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Pena Palace (Sintra, Portugal)

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Address: Parques de Sintra Monte da Lua / SA Parque de Monserrate / 2710-405 / Sintra / Portugal

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      11.06.2013 10:23
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      Try to go when it's not so crowded - definitely going in Holy Week was a bit of a mistake.

      ~Introducing Palacio da Pena~

      Pena Palace in the pretty hill town of Sintra is one of Portugal's top tourist attractions, helped undoubtedly by Sintra's proximity to Lisbon which makes it accessible for a day trip but means that visitors have to make a little bit of effort to get there. Portugal's capital, Lisbon, has rather a lot of buildings referred to as 'palacio' - indeed my guidebook lists five in the city and another three in the surroundings but most of them lack the dramatic 'oomph' of Pena. Pena Palace was the highlight of our day trip to Sintra and Cascais which we made a few days before Easter, 2013.

      I hadn't really done my homework before our day trip to Sintra and Cascais but I didn't need to because the tour company we used knew what they were doing and I could just sit back and wait to be surprised. Normally I'm the one being relied upon to know what we're doing so it was nice to leave it to the experts. I knew we were going to a Palace in Sintra and I had assumed it was the one we'd visited with a friend a few years ago. I didn't especially want to go a second time but I was in the mood to just go along with whatever came up. However, if I had done my homework I would have known that there was a second palace in the town and that was a lot more interesting than the one we'd already seen.

      Pena Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and classified as one of the 'Seven Wonders of Portugal'. One of these days I must look up the other six. It stands on top of a hill above the town of Sintra and requires visitors to travel up a steep winding road in order to reach the entrance. On a clear day, it's said that the palace can be seen from Lisbon (presumably if you have really good eyesight) and that most days you can see the coast from there. Sadly our visit was on a day when the palace found itself inside a big black cloud with rain pouring down. No attraction - even one as theoretically pretty as Pena Palace - can show itself to full advantage when the rain is coming down like a monsoon.

      ~A bit of history - but not too much~

      The palace dates back to the 18th century when it was built for Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Queen Maria II and, given his name, quite probably a distant relative of our Queen's family who were Saxe-Coburg-Gotha's until they chose the less Germanic-sounding name of 'Windsor' around the time of the First World War. The site had previously been home to a 15th century monastery and chapel but the monastery had fallen into ruins, been struck by lightning and knocked about by the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. I can't help wondering if Ferdinand thought the place had been pre-cursed enough and might have been working on the 'Lightening/earthquakes never strikes twice' idea but I'm not sure that in his shoes I'd have rushed to build on such an inauspicious location.

      An architect was hired to design a summer palace which the Queen's husband could fill with his collection of goodies he's collected from around the world. That architect - Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege - was, as you probably guessed from the name, German and he had clearly been hanging around the fairy tale castles of the Rhine and picked up a few ideas on how to make a palace. He also seems to have taken lots of totally disparate architectural elements and stuck them all together without any thought for whether they really belonged in the same building. He created what looks like a 'cut and shut' palace with bits that would probably have looked very odd if we'd actually been able to see more than a few feet ahead of us through the fog and rain. He built a circular tower with a dome on top, another square tower with pointy bits on the corners, he chucked in a Romanesque (or possibly Moorish) square courtyard, bunged in a Disney-style entrance arch complete with a sea monster and then crenulated the tops of all the walls. There are square bits, round bits, onion shaped domes, normal St Paul's like domes, conical pointy bits, gothic arches, local Manueline elements and windows adopting every shape from square to arched to rose-shaped round bits. It reminds me of a Big Fat Gypsy Wedding dress - frills, lace, puffy bits, sequins and crystals and you'd not be surprised to find a bunch of battery operated light up butterflies caught in the fabric of the skirt. If all that mish-mash of mismatched styles wasn't enough, he then painted it in yellow, pink, gingery red, and bluey grey. And dare I mention that I've not yet started on the interiors?

      We can't entirely blame the architect since the King Consort was throwing in the odd "I want this shaped arch, that shaped window and be sure to give me lots of Islamic bits and a nod to Medieval stuff too". You're an architect and you want to get paid, so you do what the boss asks for. I suspect that if I'd actually been able to see the place properly I would have been giggling fit to burst but unfortunately I was mostly too busy trying not to get soaked to the skin.

      ~Our Visit~

      We were dropped at the palace gates where the tickets are sold and gasped slightly as we parted with Euro13.50 per person in entrance fees with a couple of Euros on top to take the little 'train' to the palace entrance. It was so wet and so cold that the idea of walking up and getting even wetter didn't appeal. We hopped into the little mock-train carriage and settled down to look at the gardens through the wet windows. The train headed up a steep windy road and deposited us near the entrance to which we scurried, trying to keep as dry as we could. We decided to kick off our visit with a hot coffee and a look at the map which had been provided. Then, once we were feeling dry and more human, we set off to look around.

      This is the sort of place that wants its visitors to behave like sheep. There is no way to wander off in the palace and do it your own way. There is no option to go right when the arrow says left or back when the arrow says onward. You really do have to follow a very clearly marked route around the place and since we were there only a few days after the palace opened for the season, I was surprised to find out quite how many other people were willing to get soaked getting there and then shuffle around in lines. We went on the Tuesday before Easter, a week when Lisbon gets invaded by tourists from neighbouring Spain so we should have expected a lot of people.

      The entrance is through a gateway with an arch within an arch which reminded me of places I've seen in Morocco. You then turn and swing back on yourself and go through a second doorway that couldn't be more different in design, an odd 'studded' archway with turrets on either side. It reminded me of the Casa dos Bicos in the Alfama district of Lisbon which is sometimes called the 'pointy house'. That archway takes you through a covered passage with large planters filled with flowers which then emerges on an inner courtyard off which most of the public rooms can be accessed. We headed inside, stopping to admire some impressive gargoyles and a bust of Ferdinand before moving on to the rooms which are laid out around an old cloister which remained from the original monastery. This was probably my favourite area of the palace and even though it was raining heavily, we stopped to watch the gargoyles spouting water into the blue and white tiled courtyard. The walls are decorated with Islamic-style tiles which I suspect (but don't know) were later than the monastery as I can't really see why they'd have been used in a monastery.

      The rooms laid out around the cloister can be visited and included a dining room, lavishly decorated but not terribly large. Remembering that this was the summer palace, I assume it was used more for family meals than for state occasions. There are other grander rooms for larger parties but this room was smaller, more intimate and stuffed with nick-nacks. Several of the royal bedrooms were on show, most of them with characteristically short beds (the Portuguese are not tall people and apparently they adopted the French belief that you should sleep in a curled position and not flat out like one lying in a coffin). Some of the furniture was spectacular and the paintings and ceramics were well worth a look. Of particular fascination were the old bathrooms with their period plumbing and shower contraptions that looked like something from a torture chamber. The rooms flow one into the next which must have been odd if you needed to wander through the queen's room to get to see the king. The king fancied himself as a bit of an artist, generally painting rather poor nudes, and one of the rooms is decorated with his murals of naked ladies.

      Heading upstairs, we visited the upper floor that surrounds the cloister, seeing more bedrooms, bathrooms and sitting rooms, each with different decorative styles. One bedroom was tiled with the Star of Islam design whilst another had carved wooden ceilings and some were decorated with complex trompe l'oeil patterns.

      The ballroom is currently being renovated and is filled with evidence of the work being done so it's lacking the furniture, paintings and chandeliers which would normally be there. This should be one of the most impressive rooms of the palace but realistically I think you have to expect that a few rooms won't be at their best when you visit any building of this complexity. We visited the King Consort's collection of beautiful old glass, many pieces of which I'd have happily taken home with me. I might have not appreciated his architecture or some of his interior decor but he certainly had some lovely glass in his collection. We visited the kitchens with their gleaming polished copper pans and jelly moulds and found the large palace shop, one of at least two which were designed to part the tourist from their remaining Euros. We resisted without trouble and would probably have stopped for a drink on the roof terrace had it not been still raining heavily. Instead we shuffled off out of the palace and, seeing that the line for the train was ridiculous, we bet ourselves we could walk back to the entrance quicker than the train would come and that we'd get wet either way.

      I didn't see a route back to the entrance marked out but we just followed everyone else through the gardens. If it had been dry, I'm sure we'd have spent at least an hour wandering around but the weather was not in our favour. I would love to go back and visit the gardens when the weather is better but I doubt the opportunity will arise. However, if you go on a nice day, I would suggest to allow at least 2-3 hours to look at the palace and the gardens and I'm sure that if you have more time, you can easily fill it.

      ~Details~

      The palace is open year round with the exception of Christmas Day and New Year's Day. According to the website, the 'High Season' runs from the week before Easter through to almost the end of October but there's nothing to explain the difference between High and Low Seasons so that info's not terribly useful. The park opens at 9.30 am with the palace accessible from 15 minutes later. If you arrive before 10.30 they knock one Euro off all the prices. The Palace itself is open from 9.45 am to 7 pm with the last tickets sold 45 minutes earlier. Different prices are in place depending on what you want to see but you can find full details at http://www.parquesdesintra.pt/en and it's well worth checking that before you go as you can easily buy a ticket for more than you actually have time to see. Adult tickets for everything in the park - the palace, the terraces, the park - are Euro13.50 but if you are staying in Sintra for a few days, there are 'deals' on tickets that also give access to the Moors Castle and the National Palace in the town centre. As I already said, do your homework!

      ~Pick Your Palace~

      I had found the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, the palace we'd previously visited, to be rather forgettable but the Pena Palace is much more impressive, more memorable and has the advantage (if the weather's on your side) of fabulous views and impressive gardens. I would recommend that if you have time for only one Sintra palace, it should be this one. If you have no transport and no way to get up to Pena, satisfy yourself with the more accessible palace in the centre of the town. Regardless of which palace you choose, don't forget to have a good wander in the old town and treat yourself to one of the famous local pastries.

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