CHARLOTTE, October 4, 2011— “Half the fun of travel is the aesthetic of lostness.” Ray Bradbury, the prolific science fiction writer, couldn’t have been more accurate.
This is the fourth, and final, installment of a brief series of articles focusing on out of the way, unknown places that I have discovered in my quest to visit 100 countries or more before I die. Each location was previously unknown to me, but they have become my personal secret treasures if am ever fortunate enough to return. Hopefully this will inspire you to “discover” your own hidden gems of travel.
Sintra, Portugal: This hillside village may have more castles, gardens, museums and scenery than any town its size in the world. Sintra is distinctive because it is a must-see destination for travelers toLisbon, but remains relatively unheard of for many travelers. Thanks to its stunning 19th architecture, Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with no less than six major attractions.
Located less than an hour by train from the Rossio Station in Lisbon, the hillside village of 33,000 residents features parks and gardens that compliment the magnificent palaces and castles to the delight of any visitor. Two highlights are the 19th century PenaPalace and the National Palace of Portugal, the summer residence of the Portuguese kings.
Pena Palace is arguably the showcase. Though regarded as one of the “Seven Wonders of Portugal,” it hasn’t always been the luxurious structure it is today. For hundreds of years it was little more than a modest meditation site for a maximum of 18 monks.
Natural disasters, including an earthquake and lightning, left the former monastery in ruins during the 18th century. Only the chapel with its marble and alabaster works of art survived. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century when reconstruction began to give PenaPalace the appearance it has today.
Among the elements requested by King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II, who began the rebuilding process, were medieval and Islamic aspects of architecture along with vault arches and an ornate window over the main façade. Vibrant red and yellow colors added flair to the palace that distinguishes it even today. The elaborate decorations combined with the intentional mixture of architectural designs have made PenaPalaceone of Portugal’s most popular destinations for visitors.
Interiors are surprisingly small considering the massive exterior. Corridors and doorways were cleverly designed to slow the pace of surging invaders. Each room has been lovingly appointed to the extent that the furnishings convey an ambience of habitation even though the palace has not been occupied for decades. In fact, the elaborate extent of the décor may rival any historical monument of similar distinction in the world.
PenaPalace is only the beginning, however. Sintra also features the Castle of the Moors,MonserratePalace, PenaNationalPalace, SeteaisPalace, Quinta da Regaleira and theSintraNationalPalace as well as countless gardens and parks that make it a horticultural haven.
Access to Sintra from Lisbon couldn’t be easier, and it is also inexpensive. A ticket on one of the frequent trains from Rossio Station costs about 4 euros. Take the train to the end of the line. In Sintra, bus #434 provides regular service from the front of the railway station to most of the sights in town. Buses are approximately 2 euros.
Hardier travelers can take a delightful walk along the hillside into the main village, but once there, it is advisable to catch a bus up to the palaces and castles.
Sintra is not a place to be rushed. Plan to spend the day, enjoy a relaxing lunch and relish all that it has to offer.