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Sintra’s extraordinary subtropical micro climate allows for an abundance of cool deciduous woodland which attracted Moorish lords and the kings of Portugal here from Lisbon during the hot summer months. The layout of Sintra – an amalgamation of three villages – can be confusing, but the extraordinary Palacio Nacional, about twenty minutes’ walk from the station, is an obvious landmark. The palace was probably in existence under the Moors, but takes its present form from the restoration commissioned by Dom Joao I and his successor, Dom Manuel, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Its style is a fusion of Gothic and the latter king’s Manueline additions. The hourly tours are a bit of a trial unless you go early before the groups arrive, but the chapel and its adjoining chamber (its floor worn by the incessant pacing of the half-mad Afonso VI who was confined here for six years by his brother Pedro I) are well worth seeing.

The charms of Sintra, famously penned by Lord Byron, lie as much in its buildings as in its walks and paths. One of the best walks leads past the church of Santa Maria and up to the ruined ramparts of the Moorish Castle, offering extraordinary views. Beyond the castle, a steep ninety-minute walk from town, is the lower entrance to the immense Pena Park. At the top end of the park rears the fabulous Palacio de Pena, a wild 1840’s fantasy of domes, towers and a drawbridge that does not draw. The interior has been preserved exactly as left by the royal family when they fled from Portugal in 1910.

After the follies of Pena, a visit to Seteais and Monserrate comes as something of a relief. Seteais, right of the Colares road and fifteen minutes’ walk from town, is one of the most elegant palaces in Portugal. Completed in the last years of the eighteenth century and entered through a majestic classical arch, it is now a luxurious hotel and restaurant. Beyond, the road leads past a series of beautiful private estates to Monserrate – about an hours walk. It’s difficult to do justice to the beauty of Monserrate, with its vast gardens filled with endless varieties of exotic trees and subtropical shrubs and plants extend as far as the eye can see.

The tourist office is in the center of town, just off the central Praça da República (telephone 219 231 157). There is a hostel at Santa Eufemia (telephone 219 241 210), in the hills above Sintra 5km from town. To get there take a local bus to São Pedro from outside the train station and walk from there (2km). The nearest campsites are well out of town: the most convenient are at the beach-villages of Praia das Maçãs, Praia Grande, and Azenhas do Marm (all connected by bus). Restaurants are generally of poor value, relying heavily on the tour parties. Try Tulhas behind the turismo or the two Adega do Saloio grillhouses, at the far end of the street.

Information courtesy of Travelnow and Rough City Guides Lda.