Sintra, Portugal, is a perfect combination of diversity and beauty

By Chris A Hale

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, May 23 2013 6:00 p.m. MDT

Connor Hale stands on the walls of the Castle of the Moors looking down at the city of Sintra.

Chris A Hale

Imagine going on vacation and being so inspired by your destination that you literally consider moving there after you retire. I’m sure some people would be skeptical that this could happen — a flash in a pan like a grease fire that quickly is extinguished once the fuel is removed. I’m here to say that for me, this was not the case. Six months later, I’m still as enamored as I was the day when I first saw a particular charming city in Portugal.

Readers of my articles can quickly tell you that travel to international destinations is very important to me. This is not to say I’m ungrateful for what America has to offer because I’m truly not. I’ve just happened to have seen most of the good old USA during my 50-plus years. International travel, for me, is relatively new and oh, so exciting.

This last October, we had the opportunity to take my 11-year-old son Connor to Portugal. My wife and I spent some real quality time with him wandering around the capital of Lisbon as well as strolling through the cobblestone streets of Evora, known for its bone chapel. But the highlight of our trip was what we found on the west coast of the Iberian Peninsula.

Just a short 40-minute train ride from central Lisbon’s Rossio station is the stunningly beautiful and mountainous city of Sintra.

To describe Sintra as colorful would be an understatement. In addition to the dappled greens of the trees and the turquoise blues of the not so distant ocean and sky, there is so much more on the village’s pallet. Sherbet-colored Spanish style cottages in all shapes and sizes are adorned with terra-cotta ceramic tiled roofs. Variegated decorative tile work graces buildings throughout the small city, and rugged granite on the Moorish castle tops one mountain peak, with the rainbow-hued Pena Palace on the next.

Don’t try to get anywhere in town walking or driving in a straight line. The roads and walkways meander exceedingly because they follow the geologic contours of the hilly community. We walked for half a mile on a looping road around a gulley to get to a restaurant only 200 feet away as the crow flies.

The city has accommodated tourists by making visits to its two main attractions simple to achieve. A bus picks you up right in front of where you disembark from the train and takes you first to the Castle of the Moors.

The castle is not a typical castle. Constructed during the eighth and ninth centuries, it doesn’t have a moat and it’s not a single dwelling or building. It’s actually an irregularly planned military outpost with walls lining the contour of the rugged terrain — not unlike Rumeli Fortress in Istanbul — but then, they both have the same Moorish influence.

The panoramic view is incredible looking down at the Atlantic Ocean from the elevated castle ramparts, and your entrance ticket allows you to ramble all over the tops of the walls and explore everything. It’s also a great place to look down on the municipality below and enjoy the varied architecture and colorful landscape.

Pena Palace, the next stop for the bus, couldn’t be more different than the castle. My first thought on seeing it from the city looking up was that it appeared to be a Disneyland attraction in Fantasyland. When we walked through the front entrance, there was absolutely nothing to dispel that impression.

It was built as a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Pena in the Middle Ages, but was not totally completed until 1847 after King Ferdinand acquired all the land around the hill for what was to be the royal family’s new summer residence.

Listed as a World Heritage Site since 1995, the palace, like the village below, is adorned in pastel colors topped with mustard tiles. The construction has numerous vaulted arches, interior gardens, castle towers and of course as much medieval, Islamic, romantic and neo-renaissance influence the royal family could get the architect to agree upon.

Although the exterior to me was the most fun and exciting part, the interior houses a pretty cool museum full of royal collections dispersed through colorfully tiled and painted stucco rooms on several different floors.

When we were finished with our tour, the bus picked us up and deposited us back at the train station. We spent several pleasant hours exploring the meandering roads past mimes and local artists' displays and found a quaint little cafe to have lunch before heading back.

I would love to spend more time in Sintra. In fact, from the outside looking in, I’d like to spend the rest of my life in Sintra. It would be my ideal “fairy tale ending.”

Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline who has traveled extensively with his family. In his spare time he writes novels inspired by places he's been. Find out more about his books at www.Chrisahale.com.