready for a nap by the time we had walked down to the train station to catch the next train back to Lisbon. The long day of walking around on cobblestones had caught up to my feet which were now aching, and I was grateful to board the train and sit down. I spent the ride back to Lisbon drifting in and out of sleep and thinking about the amazing day we’d had in Sintra. Even though the weather hadn’t been ideal, I’d still enjoyed myself immensely, and my brain was now swimming with imagination from everything we’d seen and done in the magical fairy-tale city.


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