Portugal today is a gentle, laid back, and welcoming country. It seems in keeping with its present character that the towers of the National Palace (photo above) are not battle-armoured turrets but kitchen chimneys. I’m sure there are learned theses which trace the evolution of the militant nation whose atrocities are still remembered in India into the open and welcoming society you see today. Porto charmed us, and Sintra, our last stop before flying out, left us with wonderful memories.
The thousand year old National Palace is the centre of the town. We were nonplussed by the long queues, but both the queues to buy tickets and to enter move fast. The palace was built by the Moors, Portuguese alterations began only in 1281 CE, and more or less ended three centuries later.
Like all European palaces, it is a series of interconnected rooms, each of which is decorated differently. The stone walls and tiled roof are lined inside with wooden planks, beautifully painted. The roof of the first audience hall, the Swan Room, is painted with swans wearing crowns. This is followed by the private office of the king, the Magpie Room, whose roof is covered with paintings of magpies. Off to one side is the Mermaid Room. Interestingly, the many birds and mermaids on each roof are all distinct from each other. Less discussed are the later paintings. I liked a room which was full of painted ships and boats (one example above). Conservation must be hard; painting on wood is not the easiest of art work to maintain.
The Swan Room was in use. A group of people were playing what I think was Renaissance era music. The musical instruments could have come out of a painting by Botticelli. I’ve paid so little attention to Renaissance music that my memory of Sherlock Holmes having authored a monograph on the polyphonic motets of Lassus covers a very large fraction of my knowledge. The lilting tunes were wonderful, and The Family and I pulled ourselves out of the moving stream of tourists to listen.
A group of people were practising a dance to the music. The movements looked archaic, and the dance was probably also Renaissance. Some days ago The Family and I had noticed that in old azulejo murals the dancers never held each other, even by hand. If they were linked in a dance, then they would each hold a shared cloth. This old Portuguese convention against publicly touching another person was also visible in this dance.
All over Portugal we had noticed terrace gardens. When we sighted the terrace garden inside the palace, we realized that the tradition was old. I wonder whether it is a Moorish craft, adopted in Portugal. We walked through rooms full of furnishing brought from Goa and Mozambique, eventually coming to the room where the king Afonso VI was imprisoned for his life. Interestingly, this was the room which was converted to a chapel when Dinis decided to start using the palace as a royal residence. Having seen the circle of history close so neatly, we walked through the last few opulent rooms and left.
There are many other palaces in Sintra. Two had been highly recommended: the Moorish castle, which is the second of the original castles built here by the Moors, and later refurbished by the Portuguese kings, and the Pena palace. There was a bus from outside the national palace to both of these. The Moorish castle was a bit of a walk from the bus stop. Since I’d hurt my knee, we decided to skip this. The Pena palace had been highly recommended, but when we reached it we found it was a 19th century Disneyworld. The castle was painted in the bright primary colours of a cartoon. There were imposing gates which had no function. Fairy-tale turrets right out of “Cinderella The Movie” were stuck on to odd corners of roofs. The romanticism of the 19th century gave us Neuschwanstein, the “restoration” of Carcassone and this. We regretted spending our time and money on this. Later we were told that the cost of two tickets on the bus was more than that of a taxi right up to the Moorish castle. Maybe we could have gone there.
The famous earthquake of 1755 flattened the palaces of Lisbon, so the National Palace of Sintra is the only genuine historical house of the kings of Portugal. We were happy to have visited it.