At Atlantic's doorstep

At Atlantic's doorstep

A famous pilgrimage centre, a fort and a castle on top of a granite hill, and the Atlantic’s wild waves breaking into Europe’s westernmost point — all are within reach by day trips from Lisbon, the beautiful capital of Portugal.

The road is smooth and the countryside salubrious. What else can one ask for when in a holiday mood?

Sintra is about an hour’s drive from Lisbon, but it looks different from the urban centre. Perched on the coastline but also surrounded by ancient hills of Serra de Sintra, it served as a natural watchtower for the capital to look out for invaders from the sea. The 10th-century fort built by the Moors from Morocco, who ruled the Iberian peninsula for more than 600 years, stands witness to it.

This place has a somewhat mystic reputation. Its early settlers, the Celts, called it Sintia — Goddess of the Moon; the Moors called it Sintra — sacred place, and the Romans called it Lunae Mons — mountain of the moon. Researcher Joana Macedo, my guide, said that even to this day, believers in earth’s natural forces sometimes come here to pray.

The most visited place here is the Cultural Landscape of Sintra, of nearly 960 hectares of land with a castle, fort and park on top of the hill. UNESCO recognised it as a World Heritage Site in 1995, the first landscape in Europe to receive this distinction.

Driving up the hilly road, you encounter the walls of Fort Castelo dos Mouros. Inside, there is a nice track with trees and brooks, accompanied by the sturdy walls built to keep enemies away. The ruins talk about different regimes; excavation is going on to restore the fort.

More uphill, and there is the famous pink-and-yellow castle hanging from a hilltop, as if in a fairy tale, Palácio Nacional da Pena or Pena National Palace. From the public transport arrival point, a mini bus shuttles the visitors up and down.

It is built over a 16th-century monastery that was destroyed in the great earthquake of Lisbon, in 1755. King Ferdinand, a romantic and multi-talented personality, and wife Queen Maria II, who bought it, decided to turn it into a summer retreat with acres of planted forest. Later, the king decided to extend it into a palace. Soon, a many-tiered castle surrounded by a green belt emerged.

So, the 19th-century palace embodies the Romanticism of the age. Renowned German composer Richard Strauss commented after visiting Pena, “It’s the most beautiful thing I have seen.” From the gate to the castle’s interior, the influences of Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture are evident.

At the entrance is a huge figure of a newt, half-man and half-fish, symbolising evolution. The rooms in different sections and the grand reception room are loaded with artefacts with walls painted in trompe-l’œil style, a French art technique that creates a three-dimensional effect.

Information spring

Little nuggets of information come out while inspecting the rooms. For example, the bed seemed surprisingly small for a king’s bed. As Joana explained, in those days, people were superstitious about sleeping horizontally — a position of death. So, they placed many cushions on the headstead and slept half-sitting! This palace also shows off a ‘modern’ bathroom with a bath tub, bidet etc. First one to be built in the country.

It is well-known that Europeans were once afraid of bathing, fearing diseases. According to some reports, France’s King Louis XIV apparently bathed only thrice in his lifetime. No wonder, French perfume-making went into such heights under the circumstances, Joana said tongue-in-cheek. The kitchen in the palace is beautifully maintained, with huge copper vessels used for cooking for royalty’s parties in gleaming condition. By its side is a restaurant where visitors can have a simple but tasty lunch.

Cape town

Bidding farewell to the fairy-tale castle, we were on our way to visit Cape Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Europe. Portuguese poet Luís de Camões wrote about the place, “Where the land ends and the sea begins.”

Skirting the ocean lies the beautiful coastline of town Cascais. This and the pretty Estoril are famous with holidaymakers, windsurfers and surfers. If time permits, it’s a good idea to spend at least one night in either of the places, which have their own historical sites, and then travel to Fatima, the famous pilgrimage centre, about two hours away. There are also day trips from Lisbon to Fatima.

As the Fatima legend goes, on May 13, 1917, three children of a shepherd family were out in the field in a place called Cova da Iria when they saw a dazzling light. They thought it to be lightning, and while hurrying home, they saw ‘a lady more brilliant than the Sun’, from whose hands hung a white rosary.

They were asked to pray more, and as promised, the apparition appeared at the same place on the 13th day for five consecutive months. The Basilica of Our Lady of Fátima, symbolic of Mother Mary, has been built at that spot. Inside, there are 15 altars dedicated to the 15 mysteries of the rosary, as well as the tombs of the young visionaries. Thousands of pilgrims visit the centre from all over the world. Many of them cross the vast courtyard on their knees with rosary in hand as homage.

In 2004, construction of the Basilica of the Holy Trinity began across the plaza. The design for the striking, modern neo-classical building was selected after an international competition and awarded to Greek architect Alexandros Tombazis. The entire building is in white, as also the statue of Our Lady, creating an atmosphere of peace.

Glass panels at the entrance have passages of holy scripture written in many languages, including Hindi. The crucifix made of bronze and suspended over the altar is quite unusual. Artiste Catherine Greene depicts Christ as alive and glorious, ready to embrace the world.

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