Sintra, Portugal’s fairytale village named after the moon goddess ’Cyntia’ and worshipped by ancient pagans who used to inhabit the land, is one of the most enigmatic places I have ever visited. I could probably produce hundreds of articles talking about all the magnificent tales and history coming out of Sintra, and one day I probably will.
The Castelo dos Mouros, the Moors Castle, is one of the most picturesque castles in Portugal due to the surrounding forest and rocky mountainside, sitting upon Sintra’s illustrious mountain top, right across from the renowned Pena Palace. The name sort of gives it away, however it was built by the moors during the 8th and 9th century and stood guard over the entire land of Sintra. From atop the castle walls, the North African Moors kept watch upon the entire land that stretched all the way to the Atlantic Ocean and the Tagus River, avoiding attacks from both land and sea. The same can´t be said for Lisbon’s neighbouring castle, São Jorge.
In 1147, the legendary D. Afonso Henriques conquers the city of Lisbon by sieging the São Jorge Castle, defeating the Moors, and expanding the Kingdom of Portugal. The Portuguese forces advanced south by land whilst thousands of foreign crusaders sailed their ships down the sea before entering through the Tagus River. A violent storm had forced the crusaders’ ships to anchor in Porto on their way to the Holy Land. There they met with D. Afonso Henriques who convinced them to help him siege the city of Lisbon and in return they were promised the pillage of the city’s treasures and the ransom money for impending prisoners.
As soon as Lisbon was once again conquered, the Moors quickly surrendered the castle in Sintra where it then, for the most part, was slowly left to ruin over the following centuries. Trees quickly sprouted around the castle’s archaic walls, veiling the fort as it merged with the forest itself. Their grand roots spread wide across the castle’s paths while branches and leaves crept up the walls seeking refuge in gaps long formed between the large stone bricks. The Kingdom of Portugal had written off the castle and nature was quick to fill that void.
One of Sintra’s most well kept secrets are the tunnels and caves that run underneath all of Sintra’s mountain range. Local folklore tell stories of tunnels that run all the way to the ocean, caves that harbour ancient treasures buried deep below the palaces and castle and even secret passageways leading to the underworld.
Legend has it after Lisbon was taken, the Moors in Sintra’s Castle were able to quickly escape through these underground tunnels before the crusaders arrived.
During the 19th century, Fernando II, “The Artistic King”, contributes his greatest masterpiece, the Pena Palace, although this was far from his only contribution. During his lifetime he undertook grand restoration and conservation projects on not only the whole cultural landscape of Sintra, including the Moors Castle, but also the Batalha Monastery, the Convent of Mafra, the Jerónimos Monastery, the Lisbon Cathedral and the Tower of Belém.
The King envisioned the Romantic-era ruins that we admire today and restored the castle with the help of Baron von Eschewege, who also oversaw the construction of the Pena Palace.
Hoisted along the castle walls are iconic Portuguese flags adopted throughout history, starting with the original white flag with a blue cross adopted by D. Afonso Henriques after he conquered the land, and ending with the current Portuguese national flag. However, along the way you will also find hoisted a green flag with Sintra written in Arabic across it, paying tribute to Portugal’s vast Moorish cultural heritage.
The Pena Palace, the Moors Castle and of course the enigmatic Quinta da Regaleira are the main local attractions, though Sintra has so much more to offer. Just below the castle you will find the Sintra National Palace, and although it isn’t as enigmatic or breathtaking on the outside as the other monuments, deep within I came across an occult chapel that made the visit worth it. You never know what you might discover each time you visit Sintra.
According to legend, the Moorish women used to wander down to the gardens that now surround the National Palace after bathing to breathe in the fresh air and pick the scented flowers. One day, one of the women fell in love with a Christian who used to watch them from afar. When the Moorish woman’s husband found out he had her killed and it is said that she still wanders the gardens in search of the Christian she fell in love with.
I grew up playing the Tomb Raider: Lara Croft games, so exploring ancient temples and finding hidden treasures will always be a deep fantasy of mine and exploring places like the archaic chapel in the National Palace and the castle ruins allows me to feel like a true Tomb Raider or a modern Indiana Jones.
By Jay Costa Owen
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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.