When we arrived in Sintra, Portugal I traded my dusty traveller's backpack for a pair of glass princess slippers as we slipped into a realm of palaces, castles and mystical gardens.
Sintra was the centre of romantic architecture in Europe and the perfect fantasyland for countless wealthy aristocrats at the turn of the century, along with influential artists, painters and poets. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, many colourful spires, gothic towers and Moorish turrets dot the landscape. I couldn't conceal my glee at tripping into this world of stunning beauty.
The name Sintra comes from the Roman Goddess of the moon, Cynthia. The Romans used this location for moon worship many centuries ago. It somehow seemed fitting that we visited Sintra on the day of the full moon, and as the sun set we enjoyed the play of moonlight shimmering in the trees of the castle gardens as it had done for centuries.
The many castles are perched high on the hills and the journey to get there can be slightly daunting depending on how much time you have. The transportation choices are impressive. You can take everything from a tuk-tuk to a mini electric car. For a more dramatic approach, a horse and carriage.
One day is truly not enough to see all the castles in Sintra. But all we had was one day so we had to make the best of it. A five Euro "hop-on-hop-off" again tourist bus seemed to be the right fit.
We chose the brightly coloured yellow and red towers of Pena National Palace for our first stop. Pena Palace is dramatically built on the very top of a mountain in the centre of town. Getting there made our stomachs queasy as the bus driver skillfully maneuvered through impossibly tiny winding streets, dodging parked cars and meandering tourists.
The flamboyant palace was built by an artistic king in the 19th century as a summer residence. I had the sensation that the whole structure was floating above clouds once we ventured out onto the terraces for incredible views of the surrounding countryside. One young man and his brother we met on the tourist bus told us that they had hiked up to the castle at 7 a.m. to catch the sunrise before the crowds. We packed a lunch and had a sunny picnic on one of the outdoor enemy lookouts.
If I had to recommend only one castle visit it would be the Quinta da Regaliera. This castle, with its magical gardens, underground tunnels and secret grottos, was so incredibly breathtaking that we wished we could have spent the entire day there. We had just under two hours to explore the grounds and castle, which forced us to speed walk the whole time. The owner Carvalho Monteiro bought the property in 1892 and along with Italian architect Luigi Manini dedicated 15 years of his life to creating a garden and residence that represented the cosmos with all kinds of esoteric realms and mysterious journeys.
One of the highlights was a very steep spiral staircase into the earth called the "Initiatic Well" that represented the mystical space between heaven and hell. Once at the top of the staircase I looked down many dizzying levels only to see people entering at the bottom from many different secret underground passageways. We ventured into one of the tunnels and although the way was lit at first after a few curves the light was gone. Luckily the person in front of us had a light on their cell phone so we were saved having to feel our way along the dark stone passages.
The architect who designed this palace and garden was dedicated to the arts and leaving a legacy. I like to wonder how many artists found a balm for their soul in Sintra over the centuries by being hired to create this exotic world. I am so grateful that Sintra is a real place where the vision and creativity of people from another time exists for us to enjoy hundreds of years later... and I will carefully pack away my princess slippers at the bottom of my backpack until my next visit to Portugal.