We are all living in some strange times due to the current world pandemic and one of the effects of these strange times was having the pleasure of enjoying my very own palace. Each year, millions of people from all over the world flock to Sintra to visit its famed monuments and natural beauty, and in particular to see the Pena Palace. However, due to the worldwide lockdown, only a small handful of people were to be found in the palace gardens when I visited it last month. My friend and I didn’t even run into anyone within the palace walls when normally hundreds of tourists line its emblematic hallways.
The romanticist Pena Palace is built upon Sintra’s mountain top, overlooking the town and the surrounding forest. For a giant palace built upon the hill, overlooking everything, you would think it would be easy to find, yet we still managed to get lost several times hiking up and down the mountain. I cannot even remember at this point how people used to get around without Google Maps!
The German architect who conceived the Palace had travelled extensively around the world and bears a name that I find quite hard to remember, Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, at least when compared to the king who commissioned the palace who is simply known in Portugal as Fernando II. Ludwig as I’ll call him took inspiration from castles and palaces from all over the world, including Germany (especially Neuschwanstein Castle), Asia, Africa and even other Portuguese monuments like the Tower of Belém.
Fernando II was an avid painter and drawer and always carried around a sketch book in his pocket. He was the one who envisioned the Triton Gate, an archway located on the Palace’s terrace. Mythologically speaking, in Ancient Greece, Triton was a Greek god of the sea, the son of Poseidon himself. He is often depicted as a merman, with the upper body of a man and the bottom half of a fish, and he is accompanied by a conch shell which he would use as a trumpet either to calm or agitate the sea. It is said that Triton’s shell was so loud and crude that all beings believed it to be the roar of a hellish wild beast.
In time, during the Greco-Roman period, the term “Triton” became a reference to mermen and creatures of the sea in general that were half human and half fish.
Throughout the whole palace you will find symbols and references to Portuguese culture and history and the Triton Gate is no exception. The Triton resembles a description of the god from the epic Portuguese tale The Lusiads by Luís Camões, but most likely was largely inspired by Damião de Góis.
Damião de Góis, a Portuguese historian and philosopher writes about the existence of a Triton in his Urbis Olisiponis Descriptio, “Description of the city of Lisbon”, in 1554. In this descriptive book, he mentions a few times the Sintra Mountains and Cabo da Roca, the most western point of continental Portugal and of all of Europe. This point is located in Colares, a small village along Sintra’s coast.
According to legend, along the coast of Colares there is a cave where the sea’s waves crash into the surrounding rocks producing a loud roar that echoes across the beach. People will vow that in ancient times a Triton was seen blowing his shell in the cave.
Damião also writes of ancient tales of men who lived near that beach that the locals called mermen, for their bodies were covered in fish scales that were believed to be traces of their former lineage. The habitants of the village believed that these men were direct descendants of the Tritons themselves for, according to legend, Tritons would sometimes leap from the sea and rejoice in the warm sand and abundance of heavenly fruit that the land had to offer. Little by little, they became more accustomed to living upon land and grew less savage and more civil.
Fernando II designed the Triton Gate as an allegorical creation of the world and unites both land and sea, which is most likely a dedication to the Portuguese feats during the Age of Discovery.
The Triton is perched on top of a giant shell surrounded by waves, corals and other intricate adornments and nautical symbols. Above, he is holding up a tree trunk that merges with vines and other symbolic flora and fauna that the Sintra Mountains are abundant with.
For centuries the land of Pena was home to a small monastery where monks could meditate in peace until the extinction of the religious orders in 1834. The place was left abandoned until it was acquired, along with all the surrounding land, in 1838 by Fernando II, who was in need of a new summer holiday home and he thus built the colourful red and yellow peculiar palace.
The extravagant taste of the Romanticism era was not only applied to the palace but to the surrounding gardens as well. A large variety of trees were ordered from distant lands and planted in the park, including fauna native to North America, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Luckily we found our way back down the mountain through the many woodland trees and warren of paths, looking forward to the many more secrets and places to be uncovered throughout not only Pena Park but the whole of Sintra, knowing each visit will always lead to a new adventure and discovery.
By Jay Costa
Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.