Palacio Nacional da Pena
Fairytale castle meets Disney palace set on top of the hill high above Sintra. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the finest examples of 19th century Romanticism anywhere in the world
No visit to Sintra would be complete without spending some time marvelling at the enchanting Palacio Nacional da Pena. This canary-yellow and terracotta coloured former palace is perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the town and is an eclectic mix of different styles of architecture which somehow or other manage to blend beautifully together.
In the 16th century the building that stood here was a relatively humble monastery, dedicated to the Order of Saint Jerome and housing only 18 monks. The monastery was all but flattened by the powerful earthquake of 1755 which caused devastation and huge loss of life in nearby Lisbon. It then lay in ruins until in 1838 Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, husband of Queen Maria II of Portugal, recognised its potential as a site to build a palace for the Portuguese royal family. He enlisted the help of German architect, Baron von Eschwege, to create the sumptuous castle and surrounding park that we see today. Years after the death of the Queen, Ferdinand fell in love with Elise Hensler, a highly educated, Swiss-born American opera singer and actress, whom he married, elevating her to the position of Elise, Countess of Edla. On his death, Countess Elise inherited the palace.
The Pena Palace is built in the Romanticist architectural style, but combines together a number of different influences, including Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Medieval. The interior of the palace is richly furnished and decorated with elaborately tiled and richly painted walls.
The best time to explore the house is before 11am or after 3pm, to avoid the hordes of coach parties which can make it pretty crowded here at peak times. Access to some parts of the palace may be limited due to ongoing restoration works.
Pena Park (Parque da Pena), which surrounds the palace, provides over 200 hectares of heavily forested grounds to enjoy. There are a wonderful mix of over 500 different species of trees and shrubs from around the world, including rare flora imported from China, Japan, Australasia and North America. Visitors wandering around the many pathways that wind around the sometimes steep slopes of the grounds will find something to marvel at around every corner.
Look out for the Casa do Regalo, a recently restored wooden Chalet that served as a summerhouse and private retreat for Elise, Countess of Edla.