“Straight out of a Disney movie,” was my first reaction when we rounded a corner and spied the Pena National Palace atop a hill in the distance. Fort walls, towers and minarets reminiscent of a medieval castle, and bright, bold colours that reminded us of fairytale illustrations, this quixotic structure is one of many fascinating sites in Sintra, a town about a hour from Portugal’s capital Lisbon.
Built around the 1830s, the Pena Palace served as the summer residence of Portugal’s monarchs in the 18th and 19th centuries. Situated commandingly above the town, the fortified walls, multiple entrance gates and lookout points testify to it having been a stronghold against any invasion. But the playful, flamboyant architecture, a mix of Gothic, Islamic and other influences, also suggests that it was more than simply a place to keep the royal family safe. The intricate sculpting on the walls reminds one of the ornate Gothic cathedrals that dot many of Europe’s cities. Inside the palace, the living quarters (many rooms open for public view) display furniture, tapestry, carpets, and carvings and paintings on the ceilings, all of which are typical of the expensive and somewhat gaudy tastes of the high-born of those times. One part of the interiors stands out in stark contrast to the rest: the collection of exquisite line drawings and wood etchings of King Ferdinand II, who was responsible for much of the palace’s early construction. His attention to detail is evident in the depiction