The National Palace of Sintra in Portugal

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.

national palace sintra portugal

National Palace of Sintra, in Portugal

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.

national palace of sintra portugal

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.

national palace of sintra portugal

 

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Porto: the River, the Wine, the Views

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.

Porto Portugal

Porto, Portugal

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.

Palacio da Bolsa Porto Portugal

Palacio da Bolsa

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!”

Porto Portugal

Se Cathedral, Porto, Portugal

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.

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Enjoy this short video I compiled of Porto from various points around the city.

 

Have you been to Porto? What was your favorite part?

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The Monument He Never Wanted: Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh wanted his body cremated, his memory kept alive in the spirit of the soldiers still fighting the war that went on several years after his death. But the leaders left behind upon his passing on September 2, 1969 decided they needed a more visible symbol, so they embalmed his body and erected a tomb in which to display it. The tomb is modeled on Lenin’s, and as with that monument, hundreds of people file past the embalmed body every day to pay their respects.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

I’d heard how strict the guards were about not allowing visitors to take photos, but we were allowed to take our cameras into the complex. The mausoleum is only open for three hours every day, and some days the line extends for ages. Luckily for me, the lines were short when I visited, so I stood under an awning for only about 20 minutes before I entered the building. Once we were in front of the building, the guards enforced the no-photos rule, so I have none of the inside.

Standing in line, protected from the midday sun

Standing in line, protected from the midday sun

Inside, we walked single-file past armed guards, up a ramp and into the tomb. The glass case was mounted on a pedestal in a sunken floor, and was surrounded by another four armed guards. We were ushered through quickly, just enough time to see the waxy face and uniformed body of Ho Chi Minh, an eerie Snow White in a glass coffin.

This Vietnamese couple snuck a photo when the guards weren't looking, and I snuck one of them

This Vietnamese couple snuck a photo when the guards weren’t looking, and I snuck one of them

Outside, we were all encouraged to visit the palace grounds. I watched a group of schoolchildren, giggling in their little uniforms, sing a patriotic song together. I saw the outside of the palace, which had been built for French colonial rulers, was then used as the palace for Ho Chi Minh, and is now blocked off to the public.

The closed-off palace

The closed-off palace

Tranquil palace grounds

Tranquil palace grounds

Ho Chi Minh apparently preferred to live in a simpler building during his presidency, and that building was displayed next to his three fancy cars near the small lake down the path. A little further along was the house on stilts, an even more basic construction that he retreated to during the later part of his tenure.

Simple quarters

Simple quarters

The cars of Ho Chi Minh

The cars of Ho Chi Minh

Inspirational posters for Communist leaders

Inspirational posters for Communist leaders

How much of this humility is legend and how much is the truth of the man, I don’t know. From the little I know of Ho Chi Minh, he did seem to truly believe in the cause he was fighting for, and in the liberation he believed a unified communist state would bring to Vietnam. It’s entirely believable that a man who worked most of his life for that outcome would request cremation and be embarrassed by the mausoleum he received instead.

A quick glance inside the stilt house (the crowd was pushing forward very quickly!)

A quick glance inside the stilt house (the crowd was pushing forward very quickly!)

The stilt house

The stilt house