You open your eyes again, still dazzled by the unexpected glint of sunlight, which struck you from between the pines. In that moment of blindness your other senses heighten. You hear the clattering of the motorized tuk-tuk, hurtling up the serpentine road; on your face – the warm gusts of September’s Mediterranean breeze interchange with cold currents, streaming into the valley below; around you – pines clutch the road and envelop you with their meditative scent.
Just moments ago you had been in Sintra – a hallmark of Portuguese touristic welcome. Criss-crossed with winding stairwells and belief-defying gradients, the UNESCO World Heritage town echoes Lisbon’s tectonic landscape. Uniquely though, each hill and crevasse presents a new period of Portugal’s flourishing culture.
The National Palace and the Quintra Regaleira are as striking in their Gothic intricacy as the Seteais Palace is geometric and magnificent in its neoclassical Roman style. The Monserrate Palace bears the marks of Indian and North African architectural designs, while the nature that entwines the Convent of the Capuchos can almost carry the traveller to the jungle depths of South-East Asia.
Within the town – seemingly a platform inter-temporal travel – one finds the well-serviced family businesses, so firmly embedded in the Mediterranean tourist culture and stubbornly resistant to the sturdy push of globalisation. To indulge in the repertoire of traditional Portuguese cuisine, spiced by treasured home-made recipes, is not difficult here, but a personal recommendation would be the affordable “Metamorphosis” – a treasure-trove of national dishes, to take you on a mind-blowing culinary journey that does justice to Kafka’s namesake novel.
The real magic however, to use a well-worn but under appreciated term, starts when you begin the ascent towards Pena Palace. Winding among the wild pines at breakneck speeds (for which the local tuk-tuk drivers are renowned) you catch a glimpse of red between the branches. On the next loop, a bright yellow tower stuns the landscape before disappearing out of sight. At last, passing over a ridge, the 19th century Pena Palace comes into full view. A fairy-tale of colours, towers, balconies and decorative turrets, it is nearly impossible to convince yourself that it is reality before you – not just the visualisation of a brothers Grimm story, or a Disney animated film. King Ferdinand was an admirer of the Romanticist style and intervened continuously during the building of the palace, adding operatic features to what is now considered one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
Passing through the gateway and onto the lower level balcony you are immersed fully in King Ferdinand’s intended surrealism. Your wandering eyes work to compensate between the enchanting arches of the palace and the breath-taking panoramic views of rural Portugal, dominated by the pine forest which partners Pena on the mountain top and the multitude of white, yellow, orange and magenta houses which seem to crawl down towards the outstretched expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.
The regal yet childlike residence is flanked by the imposing bastion of the Castelo de Mouros, dating a further seven centuries back to the Moors’ dominion over the Iberian Peninsula. Scaling its walls, with the vast valley and fantastical palace a ready-made canvas to intrigue even the most unartistic soul, one can only wonder at how this unique palette of man-made structures and haphazard natural phenomena has moulded over time into what can surely be called a standout epic of European landscapes.