We learn some things the hard way…
Palácio da Pena (Pena Palace) is easily one of the most recognizable palaces in Portugal. Perched atop one of the tallest parts of the Sintra Mountains, the palace can be seen from Lisbon on a clear day. With its bright colors and fairytale-like shape it’s not too hard to see how that is possible. Pena Palace is a national monument and represents one of the major expressions of 19th-century Romanticism in the world. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal (five down, two to go!). It is also used for state occasions by the President of the Portuguese Republic and other government officials.
The challenge for us was in getting there. We were generally aware of where the palace is situated. Its outline can be seen from miles and miles away. We saw it up on the mountain when we went to visit Quinta da Regaleira last May. Won’s golf buddy, Juan, told him he had parked at Penha Longa (Won’s golf club) and walked there. We even looked up the driving directions on Google Maps the day before to familiarize ourselves with the route.
On Tuesday of this week Won entered the Palace into his Waze app and off we went. Getting to Sintra was not difficult; we had been there before. However, our first effort to storm the castle, err, I mean drive up the mountain to get to it, took us up narrow winding streets. These streets are typically bordered on both sides by high stone walls with barely enough space for two vehicles to pass each other. (I have no idea why this is surprising…these streets and the walled houses that border them were likely built before cars were even invented!) It was so tight I’m pretty sure I lost a few years of my life on some of those passes. I’m not kidding. When you have to retract the side view mirrors to gain a few extra few inches, trust me, it is tight!
When the app said we were four minutes away from arriving at our destination, it instructed us to turn right and head up a road that was so narrow, even Won was convinced we wouldn’t make it. Rather than take a chance and scratch the sides of the car, we decided it was time to reassess.
We sat there for at least ten minutes trying to find an alternate route to get us to the palace using our navigation apps. Google Maps on my phone was suggesting a 25 minute route that led us out of town and around the other side of the mountain. That felt silly. We were so close! Won’s Waze app kept switching between the previously recommended route and the one my phone was suggesting. In the end, we gave in and followed the new route knowing there was no way we could complete the current route. However, once we had left the town and were at the base of the mountain it had us make a right turn heading up again, but this time it was a rough, pitted, uneven dirt track! As we gamely attempted to follow it, an older couple walking toward us, gestured for us to turn around. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough room to make a U-turn so Won had to back down the entire way. I think we were both secretly relieved to have abandoned that path, but our second attempt to storm the castle had just failed.
Won was understandably pretty frustrated. I suggested we drive to his golf club, which was about five minutes away, and hire a car to drive us there. A local would surely know how to get there, but when we got to the club Won couldn’t find the ride sharing app on his phone (the phone was new and he hadn’t downloaded it yet…groan…). With nothing left to lose, I suggested we drive up to Quinta da Regaleira, which we knew how to get to – and which we also knew was relatively close to Pena – and then enter the palace into Google Maps reasoning that being so close it would give us directions that were more effective. Won agreed and off we went, but we were stumped yet again! By that time, I could see a series of twisty roads on my Google Maps app leading up the mountain that looked like they would get us there. Instead of using the app, I told Won I would be the navigator.
[By the way, I should mention that there are buses that run people up to the palace from the town on a regular schedule. Why didn’t we take one you ask? We’re stubborn and Won wasn’t a fan of taking a bus.]
As I kept instructing him on where to go, we reached an intersection that required us to turn right or left. It looked like we should turn left, but the paved road we had been on turned to cobblestones. It remained paved to the right. Also to the left was a road sign that was unfamiliar to us. It looked like it might be private property and it certainly didn’t look like we should proceed that direction. I looked again at the spaghetti-like streets on my phone and said I thought I could guide us there if we turned right. Another total fail. This way took us DOWN the mountain, not up. Won turned the car around and headed back the way we came.
In the meantime, I kept thinking about that sign. It was round, all blue, with a red border and a red “X” across it. It seemed vaguely familiar. Then I remembered! I had seen it the week before and looked it up then. It means you cannot stop or park along the edge of the road! We plunged forward and followed the cobblestone road. Within minutes we could tell we were near the park surrounding the palace. As we followed the twisty road I noticed a small wooden arrow sign with the words “Pena Palace.” Just a bit further along we found a parking area. Yay!! We had finally made it. What should have been a 35 minute drive turned out taking two hours! We we so happy to have finally found it, we jumped out of the car and headed back to that little sign assuming that was the path to take.
This is where it gets comical. When we reached the sign, we stepped off the paved road and into the forest. There was a tiny little natural staircase leading down made of uneven tree roots and small pathway beyond which led to a jumble of stones we had to scale. Back on the pathway, we kept going. At one point I looked to my right and what did I see through the trees? Our car in the parking lot!! Not ten steps further and just around a corner, Won who was ahead of me, stepped back out onto the paved road. The palace entrance and ticket office was in front of him. I nearly peed in my pants with laughter!! Had we just turned right when we left the parking lot and walked about 20 feet around the corner, we would have seen it.
Now that the odyssey of getting to the palace was behind us we headed toward the ticket machines. We chose the ticket option that included the park as well as the interior of the castle. They were 14€ each. Be forewarned, the park is extensive and we didn’t have time to do it justice. There is a free Pena Park shuttle that will take you around, which, of course, we skipped. Will we ever learn???
It is helpful to understand a little bit about the location and how the palace came to be. The castle’s history started when a chapel was built and dedicated to Our Lady of Pena in the Middle Ages after an apparition of the Virgin Mary took place. King Manuel I (1495-1521), was very fond of this sanctuary and ordered the construction of a monastery to be built on the site which was then donated to the Order of Saint Jerome. For centuries Pena was a small, quiet place for meditation, housing a maximum of eighteen monks. In the 18th century the monastery was severely damaged by lightning. However, it was the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, occurring shortly afterwards, that took the heaviest toll on the monastery, reducing it to ruins. Thankfully the chapel and its works of marble and alabaster escaped without significant damage.
For many decades the ruins remained untouched until 1838 when Ferdinand II acquired the old monastery, all of the surrounding lands, the nearby Castle of the Moors and a few other estates in the area. King Ferdinand transformed the remains of the monastery into a palace that would serve as a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. The commission for the Romantic-style rebuilding was given to Lieutenant-General and mining engineer Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege. Construction took place between 1842 and 1854. King Ferdinand and Queen Maria II intervened decisively on matters of decoration and symbolism. Among others, the King suggested vault arches and asked that Medieval and Islamic elements be included. In 1889 it was purchased by the Portuguese State, and after the Republican Revolution of 1910 it was classified as a national monument and transformed into a museum.
Won and I, for some bizarre reason, didn’t think it was necessary to take the park shuttle up the hill to the castle. We thought it would be better to walk. On the plus side, it was a sunny day, there was a lot of shade from the trees, and the gardens we passed through were beautiful. However, I nearly expired on the way there. I have no idea how long it took to walk – maybe 15 minutes? But, it was a steep climb. My heart was pumping like an steam engine. Now I know why castles are built on really tall hills and mountains; the invading army would be completely pooped by the time they got to the castle rendering them practically ineffectual upon arrival. Good planning, but woe to those poor souls who worked there and had to lug themselves and everything needed to supply the thing up the mountain. Egad.
When we got to the castle, and I had the chance to literally catch my breath, it was taken away again when I saw the palace up close. It didn’t seem real. It was also dizzying to look up at it.
The views from the castle are amazing. I don’t suffer from acrophobia (a fear of heights), but even I was slightly unnerved. Unfortunately, our extensive tour of the mountain using every possible road to get there delayed us considerably and the skies had turned slightly hazy by the time we reached the palace, but you can still appreciate how far up it is and how far you can see.
The intentional mixture of eclectic styles includes the Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic and Neo-Renaissance as seen in the Neo-images below (sorry, I couldn’t help myself).
After racing from one side to the other to gawk at the views, we made the chapel our first stop. Built in the 16th century, it houses an altarpiece made of alabaster and black limestone (ca. 1470-1551) which survived the devastating lightening strike and subsequent great earthquake of 1755.
The old portion of the palace is centered on a lovely cloister that was originally part of the monastery.
The interior spaces of the palace are modest compared to all of the other palaces we have seen so far. The furnishings and décor reflect the styles and tastes from the latter part of the 19th century. The bedroom and bathroom below, as an example, belonged to King Carlos.
The private dining room for the royal family is located in the old portion of the castle, which is where the monks would dine when it was a monastery. And even though you can’t see it, the views are amazing.
The images below are of the “new” section of the palace and have high ceilings and more spacious room sizes. The leather furniture, full-sized torch bearers, and stained glass windows in the Great Hall are interesting and unusual. The room was used to entertain guests and had a billiards table when the royal family lived there.
The Stag Room is circular in shape and was used for formal dining occasions. A large round table was set around the center column.
While most kitchens are put in the basement of buildings, this one, even on a lower floor, was light and airy. The copper utensils are marked with the symbol “PP” (Palace of Pena) and the crowned monogram of King Ferdinand II.
While we moved through the castle, I was struck by how low the ceilings were in the hallways the servants took to and from the kitchen. I asked Won to demonstrate the height. [He’ll tell you he’s 6′ 5″ (195.5 cm), but he’s really 5′ 7″ (170 cm)… if he stands up really tall. I’m only 5’3″ (160.2 cm) and I could reach up and touch the ceiling without stretching.]
As is the case with all palaces and castles in Portugal, the ceilings are a sight to behold!
Other details that stood out to me were the use of Trompe-l’œil painting. The walls and ceiling of this room reflect that beautiful artform.
There were some eye-popping ornate furniture pieces too.
After the tour we stopped on the terrace for some refreshments and a short rest before heading out to see the park. We couldn’t stay too much longer because we had to get home to Sweet Pea. With so much to see, we needed to be focused and decided to walk down to the series of interconnected lakes.
That may not seem like a big deal, but Pena Park is huge. It comprises 200 hectares (494 acres) of forested, uneven terrain and was created at the same time as the palace. The exotic taste of Romanticism can be seen throughout the park in the structures and landscape. The king ordered trees from diverse and distant lands to be planted there. You will see North American sequoia, Lawson’s cypress, magnolia, Western red cedar, Chinese ginkgo, and Japanese Cryptomeria to name a few. A wide variety of ferns and tree ferns from Australia and New Zealand are concentrated in the Feteira da Rainha (Queen’s Fern Garden). The park has a labyrinthic system of paths and narrow roads connecting the palace to the many points of interest throughout the park, as well as to its two gated exits.
The cobblestone walkways were oftentimes lined with beautiful low walls covered in moss and delicate, flowering vines. We followed the sound of trickling water to a tiny stream that ultimately spilled into a little pool.
As we walked we passed some interesting structures and more formal gardens.
The little pool ultimately led us to a series of interconnecting lakes that held a slew of large, fat carp living in a dreamscape. It was simply magical.
These water features terminated in a fairytale setting with a tiny, whimsical castle in the center of the last lake; home to a single, very lucky duck.
Sadly this is when the battery on my phone went dead. (I’m ordering an external battery this week to prevent that from happening again.) We had been so enraptured with the landscape on the way down we didn’t think about the fact that we were going to have to hike our way back up in order to exit the park. Once again, we both got a solid, heart-pumping workout as we climbed the cobblestone pathways back up to the top of the mountain and ultimately back out the way we came, but the walk was really beautiful.
I hope you found this visit to Pena Palace as fun, escapist, and interesting as we did and that you will add it to your list of places to visit. And, now that we know how to get there, we certainly plan to return at some point.
Until next week, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,