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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The Majesty of Iguazu Falls: A Photo Essay

Dearest fellow travelers, I have been to many amazing places and seen many incredible things on this trip, like Uluru and Angkor and Machu Picchu, and while those all awed me, none filled me with joy the way Iguazu Falls did. I walked a lot the two days I visited the falls, but my sorest muscles are in my face, from the non-stop grinning.

GRINNING

GRINNING

The week before I visited, there were such heavy rains that the subsequent flooding at the falls set records. This meant that a couple of the cool walks were closed on the Argentinian side–the bridges over the falls in those areas had been swept away–but there was still plenty to see.

Here, let’s look at a bunch of photos together:

The water levels were the highest they've been in decades

The water levels were the highest they’ve been in decades

Mesmerized

Mesmerized

Looking down was a rush

Looking down was a rush

And then there was this

And then there was this

Dozens of rainbows

Dozens of rainbows

I got pretty soaked standing in the shadow of this one

I got pretty soaked standing in the shadow of this one

Dos Hermanas--the two sisters--at the end of the Lower Trail

Dos Hermanas–the two sisters–at the end of the Lower Trail

Looking down from the Upper Trail

Looking down from the Upper Trail

And more wonders

And more wonders

The island in the middle of the falls; it was too dangerous to approach when I visited, because of the water levels

The island in the middle of the falls; it was too dangerous to approach when I visited, because of the water levels

That would be part of the Upper Trail. That section is currently closed.

That would be part of the Upper Trail. That section is currently closed.

I went on a boat ride to get up close and personal. This is before we went farther in and got completely, 100% soaked.

I went on a boat ride to get up close and personal. This is before we went farther in and got completely, 100% soaked.

There was a lot of mist in the late afternoon, when I went, so the falls didn't translate as well on camera, but they looked really cool from the boat

There was a lot of mist in the late afternoon, when I went, so the falls didn’t translate as well on camera, but they looked really cool from the boat

River-level view

River-level view

And now a break, in which I show you pictures of raccoon-like animals that you might think are kind of cute but are actually vicious little food thieves and biters. Coatis are wild animals native to the area, and although the ones outside the tourist areas keep to themselves (as wild animals ought), the ones in the tourist areas have figured out that they can get food a lot more easily by begging and outright taking it from tourists. I had food in my bag, and when the bag was hanging by my side while I took a selfie, a coati pounced on it! I won that fight, but yikes.

They creep up on you

They creep up on you

With their little anteater-like faces

With their little anteater-like faces

And their indignant raccoon-like tails

And their indignant raccoon-like tails

The Brazil park had this guy running around taking photos with kids, which I think sends a confusing message: Don't touch or feed them! But also, cuddly friend!

The Brazil park had this guy running around taking photos with kids, which I think sends a confusing message: Don’t touch or feed them! But also, cuddly friend!

Back to the beautiful, this time on day 2, when I went to the Brazilian side of the falls:

I mean, this is an pretty good introduction to the falls

I mean, this is a pretty good introduction to the falls

Good job, Nature

Good job, Nature

Now you're just showing off

Now you’re just showing off

More grinning

More grinning

You can walk out in the middle of the falls in the upper level on the Brazilian side

You can walk out in the middle of the falls in the upper level on the Brazilian side

You might get a little damp doing so

You might get a little damp doing so (people heading out on the ramp looked at me, aghast, as I headed back in–one woman grabbed my arm and said something in concern, and one man laughed out loud at my bedraggled state)

Right in the middle of the action

Right in the middle of the action

You can also go up an elevator for a view pretty high up

You can also go up an elevator for a view pretty high up

Which was a cool perspective

Which was a cool perspective

The Brazilian side

The Brazilian side

The final view from the Argentinian side

The Argentinian side

Temples in Kyoto

There are more temples in Kyoto than days on a Japan Railpass, but I did manage to see the Golden Palace, the Silver Palace, Ryoan-ji, and Kiyomizu Temple over the course of a couple days. I can see why people rhapsodize about them.

Kyoto temple

Kyoto temple

Ginkaku-ji (officially Jisho-ji) was built in the 15th century, and is probably nicknamed the Silver Palace as it came after construction of the gold-leafed Golden Palace. Possibly it was even going to be covered in silver foil, but that never happened, and it remains a painted wooden sculpture.

Ginkaku-ji

Ginkaku-ji

The Silver Palace, a wooden structure whose proper name is Temple of Shining Mercy

The Silver Palace, a wooden structure whose proper name is Temple of Shining Mercy

The approach to the temple was direct, but felt like a giant maze because of the huge hedges

The approach to the temple was direct, but felt like a giant maze because of the huge hedges

The grounds were extensive (I feel like a character in an Austen novel every time I say that, but it’s true). The gardens I visited in Japan were all meticulously laid out, and little arrows pointed the exact path you should follow, both to avoid congestion and to appreciate the gardens according to the aesthetic plan of the designers. The gardens at Ginkaku-ji were flowering beautifully, and the large raked rock garden (it is a Zen temple) was a perfect complement to the leafy trees.

Lovely gardens

Lovely gardens

Seriously lovely

Seriously lovely

Another view from the hill walk

Another view from the hill walk

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Palace, was super crowded–it’s one of the most popular destinations in the country, for domestic and foreign tourists alike. There’s a little spot set aside for photos of the gilded palace across the pond. Trying to elbow in for a photo in front of the fence was a bit of work. A Japanese teenager tried to take a photo with me–with me as the tourist attraction. I declined. Was that so different from taking a photo of the women in line with me at the kabuki theater? I like to think it was, since I chatted with the women in line before asking for a photo, but I’m not sure.

Golden Palace

Golden Palace

May was a great time to visit, with everything in bloom

May was a great time to visit, with everything in bloom

Finding space to get this shot was an exercise in patience

Finding space to get this shot was an exercise in patience

The palace a large house on stilts. It was originally the villa of a wealthy man; another man bought it later and then asked that it be turned into a Zen temple upon his death. So he got to enjoy the lavish place for himself and then piously give it over to religion–nice one! The original structure was burned down by a disturbed novice monk in 1950, and it has since been rebuilt. The hill walk here was far less impressive than that of the Silver Palace. I’m glad about that, actually, since I take it to mean that I’m getting a little better at distinguishing among the Japanese gardens I’ve seen, and determining which are more pleasing.

I love the temple gates

I love the temple gates

In the gardens of Ryoan-ji

In the gardens of Ryoan-ji

A view of the rock garden of Ryoan-ji

A view of the rock garden of Ryoan-ji

Ryoan-ji is part of the World Heritage listing of Kyoto, and it’s famous for its Zen rock garden, which has kept the same arrangement since the 15th century. The grounds are huge, and they include a large pond with ducks (which are apparently rare here), and a little fox shrine on a tiny island on the pond. Up the hill was the building. Everyone had to remove their shoes before entering, which is actually the first time I’d encountered that in a religious temple in Japan. (I removed them at every temple in Thailand.)

Teenagers in traditional dress, taking a selfie

Teenagers in traditional dress, taking a selfie

A miniature of the rock garden, so you can see the layout

A miniature of the rock garden, so you can see the layout

The rooms behind the rock garden were empty except for these beautifully painted screens

The rooms behind the rock garden were empty except for these beautifully painted screens

The rock garden is enclosed in a large stone fence. There are 15 rocks, set in carefully raked gravel/gray sand. I couldn’t get a good angle to see the whole garden at once, which is apparently intentional; you’re meant to sit and reflect on the portion you can see, and take meaning from that. You’re also only able to see 14 of the 15 rocks from any one point on the viewing pavilion, because you can “see” the final rock when you reach enlightenment. It would have been peaceful to sit there and reflect, but there were a lot of people and they all talked loudly, so that didn’t happen.

Kiyomizu-dera

Kiyomizu-dera

One last temple before sundown

One last temple before sundown

Detail on one of the structures at Kiyomizu

Detail on one of the structures at Kiyomizu

Picture perfect

Picture perfect

Getting to Kiyomizu Temple was more of a journey than I’d expected. I took a bus, walked up an endless hill, which finally turned into old Edo period buildings, and eventually I reached the shrine. It was a large complex, set around the edge of the hill, so for the first part you stood on the patio and looked across the ravine to a pagoda. (“Jump off the ledge at Kiyomizu” is a Japanese idiom similar to “take the plunge”–if you could jump 13 meters from the pavilion to a spot below, you’d get your wish. Not everyone survived this plunge.)

A peek at the pagoda

A peek at the pagoda

Up close

Up close

I saw what looked to be overflow on stock of religious sculptures on my walk through town

I saw what looked to be overflow on stock of religious sculptures on my walk through town

Then I walked along the rim of the valley to that pagoda and looked back at the buildings there, with the city off to the side and the sun starting to set. It was all picturesque, as just about everything in Japan was. Because I was there at closing, I didn’t get to to see the waterfall for which the temple is named, so, next time.

Goodbye, Kiyomizu and Kyoto

Goodbye, Kiyomizu Temple and Kyoto