On a sparklingly beautiful Sunday, we set out for a short drive up to Sintra. We’d been through here several times previously and the first time we came to Portugal we visited the National Palace in the village. This time, we wanted to visit the Pena Palace and its gardens at the top of the hill above town.
You can walk up a steep path or the winding roads with the tour buses, tuk-tuks and other vehicles, and we set out to do so, but then decided that we might benefit from a guide to orient us. Fortunately, at just that moment, one of the many Tuk-Tuks which drives tourists to the top pulled over and we hopped in. For €20, he tooled us around town a bit, telling us stories of palaces Madonna wanted to buy or Johnny Depp visited to make a movie and then up we went. The road appears to be two-ways but due to a recent (as of this writing) change to the traffic flow, cars, busses and vehicles go up one way and down another. Not realizing that at the time, it took a few minutes to get used to the driver looking backwards and chatting with us while he (or she, in our case he) made wide turns in the opposite lane as we climbed. We just told ourselves that they do this all day every day and trusted he knew what he was doing, knew the curves of the road and enjoyed his stories.
We began at a less visited corner of the park to see the Chalet of the Countess of Edla. The countess was a former Swiss-German opera singer from the United States with whom Ferdinand II fell in love while watching a performance. He had the chalet built for her. The walls are made of masonry but painted to look like wood and there’s a room with these interesting cork wallpapered walls. It’s off the beaten path and we were alone which was remarkable even for the off-season on a Sunday in Sintra.
Tuk-tuk and away and off we went to the top (after buying our tickets for the palace and gardens at the queue-less ticket office for the Chalet).
The Pena Palace was first a monastery (built around 1500) which was acquired by auction by King Ferdinand in 1838. Construction of the original (the red part) of the palace began in 1843. The palace, built by Baron Von Eschwege, is a blend of Bavarian castle and Moorish architecture with a gothic feel. Following the death of the Queen, Maria II, Ferdinand fell in love with, courted and married Edla who acquired the whole lot of it when Ferdinand died in 1885. After things went south for the royal family and the Republic was formed in 1910 the palace stopped being a residence for the royals and became a museum in 1911. (Source: https://www.parquesdesintra.pt/en/parks-and-monuments/park-and-national-palace-of-pena/history/). You can wander around the terraces and the exterior wall walk and take the interior tour through the palace.
The artwork both inside and outside is pretty interesting. On your way in, you’ll pass under the portico of the Triton which is an “allegorical portico of the creation of the world…representing the four elements: earth, water, air and fire”. (Source: Sintra, A Tourist’s Guide to World Heritage Sites). Step inside and there’s a room with Asian art with a statue of a Japanese guy holding a heart (not his), two huge porcelain turkeys in another room, life sized statues of Turkish men designed to hold candelabras. The Stag Room (designed to host formal dinners) has mounted heads of deer and moose with these creepy painted rocks or marbles for eyes. The placards in the rooms interestingly don’t even mention what any of these are, so we did a little research online and found very little about the artwork in the palace over the course of review of many sites. So we bought a book which also doesn’t mention much about the art inside except that Ferdinand was an artist himself, had a large art and porcelain collection and hired amateur artists to make works for the palace. The office park site (link sourced above) actually has the most interesting info on it. For example, on that site we learned that the Stag Room was never actually constructed fully as designed. The center column was supposed to have been made into the shape of a tree with the stags’ heads adorning it and the walls to bear old weapons, vs. housing the stags’ heads as they do today. The site is a little difficult to navigate but definitely worth checking out before your visit so you know things to look for while you’re there.
Stepping out of the palace, the ticket to the gardens is definitely worth it. We could have spent more time just walking the trails and will, next time, maybe even skipping the palace entirely (unless we’re hosting guests to Portugal). Following the trails, you can walk down to the farm and gardens, visit the valley of the lakes with five lakes and duck houses or walk up to the high cross at the highest point of the park.
Leaving the gardens, we walked back down to town via the walking path and road and got some great views of the Castle of the Moors. At the advice of our Tuk-tuk driver we skipped the admission to that Castle and instead opted for views of it from the walk down and from town.
We thought dividing up the palaces over a few trips was the way to go, because it’s easy to get a little palaced-out. Of course that’s easier for us to do being right here. If you have only one day and especially if you’re not staying in Sintra, get here early or come later in the day to avoid the throngs and busses and we would suggest our exact itinerary to see Pena Palace and gardens. The National Palace is cool, but Pena is a highlight. If you have flexibility, time your visit on a day that the forecast is clear as it can get foggy up at the top of the park even if its clear elsewhere in the Sintra-Cascais-Lisbon area. We would definitely recommend the colorful ride to the top in a Tuk-tuk to add a little excitement into the day.
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