High on the hills overlooking Sintra is the kitsch, brightly painted Pena Palace. It’s a magnificent, romantic building surrounded by 85 hectares of gardens and like so many buildings in Sintra, unique. It’s one of the quirkiest, most unusual palaces I’ve visited.
The palace was originally a monastery built by King Manuel I in the early 16th century. But four years after it was abandoned in 1834, it fell into the hands of King Ferdinand II. The Austrian-born king was keen to turn the old monastery into a romanticist castle, which he did with the help of the German geologist, architect and engineer Baron Wilhem Ludwig von Eschwege in the mid-1800s.
There are a few ways to get to the distinctive palace from Sintra – you can either catch the number 434 bus, or you can do as I did and climb to the top of the mountain. From the bottom, the palace looks as though it’s miles away and an arduous climb, but in reality it only takes 20 minutes or so along a stone path that’s carved out of the hillside. It’s a fun climb and not too taxing, with lots of steps and stone archways to pass through, and spectacular views over Sintra.
When I arrived at the palace, I headed through the main entrance and spent some time walking around the outer parts of the palace. There are lots of battlements, terraces and towers you can explore while soaking up the fantastic views. The palace is built on the second highest point in the Sintra hills and is the perfect location for a defensive structure as you can see for miles around.
The palace is divided into two wings – the red wing represents the old 16th century monastery, while the parts painted a deep yellow denote the newer parts of the castle built by King Ferdinand II.
My first port of call inside the palace was the magnificent cloisters. The two-storey cloisters are decorated with beautiful Moorish tiles and there’s a massive plant in what looks like an upturned stone shell in the centre. The interior of the palace has been left as it was when the Portuguese royal family fled into exile following the revolution of 1910 and looking around, it felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Everything has been perfectly preserved.
From the lower floor of the cloisters, I toured the scullery, the dining room and King Carlos’s apartments, all exquisitely furnished and decorated. Upstairs, I wandered around Queen Amélia’s apartments (above), which included her bedroom and a little tea room between her private rooms and her office where she met with her closest friends and family members.
The palace’s reception room is an astonishing space with a scene of Islamic architecture painted on the walls by the Italian scenographer Paolo Pizzi in 1854 and an intricate vaulted ceiling featuring a plant design (above). The way the room has been decorated makes it look much bigger than it is and it’s quite striking.
I continued through a couple of galleries where there were some nice pieces of porcelain on display and then ventured inside the smoking room, which boasted an amazing chandelier (above). The eye-catching 19th century chandelier had a replica of a climbing plant wrapped around it.
Continuing with my tour, I stepped inside the noble hall, a huge rectangular room with dark red furniture and brilliant statues of men holding a chandelier-like lamp (above), and the stag room, a small round room with lots of antlers on the walls. The last notable room I visited was the royal kitchen, an enormous room with lots of wooden furniture and tons of copper cooking utensils.
Having looked around the palace, I decided it was time to explore the extensive gardens that surround it. Pena Park covers some 85 hectares in the Sintra hills and boasts more than 500 tree species from all over the world, waterfalls, lakes, hidden paths, grottoes, statues and follies.
I didn’t have time to see everything in the gardens as it was almost 3pm and I still wanted to visit the Moors’ Castle before it closed. So I decided to head up to the Cruz Alta, the highest peak in the Sintra hills. The park was a peaceful place for a stroll, and it was fun ambling around and stumbling upon its many random features, such as the statue of a warrior perched high on a rock or the classical round temple with lots of columns.
The Cruz Alta is 529m above sea level and is marked by a stone cross (above). The cross is a replica installed in 2008 as the original one laid by King Ferdinand II in the mid-19th century was destroyed by lightning in 1997. By the time I reached the Cruz Alta, it was getting really windy but I made it to the top and was pleased to be able to say I’d climbed to the highest point in the Sintra hills.
I made my way out of the park and before I left, stopped off at Queen Amélia’s garden. The garden is located below the Pena Palace and is a small rectangular space featuring formal plant beds and trees. It’s a pretty little spot and was used as a vegetable garden when it was a monastery.
I really enjoyed my visit to Pena Palace. Visually, it’s an unusual, quirky architectural delight and I’m not sure I’ve seen another palace that’s been painted in such vivid colours. The decor inside the palace was also quite unconventional and it was fascinating to see the palace as it was when the royal family fled in 1910.
The extensive grounds, meanwhile, were a great place for a relaxing stroll with lots of interesting features. The only disappointment I had was not having enough time to see everything. If I came again, I’d leave myself more time so I could fully explore the park.