The castle at Sintra in Portugal

The Moorish Castle has plenty of atmosphere

Sintra’s an easy day trip on the train from Portugal’s wonderful capital Lisbon. Hilly, with great views and some fairy tale architecture, it’s easy to see why the rich, the famous and royalty built their mansions around the village as an escape from the big city.

Sintra itself is touristy and busy but the real attractions involve a climb into the nearby hills. We may have ended up with sore feet, but the suffering was worth it to get the most of this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The castle walls
The castle walls

The hillside was once dominated by a Moorish castle, built largely in the 9th century. But time, Christian conquest and several earthquakes took their toll on the structure and it’s largely a ruin today, with parts of it hidden beneath woodland and scrub. Stretches of the walls have been restored over time and much of what we witnessed during our visit was the result of King Ferdinand II’s efforts to create something more romantic back in the 19th century (a very Victorian thing to do to a ruin). If anything, the walls looked a bit too well preserved compared to the rest of the structure.

Looking down on the town of Sintra
Looking down on the town of Sintra

The castle is undeniably an atmospheric place to explore and we ferreted around amid the undergrowth, trying to spot anything obviously architectural from centuries past. But the views were the real attraction. Down there was the little town of Sintra, with its red roofs, circled by more woodland. Beyond were the plains, shimmering in the summer heat. And it was suddenly very clear why the Moors chose the site for their castle – they’d be able to spot enemies approaching from many miles away.

Closer to home we spotted the brightly painted mansions of the rich that dot the hills, some of them standing proudly above the forest. The most obvious of them was the Pena Palace, once a monastery and then one of the grand houses that the Portugese royals called home. However, with our usual flair, we managed to visit on a day when the castle was closed for the day.

One of Sintra's handsome homes
The Pena Palace

If nothing else, that did mean more drinking time in the bars back in Sintra. Very good medicine too after all that climbing…