Business is brisk at Piriquita. The decorative cafe in Rua das Padarias is brimming with customers, and it’s only nine o’clock in the morning. Lighthearted banter drifts across the room and the ambiance is at once cheerful and inviting.
Piriquita is famous for its homemade queijadas – lightly baked cheesecakes sprinkled with cinnamon, and a regional speciality. Tucking into a couple over coffee before exploring Sintra is a deliciously indulgent way to kick-start a daytrip to this medieval town of parks and palaces.
Sintra lies north of Lisbon, about 40 minutes by rail from the Portuguese capital.
The old town (Vila Velha) nestles on the wooded slopes of the Serra de Sintra hill and is made up of gracious villas and noble mansions that date from the 18th and 19th centuries, their mustard and lilac facades peeping over chunky walls of weathered granite.
The historic town of Sintra — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Lining the main square are old-fashioned shops stocking wines, ceramics and tapestries embroidered by nimble fingered ladies with kind eyes and broad smiles. A number of restaurants, some with their menus displayed in fancy wall-mounted frames, back onto artisans’ workshops and trendy, pocket-sized galleries exhibiting contemporary canvases.
Across the esplanade, a pair of chestnut brown horses in full harness wait patiently for sightseers to bundle into the bright yellow carriage they’re attached to, the driver perched nonchalantly on the upholstered bench-seat.
Accentuating Sintra’s romantic aura is the late 14th-century Palácio Nacional de Sintra, or Royal Palace. Set in the heart of the old town, this landmark building is distinguished by a pair of weird conical chimneys that taper up into the sky.
The majestic Sala dos Brasoes in the Palacio Nacional de Sintra — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The palace once served as the summer retreat for Portuguese royalty and as you tour the labyrinth of magnificent halls and salons, the sense of privilege is tangible. Especially opulent is the Sala dos Brasões the domed ceiling of which is fabulously decorated with the gilded coats of arms of 72 noble Portuguese families. The lower walls shine with 18th-century tile panels.
Sintra hangs under the emerald canopy of the Parque da Pena, a verdant expanse of pine and eucalyptus that carpets a dramatic boulder-strewn massif. Hewn out of granite is the mighty Castelo dos Mouros, an 8th-century Moorish stronghold whose castellated walls resemble a row of worn, discoloured dentures. To follow the steep, snaking battlements is to tread the footsteps of Muslim and later, Christian sentries who scanned the surrounding countryside for any signs of impending attack. On a clear day the views are breathtaking.
The 9th-century Castelo dos Mouros — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The park is criss-crossed by a number of nature trails that meander through this landscape of lush vegetation and exotic trees. It’s possible to walk all the way to Palácio da Pena, another Sintra highlight, although opting for the bus or a taxi puts paid to any potential blisters.
The palace of Pena crowns the highest point of the Serra. A confection of architectural styles, this fairytale eyrie with its straw yellow domes and pumpkin orange turrets looks like it’s been carved out of marzipan. It was built in the 19th century by German architect Baron Von Eschwege for King Ferdinand II and is filled with priceless antiques collected by the monarch throughout his reign. The sumptuously furnished Ballroom and the chapel alterpiece are among the star features.
Sintra is a magical place. The destination inspired Lord Byron to pen part of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812, and visitors have been waxing lyrical ever since. In 1995, UNESCO recognized the town and landscape as a World Heritage site. Romance, history and culture if you like, all rolled into one.