Lying at the foot of these ancient hills is Sintra itself, whose old quarter (Vila Velha) is possessed of a beguiling, medieval character.
This magical destination, and the parks and gardens that embrace it, is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site and makes for an inspiring excursion.
Exploring Sintra on foot reveals a labyrinth of narrow cobbled lanes, steep winding passages and terraced arcades lined with elegant mansions, handsome townhouses, engaging museums, boutique stores and enticing cafés and restaurants. (Pop into Piriquita, Rua das Padarias 1, and sample their queijadas – crispy cheesecakes flavoured with cinnamon: a regional speciality.)
Overlooking the pretty central square is the Palácio Nacional de Sintra. A pair of tall conical chimneys distinguishes the palace’s exterior.
A favourite summer retreat for Portuguese royalty, the Paço Real, as it is also known, has a surprise in every room. But it’s the Sala dos Brasões that takes your breath away. The domed ceiling of this stately room is decorated with stags holding the coats of arms of 72 noble Portuguese families. The azulejo (tile) panels lining the lower walls date from the 18th century.
The cultural landscape of Sintra is heightened – quite literally – by the Palácio da Pena. Perched on the highest point of the Serra, this astonishing fairytale eyrie dazzles with its icing cake architecture and inventory of rare antiques.
Protecting the northern flank of Parque da Pena – a verdant expanse of woodland and shrub that surrounds the palace – are the mighty, time worn ramparts of Castelo dos Mouros. Hewn from the granite that shapes the land, the fort dates back to the 9th century and the period of the Arab occupation.
The Park and the Palace of Pena are the finest examples of 19th-century Portuguese Romanticism. It’s probably why Lord Byron chose to pen part of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) in Sintra.
Another English scribe drawn to the region’s charm was William Beckford, who sought sanctuary at Palácio de Monserrate.
Beckford rented Monserrate Palace in 1793 and immediately got his hands dirty by carrying out some much-needed repairs on the building. He then turned his fingers green by laying out the garden.
History and mystery go hand in hand at Quinta da Regaleira. Dripping with a confection of exuberant decoration, this palatial mansion with its assorted towers and turrets resembles a bizarre oversized doll’s house.
The fascinating amalgamation of various architectural styles – Gothic, Italian Renaissance, neo-Manueline – and the curious religious references and symbols of the occult lend the place a deliciously spooky undertone.
The fantastic gardens are planted with exotic flora and embellished with lakes, waterfalls and grottos. One of these, the Cave of the Orient, allows access to an underground tunnel system that leads to an eerie subterranean well. The kids will love it!
Conveniently for visitors, the quinta is only a short walk from Palácio de Seteais.
A picture of serenity, the Seteais Palace is set in beautifully manicured grounds. The elegant structure dates from the late 18th century and was built for the Dutch consul Daniel Gildemeester.
Today, the building serves as an upscale boutique hotel managed by Tivoli Hotels & Resorts.
Careful refurbishment has maintained the period character of the interior. The precious frescos that illustrate several walls of the inner rooms are attributed to French painter Jean-Baptiste Pillement. The Sala Gildemeester is of particular merit.
Accommodation is privileged and discerning, an intimate ensemble of 30 rooms and suites. Comfort here is beyond reproach – falling into bed is like sinking into a huge marshmallow, and equally as sweet.
The hotel’s classical style and graceful ambiance is carried through to the restaurant. The menu errs towards international cuisine, with entradas such as Caesar salad with roasted chicken breast, and dishes like sautéed grilled steak with pepper sauce and fried potato Ponte Nova style, enticing the palate. The arm-long wine list honours some of Portugal’s finest labels.
When night falls, a mystical aura descends over the property, as it does over the entire countryside. Indulge in a moonlight walk and you’ll understand why Sintra is the capital of Romanticism.
Photographs © www.paulbernhardtphoto.com