Lord Byron’s passion for this charming historic village is reflected in many of the lines of his most famous poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which he wrote during a visit to Portugal more than 200 years ago.
Dominated by a fierce Moorish castle and an enchanting palace, whose towers and domes seem straight out of Snow White, Sintra has in Byron’s words ‘all the wildness of the Western Highlands and the verdure of the south of France’.
He had already seen most of the continent by the time he arrived at the village, describing it as ‘perhaps the most delightful in Europe’ in a letter to his mother.
A place of romantic grandeur, it has attracted more than its fair share of poets and novelists over the centuries, with Beckford, Keats and Southey equally lavish in their praise.
Set among the wooded, low-lying mountains of the Serra de Sintra, the village produced rhapsodies from its early 19th-century visitors, especially Byron who described it as a ‘glorious Eden’.
Reachable in just forty minutes by train from the centre of the Portuguese capital, walking is the only proper way to relish this earthly paradise.
For more than five hundred years, Sintra was a favourite summer residence for the Portuguese monarchy. Today it is a major draw for visitors and harbours many top tourist attractions.
Most notable of these is the National Palace built by King João I in the 14th century. Royal children were born here and royal marriages arranged.
Perched right on top of the Serra de Sintra, the ancient Moorish Castle dates from the 7th century and seems to grow straight out of the granite. It was finally lost to the Christians sweeping down from the north in 1147, around the time Portugal was founded.
Built in 1840 by Prince Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the Palace of Pena (pictured) was another royal favourite on account of its stunning mountain-top location. Its richly-decorated interior is a fascinating exposé of royal taste of the period.
Seteais (Seven Sighs) Palace close to the town centre is a dreamy 18th-century hotel with sprawling gardens and heady views across vineyards and forests stretching west towards the Atlantic Ocean.
With such a fairytale quality, summer visitors love to savour this cool green oasis above the dry plains drawn out below the dramatic crags of the Serra, which raises from a pebbly plain its rugged, tortured backbone, smoothed over by the hand of the centuries.
Of immense interest to the geologist, Sintra is also one of those botanists’ paradises where Portugal seems to delight in collecting together, in one wild, precious bunch, the rarest plants and flowers, including more than ninety species found nowhere else in Europe.
George Gordon Byron the 6th Baron left for Portugal on 2 July, 1809 setting off from Falmouth, England, with a friend from Cambridge University, arriving in Lisbon five days later.
It was a torrid time; Napoleon had declared war on Portugal on 20 October, 1807 and Junot’s troops occupied the city soon afterwards.
Nevertheless, the tenacious 21-year-old was so entranced by Sintra remarkable landscape that he immediately set to work on his ground-breaking poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, writing the following passage from his balcony at Lawrence’s, a hotel still operating today;
‘Oh, Christ! it is a goodly sight to see
What Heaven hath done for this delicious land!
What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree!
What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!
Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen,
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken.
The horrid crags, by toppling convent crowned,
The cork-trees hoar that clothe the shaggy steep,
The mountain moss by scorching skies imbrowned,
The sunken glen, whose sunless shrubs must weep,
The tender azure of the unruffled deep,
The orange tints that gild the greenest bough,
The torrents that from cliff to valley leap,
The vine on high, the willow branch below,
Mixed in one mighty scene, with varied beauty glow.’