So wrote Lord Byron in an 1809 letter to Francis Hodgson, describing the magical beauty of Sintra, a Portuguese mountaintop region overlooking the Atlantic (crowned by a town of the same name) which is located just west of Lisbon. He also waxed poetic about the area in a letter to his mother, stating,
“Perhaps in every aspect the most delightful in Europe; it contains beauties of every description natural and artificial. Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices, convents on stupendous heights, a distant view of the sea and the Tagus.”
Byron’s fellow English wordsmith Robert Southey, one of the Lake Poets and later Poet Laureate of England, called it "the most blessed spot on the whole inhabitable globe."
Ironically enough, it was one of Byron’s ancestors—Phillipa of Lancaster, queen consort of the Portuguese king John I—who helped put Sintra on the map for foreign travelers. Because of its cool climate, shady forests and breathtaking vistas, she and her husband chose it as a royal retreat from the sweltering heat of Lisbon. But they were not the first to be attracted by its unique charms.
The Romans established a cult to the Moon on its hills, naming the place “Cynthia” after the Goddess of the night orb. The Moors were also drawn to the place and established a castle there in the 8th century. It fell back into Christian hands in 1147, and since then has played host to Royals and countless travelers from all points of the compass.
Including me. I was lucky enough to visit the area recently, and had a chance to meander through the enchanted forests, historic churches and fairytale palaces that offer majestic vistas of the countryside and Cabo da Rocha, the westernmost point of land in all of Europe.
One of the most fascinating sites is Pena National Palace, considered one of the finest visual examples of 19th century Romanticism in the world. Built on the site of a historic medieval chapel, it was completed in 1854 and used as the summer residence of the Royal family until the Republican Revolution of 1910, after which it was turned into a museum. It’s a spectacularly interesting place to visit—the interiors are full of period furnishings give a wonderful feel of daily life in the era. As for the decorative details of the exterior—I shall let the photos speak for themselves.
Now, Byron favored the Lawrence Hotel during his visit to the area, but I discovered my own local modern-day gem. Nestled on the Estoril coastline in a stunning setting of wind-carved sand dunes, native grasses and pine trees, The Oitavos, a luxury 5-star hotel and sporting resort, would have greatly pleased the English poet —a man known to enjoy both beauty and sybaritic pleasures. Designed by Portuguese architect/artist Jose Anahory, its sleek, minimalist lines are graced by his paintings and sculptures, which complement the sublime surroundings. The guest rooms are spacious and ultra-modern, with views of the sea or the sun-kissed sand dunes. In the distance, Sintra and its historic monuments seem to wink through the morning mists to signal approval of their new companheiro.
After exhausting myself exploring the splendors of Sintra, it was bliss to return to The Oitavos and relax over a glass of lovely Portuguese wine (Like my Regency heroes, I chose port for my postprandial treat) and the superb cuisine of chef Cyril Divilliers. Oh, the agony of choice—with three fabulous restaurants, it was hard to decide whether to savor a gourmet meal at Ipsylon, enjoy sushi in the Ipsylon Lounge or snack on more casual fare on the Atlantic Pool Bar while watching the sun set over the ocean. (Like Byron, I felt inspired to write an ode . . . however I shall spare you. My poetry is not quite up to snuff with his.)
The Oitavos is just a stone’s throw from the historic seaside town of Cascais, where an old military fort, art galleries, shops and outdoor cafes provided me with a very pleasant diversion for the morning. (The hotel has bicycles for the quick ride into town, and the scenic ride right along the ocean is well worth the pedaling.)
As the resident Wench jock, I was also delighted to stay at the resort and play golf on the 18-hole championship course that winds through the undulating linksland and stands of umbrella pines. Designed by Arthur Hills to fit in seamless harmony with nature, Oitavos Dunes is ranked in the Top 100 in the world, and from the first tee, it was obvious why. The setting is, in a word, spectacular and the ocean winds can make each round a wonderful challenge of shotmaking. (Though when I added up my score I headed right back to the bar and ordered another glass of port. Not that I’m complaining!) There's also a wonderful spa, with organic seaweed treatments, and a topnotch equestrian center for those who, like Byron, prefer to take in the scenery on horseback.
There aren’t many places in the world that are as alluring as Sintra and the Estoril coast. To sum up the experience, I shall hand the pen back to Lord Byron, who paid his most public homage to the area in Canto 18 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
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
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium's gates?
Um, I couldn’t say it any better myself.
So what about you? Has any poem or painting inspired you to want to visit a specific place? Or is there some spot whose history or historic ruins have made you put it on your Bucket List? I confess, before I breathe my last, I would love to visit Istanbul. I’m totally fascinated by its storied past and fabulous confluence of cultures. And then there is the Greek Isles . . .