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Sintra, Portugal: Castles andCockatoos

                                                                By Diana McLeod                                                        2015

      The town of Sintra was less than an hour's train ride outside of Lisbon. This mountain hideaway has long been the summer retreat for the wealthy Lisbon elite, and it's become famous for its collection of palatial but decaying summer homes, misty forests and historic castles on the hilltops.

      Our bed-and-breakfast was a classic yet quirky old mansion whose owner kept a collection of live parrots, macaws and a very sociable cockatoo. During breakfast, the cockatoo, who was locked out of the main dining room, kept tapping frantically on the windows, desperate for attention. After breakfast, we went outdoors to see him. He climbed right up onto me, cuddled his head against my shoulder, and curled up in my arms like a baby. He loved getting his feathers ruffled. When the dog also came over to get petted, the cockatoo would nip at me jealously.

      We had a great time exploring the town. The central palace by the village square was built in Moorish style, with gigantic, conical chimneys and gracefully arched windows. Narrow streets and lanes angled sharply up and down the mountainside, with little parks and lookouts in between attractively terraced home and gardens.

THE MOORISH CASTLE: Sintra is home to some very famous and dramatic castles, and the most memorable of these were built atop the highest hills, far above the town. The Moorish "Castle" was a series of authentic Medieval walls and watchtowers engineered for military use, with a commanding view of the area. The fortifications and towers are all that's left of this historic site, but the view from the ramparts was excellent.

THE PALACE OF PENA: The other cliffhanger was Pena. Pena looked Medieval, but it was really built as the plaything of the royals in the eighteenth century. They chose the very highest peak, with its splendid view of the Moorish castle just below, crouching on the rocks like a curving dragon's spine. In the distance, you could just see the far away ocean, with its cooling breezes providing plenty of air conditioning.

      The architect had obviously been given "carte blanche" to build a fantasy castle in every respect, and he must have enjoyed his assignment very much. Designing this castle was clearly pure fun; a chance to play with as many styles, colors and details as possible. He divided it into three distinct and flamboyant parts: one red, one yellow, and one blue. It was a bit like building for Disneyworld, only with actual royalty involved, not cartoon princesses.

      The red side of the castle was built in English style. Everything was painted brick red, with a heroic, squared-off high tower, crenellated with shield-shaped medallions which had Christian, Templar-style crosses on them. The royal chapel had a classic Gothic steeple, with a typical arched interior and stained glass windows.

      The yellow side of the palace was "Oriental." It had Arabic arches, "minarets" with onion domes, round, domed towers and Moorish arches. Latticed windows over jutting balconies reminded me of buildings along the narrow alleys of Marrakesh and Fez.

      In the blue center, the style was pure Lisbon. The façade was long and straight, covered with classic hand painted blue Portuguese ceramic tiles, and it was ornamented with two spectacular arched entrances and two octagonal towers. The main entrance was presided over by a fantastic stone carving of a mythological Triton, whose leering form gazed fiercely down at all who entered. His feet were fish, and he was seated in a giant clam, above a strange doorway. decorated to look like coral.

      The whole confection of the main castle was surrounded by decorative balconies, balustrades, crenellated walkways, tiny, ornamental guard towers, parapets and broad terraces, all atop heroic grey ramparts that soared above the rocky hilltop below.

      Inside, the mix of themes continued. Some rooms were strictly European, while others had Moorish decoration and furniture The "smoking room" sported Islamic ceilings, furniture from India and Chinoiserie, while the "tea room" had European "trompe-l'oiel" paintings on the walls and an English style tea service. The classic Iberian hardwood spindle furniture sets were magnificent.

      For all its grandiose exterior, the rooms inside were small and intimate. This was never a place for huge banquets and balls, but for quiet times, small gatherings and long walks in the surrounding forest. I looked out of the windows and wondered what it must have been like to stay there. Was it lonely, up there on top of the hill? Were there many servants there at night, or did the castle empty out, as most of them would make their way home, down in the village below? Or did all of the staff retire to the warmth of the big kitchen downstairs, far away from the royal apartments, leaving the castles' owners all alone in the empty halls, listening to the wind whistling through the towers?

      I couldn't decide. Here it was; my dream castle, the one I've always wanted as a child. But if I were the Disney cartoon princess, would I love my mountain aerie, or would I yearn to hang out in the kitchen? Or a bit of both...

Simply google:
            Pena castle images
to see more of this stunning location on line. It's worth an extra look!

      Thanks for reading, Diana McLeod

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