x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Myths and history unfold in castles among Sintra's mountains

Olivia Gunning Bennani revels in the Arab connection in one of Portugal's most alluring cities.

The steep cliffs of Boca del Infierno on Sintra's coast. Getty Images
The steep cliffs of Boca del Infierno on Sintra's coast. Getty Images

The road to Sintra: a route so winding it brings you to a crawl, gushing greenery, quaint-yet-elegant Portuguese houses slotted together in an enchanting welcome. It's a fitting prologue to the gasping charm of the town, which runs helter-skelter down the northern slopes of the Sintra Mountains. It may be small in size, but Sintra is a quarry of history and legend as well as being of the kind of prettiness that coffee-table books exist for.

While the town brims with visitors - many come for the day from Lisbon, only 25km south - a sense of the ancient remains. That's thanks to the plethora of palaces, citadels and castles that punctuate the steep descents. In town, cobbled streets dotted with little squares and tiny stairways lead you up and down, right and left, from shady cafe to curious local shop to irresistible bakery. Take a leisurely lunch of local tapas and settle into this fabled place (we liked Tasca do Xico, set in a charming little passageway; a meal for two costs around €30 [Dh147]).

Skip back 13 centuries. The Arabs are launching their conquest of Iberia, a conquest that was to span a mighty 700 years in places. Setting off from North Africa, thrusting across the Strait of Gibraltar, the invasion then takes several directions - east to Granada, north to southern France and west along the peninsula of Portugal.

It's easy to see why the Moors headed for Sintra. Tucked into the province of Estremadura at the foot of the Serra de Sintra range, the area provides an unparalleled vantage point, looking right out across the plateau to the sea several kilometres away. It remains one of the most spectacular views, the dense mountainside woods giving way to verdant flats leading down to the wild Atlantic.

Sintra is well documented in the texts of Al-Bakri, a Muslim geography scholar who spent his entire life in Muslim Iberia. Born in Huelva, Spain, circa 1014, Al-Bakri based his texts on places outside Iberia on testimonies of voyagers, geologists and merchants; of all his work, The Book of Highways and of Kingdoms is the most famous. With the Arabs so renowned for their cartographic and geographical skills, Al-Bakri was in the right place to bathe in such knowledge. He devoted his life to charting descriptions of the people, geographical features, settlements and climates and made mention of Sintra, giving a misty marine vision of a town with a fabulous climate and longevity among its inhabitants.

Fast forward to the present day and much remains unchanged. Conducting your own research on the Moorish presence in Sintra inevitably leads to the splendid ruins of the Castelo dos Mouros, or the Moorish castle. The castle can be accessed on foot for the fit; the route through Pena Park's evergreen forests is a steep 3.5km hike. Or catch bus 434 from in front of the train station, or do the short drive if a car or taxi is at hand.

A meandering pathway leads through the ancient ruins of this castle, built between the ninth and 10th centuries. Inspect the granaries and vast cisterns used to store food and great quantities of water during times of battle. Excavation and renovation are ongoing on this site overflowing with latent archaeological value. Ceramics have been unearthed, complete with designs that tell of the former inhabitants' beliefs and practices, as well as skeletons and flint tools indicating the existence of civilisations here as long ago as the fifth millennium BCE. Visit the aclacova, the Caid's residence, and clamber up the watchtowers for vertigo-inspiring views over the forests and flats.

As you're already so close to the summit, munch a quick sandwich and set off for the next edifice a little way up, the Palácio Nacional da Pena, or the Pena Palace (you can buy a ticket that allows access to both for €14 [Dh73.5]). The contrast is striking. "It's like something out of Disneyland," said a French dame. We were on the upward climb, while she was descending. She wasn't wrong. Cast your eyes up and you're greeted with a multicoloured palace, as grand and styled as they come, in line with the Romanticists' taste for the extravagant. Strawberry milkshake-coloured facades here, banana split-hued paintwork there, it's a pinnacle of kitsch. Arches, towers, spires, conical points, domes and crenellations - they're all here. Inside, check out the Arab room, with its Orientalist ambience and the Manueline cloister, an airy courtyard with Mudéjar azulejo - from the Arabic zellij, meaning tiles. Tiptoe around the interior to peek at King Dom Carlos's chambers, each decked out in original furniture.

"Myth tells that a creature, half-man, half-fish, lived here," says Luis Real, a resident. "I don't think he caused anyone any harm, but it was apparently his home." The stone carving of a rather grotesque beast glares menacingly from between two mock-medieval towers.

With Sintra having polished your taste for all that is regal, there's no better abode than the Palacio de Seteais, a mystical castle converted into a glorious hotel, also open for a drink or meal. Legend has it that if you scream once into the building's main arch, seven shrieking echoes are hurled back. The legend granted the palace its name - seteais translates roughly into seven screams. I put it to the test and howled into the arch and, well, it didn't work, but I'll let you go and conduct the experiment yourself.

Take to the terrace at dusk as the sun sinks over the flats and into the sea. Lemon trees are scattered about the lawn and petunias perfume the air. The only sounds are the twilight birds, the maze's fountain and the sounds of a gentle harp.

A phenomenal example of 18th-century architecture, Seteais was constructed by the Dutchman Daniel Gildemeeter in the 1780s, "although it was extended during the 14th century", explains Sandro Aguilar, my exceptionally knowledgeable guide. Perhaps the most flabbergasting of elements are the hand-painted murals of lush foliage - you think it is wallpaper at first glance but closer inspection reveals the handiwork of Jean-Baptiste Pillement, a French painter. "The task took him decades," explains Aguilar. It was time well spent, in my book. The paintings range from climbing-flower borders in bedrooms to vast frescoes stretching around entire rooms and onto the ceilings - quite breathtaking.

"The furniture is the Queen Maria II style," adds Aguilar. "Around 50 per cent of our pieces are originals, all in this traditional Portuguese style." Rosewood and mahogany abound.

As you may expect, the rooms are fit for royalty: large plush beds, gorgeous writing desks, sash windows, gilded mirrors, soft carpets and lavish curtains. When you're not languishing at your window, dip into the pool, take one of the resident horses out for a trot or have high tea on the terrace. You must try the local speciality, queijadas de sintra - cheesecake, dusted with cinnamon, in a fine pastry case. The evenings can be spent curled up with a book in one of the hotel's comfy yet opulent drawing rooms, having dined in splendour in the renowned restaurant.

The sumptuous menu includes establishment classics such as partridge in escabeche sauce and marinated mushroom salad (€12; Dh62), Portuguese baked salt cod (€24; Dh126), grilled steak with pepper sauce and fried potato, Ponte Nova-style (€21; Dh110), and sole fillets in verbena-infused sauce (€25; Dh131). Vegetarians (such as me) are remembered, quite a rarity in Portugal. Try the fabulous ratatouille with poached egg and cornbread crumble (€9; Dh47). The desserts are similarly divine - the almond parfait (€8; Dh42) finished us off. Service is pleasantly discreet yet congenial.

It's only a 10-minute walk downhill into Sintra's historic centre. Here, the twin chimneys of the Royal Palace, in the middle of the town, are visible from almost everywhere. Moorish governors were the original inhabitants during the 10th century (Al-Bakri noted the edifice in his documents on the region). The palace was completely rebuilt around the 10th century and Moorish styles still reign inside. The Sala dos Arabes - the Arab Room - pays tribute to the tremendous Moorish influence in the area. The Mudéjar style - as seen in Seville's Alcázar palace - is also prevalent, harking back to Andalucia, with tiles providing stunning geometrical matrixes. Until the early 20th century, the palace was the abode of several royal figures, from Isabella of Aragon to Queen Amelia, who spent much time drawing the palace before her exile following the revolution in the 1900s.

There are heaps more historic edifices to explore. So abundant are they that Unesco named Sintra a world heritage site. For a change of tone, though, head out for a round of golf at Pestana Sintra Golf Resort and Spa, a few minutes outside the historic centre. The 18-hole course surrounds the hotel, which sits below the Sintra hills. The lounge area is adorned in Arabian-style furniture, from carved wooden tables to Moorish sofas. "The hotel is modern yet decorated to adapt to the local environment," explains my guide, Catia Lourenco. "It's emblematic of Sintra; its colours reflect those used locally." Restaurant Maurisco offers tasty meals - from goat's cheese with strawberry jelly (€9.50; Dh60) to hot chocolate cake and ice cream (€6; Dh31.5).

The resort offers an array of spa treatments: yoga therapy, Ayurvedic massage and podo-reflexology. Indoor and outdoor pools, Turkish baths and saunas complete the pampering. If golf isn't your thing, there are tennis courts and an equestrian centre. Rooms are well-equipped and the suites - especially the mezzanine ones - are comfy and tastefully decorated. There's even a honeymooner's suite with a Jacuzzi. The service is friendly and obliging.

The hills of Sintra tower above. Their atmosphere is strangely calming yet palpably epic and other-worldly. Indeed, you almost expect to bump into Diana the Huntress, who, legend has it, would retire into the shade of Sintra's heights, then named Lunae Mons("the mountains of the moon"), when she needed a break. And I, albeit with a little less glory, did just the same.

If you go

The flight

Return flights with Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) from Abu Dhabi to Lisbon via Frankfurt cost from Dh2,495, including taxes.

The hotels

Double rooms at Palácio de Seteais Sintra (www.tivolihotels.com; 00 351 21 923 32 00), housed in a spectacular, remodelled castle, cost from €250 (Dh1,312) per night, including breakfast and taxes. Double rooms at the Pestana Sintra Golf Resort and Spa (www.pestana.com; 00 351 21 042 4300) cost from €110 (Dh580) per night, including taxes.