Look up, because you might see something wonderful. If I were to make one of those dreadful inspirational posters, that’d be the caption and the photo would feature one of the ceilings of the National Palace of Sintra. Because “look up” might be bland life advice, but it’s just plain practical when it comes to this palace.
Sintra, a hilly region slightly northwest of Lisbon, has been used by rulers for centuries as a place to establish power and build pleasure palaces. There’s nothing left of the Al-Andalus building that was once here (luckily the so-called Moorish Castle up the hill is another UNESCO site you can visit). What remains today is a mostly medieval and Renaissance construction, with decorations and furniture ranging from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
There’s a lot of mention in the castle of the Manueline style, which looks vaguely like it’s from the Tudor period (because I live in the UK and most of my sense of this type of architecture comes from here, Tudor is my reference point), and indeed the style is named after King Manuel I, who reigned 1495-1521, overlapping with Tudors Henry VII and Henry VIII of England.
I love when you can see different fields directly influencing one another in specific historical times and places — as in, this type of literature is directly related to the political turmoil of a time, or in this case, this type of architecture is directly related to the major expeditions of exploration Portugal was making at the time. Taking elements of the Gothic style, architects in the Manueline style added influences from places Portuguese ships had ventured to — especially India (which included Islamic elements, and of course the previous rulers of Sintra were Arab Muslims, the Moors, and so it’s all intertwined). The Manueline style also incorporated elements that referenced the Age of Discovery directly, including ships, anchors, items from the sea, and botanical flourishes. (This is especially apparent in the monastery in Lisbon — stay tuned for a post on that!)
Legend has it that King João I decorated the Magpie Room as a public rebuke: his wife caught him cheating, and he had as many magpies as there were women at court painted on the ceiling of this room, not because he felt guilty but because he wanted to chastise the women who gossiped about the affair.
Most of the rooms in the palace are by now known according to what graces their ceilings: the Swan Room, the Mermaid Room, etc. One room, however, has the most boring name but the most magnificent ceiling: the Coats-of-Arms room. Manuel decorated this ceiling with the coats-of-arms of the most prominent 72 Portuguese families at the time — although a couple hundred years later, one of those was removed, because members of the Távora family were convicted of plotting against the king. Oops.
The National Palace of Sintra was in use by the Portuguese monarchy up until the founding of the Republic of Portugal in 1910, at which time it became a national monument. A few decades later it was restored, and in 1995 it was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO as part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra. It’s open to visitors who want to catch a glimpse of royal splendor — even if it means getting a neckache from looking up.
Porto is one of the loveliest cities I’ve been to. Colorful buildings topped with orange roofs tumble down a hillside to the Duoro River, upon which rabelos and modern boats bob gently. The Ponte Luis I arches over the water, reaching from the main city to the many port wine cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia. When I was there, the sky was never anything but blue, and the river sparkled in the sun.
I arrived near midnight and took a cab to my Airbnb. The driver was chatty, and he made a great joke. He asked where I wanted to visit, and I mentioned the bridge and the cathedral. He said something about a palace and I said that sounded good. “Well it’s really another kind of church,” he said, and chuckled. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized he was talking about the Palacio da Bolsa — the extravagant stock exchange building from 1850. Another kind of church, indeed.
I had planned to visit the Sé cathedral, but as I arrived, a police escort guided a line of black cars out to the main road, and I found the cathedral closed. When I inquired at the tourist kiosk, they said that the bishop had died just a few hours before, and as the building next door to the cathedral is the bishop’s house, everything would be closed for at least the rest of the day. As I heard a tour guide spin it to his charges, “You’re here at a historic time!”
The port wine cellars are the places that port is actually made. The grapes are harvested in the Duoro River valley and made into wine (as with champagne, you can’t call the drink port unless the grapes are grown in this specific area), then immediately shipped downriver to Vila Nova de Gaia in Porto. The fresh wine is fortified with brandy (which all the port wine companies make themselves), and then it’s fermented either in giant vats (for ruby wine) or smaller oak barrels (for white and tawny wines). Some of the barrels are later re-used by Scottish companies to age whiskey in. Port wine is about 20% alcohol and sweet; you drink white as an aperitif (before dinner), ruby with dessert (especially chocolate), and tawny as a digestif (to end your meal most perfectly).
It’s a relaxing city to sightsee in, as most of the places you want to visit are pretty close to each other, and any time you have to climb a particularly steep hill, you can stop off for a quick drink at a cafe to recover. The way you wander about town is integral to the experience of being there — climb to lookouts around the city, walk across the bridge on the upper level for the views, glide along the Nova de Gaia side of the river in the teleferico, take a boat tour under the bridges of the city.
Enjoy this short video I compiled of Porto from various points around the city.
Have you been to Porto? What was your favorite part?