A day-trip from Lisbon to Sintra

A trip to the town of Sintra is an essential part of any visit to Lisbon. The early Iberians, followed by the Romans and then the Moors, were all enchanted by the aura of mystery surrounding the area. They called the rolling landscape the "Mountains of the Moon". The Doms, or kings, of Portugal, used it as their summer retreat, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. It was equally popular with the Romantic poets in the early 19th century. Lord Byron was so charmed during his stay in 1809 that he wrote, in Childe Harold: "Lo! Cintra's glorious intervenes in variegated maze of mount and glen." Its popularity has continued into the present day and in 1995 it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The town itself is quite small, and is divided into four parts; the old town, two modern additions (where most of the transport links are) and the picturesque Sao Pedro de Penaferrim, with its antique shops and restaurants. The old town is filled with fairly small, specialised museums but the must-see sites are Sintra's two palaces. The Palácio Nacional, the old royal palace, stands plumb in the centre of town, while the Palácio da Pena looks down over the town from the mountain top.

The Palácio Nacional has Moorish origins, although subsequent architectural influences include Renaissance and Manueline (named after Manuel I). The most interesting room in the palace is the Sala das Pegas on the ground floor. The painted magpies on the ceiling each hold a manuscript on which the words "por bem" are inscribed. The story goes that these were the words uttered by Joao I to his queen when he was caught "dallying" with one of the ladies-in-waiting; "in honour", or in modern parlance, "I'm blameless"...

The Palácio da Pena is a veritable mélange of architectural styles and is considered by some too gaudy to be seen up close. Commissioned in 1840 by Maria II's consort, it comprises Arabic, Renaissance, Gothic (the consort hailed from Prussia) and Manueline designs.

The interior has been left just as it was when the royal family fled on the eve of the 1910 revolution, complete with Eiffel-designed furniture and a room-full of risqué nude paintings.

Whether or not the design appeals, the walk up to the palace through the Pena Park is delightful, with its massive redwoods and ferns, flowers and lakes.