GAZING DOWN into the tree-covered gorge, we could have been in any number of countries. This was Portugal, but the scenery might have come from Germany or Romania. Far below, through the haze and wisps of smoke, were houses with Bavarian-style turrets. And looking up, over my shoulder, there was a silhouetted castle which looked as though it would be the perfect setting for Dracula and his Transylvanian horrors.
Sintra, 18 miles and 30 minutes west of Lisbon, is far removed from the predominantly sun-and-sand image of tourism in Portugal. Set among rolling hills, the town has a dreamy, other-worldly charm, a quality which attracted Byron who described it as a "glorious Eden" of royal palace gardens. It does indeed have plenty for visitors keen on peaceful walks in secluded gardens and hikes to dramatic viewing points, though you'll need plenty of puff to negotiate the stiff climbs and steps that meet you at every turn.
The first and most obvious attraction is the ruined Moorish Castle, or Castelo dos Mouros, which towers some 400m above the town. The walk up to the ruins, which takes a good 40 minutes, begins among the cobbled back streets; we gently zigzagged our way past terraces of houses, and a fountain decorated with the trademark Portuguese azulejos, or blue-and- white tiles. The grounds of the castle are reached through an arched moss- covered gateway.
A steep climb followed to the ruins but the shade from the thickly planted hillsides kept the sun at bay. We were also able to pause by the remains of a disused church that served as a mosque during Moorish times. The thickets allowed only glimpses of how high we were climbing.
From the ramparts, Lisbon and the River Tejo are clearly seen to the south-east; to the south-west is Cabo de Roca, Europe's most westerly point. The ruins straggle the spine of the hill, and walking along the fortifications, I was reminded of the Great Wall of China. Far below lay Sintra, a distant maze of terracotta tiles.
Sintra was once the summer residence of Portuguese royalty, and the Kings and Queens have left their imprint on the town in the form of some striking landmarks. Their most bizarre legacy can be seen to the south of the castle, where the distinctly oddball Pena Palace flaunts itself among all the natural beauty. With its pink and yellow turrets and minarets, the palace appears to have been modelled on a Battenberg cake. It was built from 1840 on the orders of the king, Dom Ferdinand II, who hailed from the south German region of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Reaching the palace involves another pleasant hour of gentle slopes and climbs from the ridge of the castle.
Inside the palace grounds, the vast redwood trees lend the place a prehistoric air but the palace loses nothing in the inevitable comparisons with the fairy-tale castles of Bavaria. It soon becomes clear that Dom Ferdinand and his architect were people of no little imagination. The portcullis is ghoulishly guarded by a spread-eagled Triton whose head sprouts tree branches and whose legs turn into fishtails.
The guided tour of Pena's interior reveals a mix of architectural styles: Baroque meets Moorish meets Persian, Old English and Gothic, a kaleidoscope not to everyone's taste - some visitors wore sunglasses inside as if to more easily absorb the riot of styles. From one of the pillar-box turrets I spotted a statue of the palace architect, Baron von Eschwege, standing on a hill surveying his creation. With one arm bent teapot-fashion at the hip, he seemed to be defiantly convinced of his own genius.
The descent from the palace to Sintra drops back through the wooded valleys. It was so silent within the grounds that we could hear the rumble of Grand Prix cars at the Estoril test circuit some 15 miles to the south. Upon entering Sintra, we passed the former Hotel Lawrence, where Byron stayed in 1809 and is believed to have begun Childe Harold.
One of the pleasures of walking in Portugal is that, if you feel you have hiked far enough to have earned a slap-up binge, you are in the right country. Portuguese meals are massive. Order an omelette and it will come with a mountain of salad and chips. Fish is excellent - there are reportedly 1,001 recipes for salted cod alone. Wine is cheap, with Mateus Rose selling for around pounds 1.20 a bottle.
Luckily, there are plenty of other walks to do around Sintra to work off the previous night's meal. The botanical gardens of Monserrate, two miles from the centre of town, are reached by a meandering walk past a series of curious and exclusive Gothic estates. The gardens are reminiscent of the valleys around Pena and the flora is equally cosmopolitan: it is a place to bring a picnic, dawdle for a couple of hours and then take a gentle amble back into town.
My appetite for the surreal had been sated by the Pena Palace but there was more to come, back in town. Twin industrial-sized conical chimneys, 30 meters high, rear up from the old royal kitchen of the National Palace. They were allegedly modelled on the thighs of Philippa of Lancaster who married King Joao I at the end of the 14th century. More graciously, Hans Christian Andersen likened them (the chimneys, not Philippa's thighs) to bottles of champagne.
Sintra's delights linger on. The 10-minute walk downhill to the train station turned into an hour-long detour as I was drawn into yet another garden. And before I hopped on the train, I glanced back up at the town, the chimneys of the National Palace and the Moorish Castle both seemingly unreachably high. There is a Spanish saying about Sintra which seemed to fit this scene: "To see the world and leave Sintra out is verily to go blindfold about".
Sintra is a 30-minute suburban train journey from Lisbon's Rossio station. Trains are frequent and tickets cost around pounds 3 for a return.Reuse content