Stepping into a magical world
Before I moved to Marbella I used to live in Estoril, an elegant town on the Portuguese Riviera just half an hour west of Lisbon. It’s a wonderful area in a beautiful, scenic setting close to an equally scenic and vibrant capital city, and one where socialising and good food are top of the list. When you live in or visit Lisbon and Estoril/Cascais, the first thing people tell you to visit is the nearby mountain town of Sintra, and indeed, it’s a revelation.
Where Lisbon has all the charm of a Mediterranean capital and Estoril and Cascais have the elegant feel of a Riviera destination, there Sintra takes you by surprise at it exudes an altogether more alpine/Austrian feel. The micro-climate and setting help, as this former summer residence of the Portuguese royal family is situated along the lower reaches of a mountain range marked by its intense greenery.
This temperate, almost alpine ambience provides the setting for a town with a very genteel, regal feel about it. More than that, thanks to its beautiful parks, picturesque historic centre and abundance of castles and palaces it feels like you’ve travelled back to an era of princes, princesses and horse-drawn carriages. It’s a delight to visit any time of the year, but come Christmas and it’s an experience that will stay with you always.
Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones combined
While I know this region pretty well and have visited several of the palaces, including the Neo-Romantic Palacio da Pena, the mountain top fortress called the Castelo dos Mouros, the haunting Convento dos Capuchos set in the midst of dense forest, and the Palacio Nacional in the centre of town, there were two more spots that managed to surprise me when I last visited over Christmas: Quinta da Regaleira and the Palacio de Monserrate.
To reach them you have to venture further into the wooded folds of the Serra de Sintra range, where the tone is set for a visit that will take your breath away. I had heard about Quinta da Regaleira, even seen photos of this late 19th century estate built in a Neo-Romantic Renaissance style, but even knowing that films had been shot here did nothing to prepare me for the amazing architecture, landscaping, grottoes and simply otherworldly structures that adorn this place.
Even when there are many tourists milling about, speaking every tongue under the sun, this fairy-tale park with its poetically inspired edifices, lakes, caves and creations that defy description are a very pleasant assault on the senses. After which it is a pleasure to venture a little further uphill and enjoy the Venetian-Arabesque folly that is the Palacio de Monserrate and its paradisiacal expanse of landscaped gardens.
To anyone living in Marbella and looking for a fantastic experience within driving distance I would suggest, visit Lisbon – and to anyone doing so I would say find your way, via Estoril and Cascais, to Sintra. Once there, Quinta da Regaleira should be on your list of things to see!