Pena Palace is considered by many to be the most beautiful building in all of Portugal, and it certainly lives up to that reputation. The colors – yellows, reds, blues – of the fanciful towers and decorations play masterfully with the cloud-filled sky and the greens of the open mountainous space around it. It is opulent. It is stunning. And it is no wonder the Portuguese people who, by the end of the 19th century, were among the poorest in all of Europe, would so resent those who lived in such buildings that they would end the monarchy in blood.

Sintra, located about 45 minutes by train outside of Lisbon – and at a cost of €1.90 each way one of the best deals I’ve ever seen – was the escape for the country’s elite. Palaces and huge homes and chalets dot the hillsides. It is here in 1838 that King Consort Ferdinand II (husband of Queen Maria II) decided to purchase a ruined monastery he had fallen in love with at the top of one of Sintra’s mountains, overlooking the nearby Moorish castle. For the next sixteen years, construction was undertaken to transform the ruins into a fanciful palace dedicated to all of the romantic ideals of the age. Completed in 1854, Pena Palace became the shiniest jewel for the monarchy, and it is easy to see why.

I mean, wow, right?

Upon arriving at the Sintra train station, you’ll purchase entry to Pena Palace, and to the Moorish castle and other palaces if you’d like, and then take a bus up to the entrance. (The bus only takes cash and is under €10 to run the circuit between a few of the sights. Pena Palace, the Moorish castle, and Sintra’s center are all on a single circuit. Other sights are on another. Pena Palace is the second stop.) Tuk-tuks are also available, but it would be a very long and steep walk. Even arriving at the base of the Palace grounds, it is a bit of a hike up, but the views of Pena Palace from below make it worth the effort.

The view from below

You can add a visit to the Moorish castle while you’re in Sintra.

The Palace itself looks like something out of a fairy tale. Every detail is thoughtful, and every detail is beautiful. From stylish shells decorating the Triton Courtyard to the curved tunnel entrance, it is evident no expense was spared. The old monastery cloister plays a central role in the palace, while more modern spacious construction enlarged it and provided for the more public rooms. Visitors can wander both the exterior squares and battlements – which were never used in battle and exist only for show – as well as through some of the interior rooms, many of which still retain their original furnishings. (Sadly, photography is not allowed inside any of the rooms.) A well-marked self-guided tour makes the route easy to follow, although probably not accessible to those with physical impairments.

The old cloister with the new clock tower behind

The building of Pena Palace stands in sharp contrast to the decline in overall Portuguese wealth and international standing during the 19th century, and would likely have seemed to many as a move out of touch with reality. By 1890, Portugal was humiliated into accepting second-class status with the signing of the British ultimatum of 1890, forcing Portugal to cede nearly half of their African empire without a single shot being fired. Combined with the loss of Brazil in 1822, this further devastated the Portuguese economy, which was already nearly completely reliant on trade and severely lagging behind other European powers in industrialization. The country had a poorly educated populace, many of whom lived in relative poverty, few paved roads, and an infrastructure nearly completely unadapted to more modern technology.

On February 1, 1908, the crisis between a poor population yearning for better conditions and a largely out-of-touch monarchy living lavishly came to a head. Returning to the city from one of their palaces, King Carlos I and his heir apparent, Prince Luis Filipe, were assassinated in Lisbon’s Praça do Comercio. Nineteen-year-old Manuel II ascended to the throne, but the monarchy would come to an end only two years later in October 1910. Manuel’s mother, Queen Amélia, spent her last nights in Portugal before the family left for exile aboard the royal yacht here at Pena Palace.

While Pena Palace is a must-see sight, it is hard to walk through the rooms and courtyards and not think of the lavishness in contrast to what day to day life must have been like during that period in Portuguese history. Sintra as a whole is so different from the urban confusion of Lisbon, with its mini-palaces and wealthy charms. With the fall of the monarchy, the palace was declared a national monument and turned into a museum, quickly becoming one of the most popular destinations in the country. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, its colors were also retouched in the late 20th century, bringing the palace back to its earlier vibrancy.

The entranceway looks like a fairy tale scene

For visitors to Lisbon, a day trip to Sintra must be on the to-do list, and that day will be highlighted by Pena Palace. Beautiful and romantic, it hides a darker history marking the end of Portugal’s monarchy.

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