Yesterday was a Lisbon holiday to celebrate São Antonio, patron saint of the city. Only in Portugal….only in Lisbon…anyway, everything was closed so I wandered up the hill to Praça de Carmo, a monastery which was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. By the time they got around to thinking about rebuilding it, the vogue was for romantic ruins, so they saved their money and it still sits, majestic and sad, on the hill at Bairro Alto, overlooking the city, its ribs exposed like a dead dinosaur. The square in front of it is full of Jacarandas in full bloom and the perfume is quite intoxicating. The morning sun glints on the flowers, lilac against a clear cobalt blue sky, against the shadows of the walls of the old monastery. A magnificent old ruin.
Then I was at a bit of a loose end, so I thought I’d drive out to Sintra and have a look at the royal palace at Pena plus the castle on the hill. When I say ‘hill’, it’s rather more than that. It’s so high that you can get altitude sickness. From the old Moorish castle, you can see half of Portugal and it looks down on the town of Sintra like an eagle. The castle is now a ruin, of course, but reminds me of the great wall of China, the way it meanders up and down the Serra, built in the great clefts in the mountain, around boulders and crags. Now, it’s a botanical garden in the sky with an elaborate folly threading through it, nestling amongst massive trees that have reclaimed their land.
On the hill next to it, and even higher, is the former royal palace of Pena.
It was built by King Fernando II and looks as if it has been transplanted from Bavaria. This is not surprising because the Portuguese-sounding Fernando was, in fact, born Ferdinand August Franz Anton Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Yes, you guessed it…he was German and a cousin of our own dear Queen Victoria and her husband, Albrecht…wait for it…Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Byron called it ‘glorious Eden’ and wrote about it in ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’:
There is pleasure in the pathless woods/ There is rapture on the lonely shore/There is society where none intrudes/ By the deep sea, and music in its roar/ I love not man the less but nature more.
Quite so. I was so pleased that my favourite composer, Richard Strauss, had also been there and spoke of it as the ‘…castle of the Holy Grail perched over the garden of Klingsor’ (reference to Wagner’s Parsifal). It deserves all of this and more. It is quite unforgetable. As a royal palace, I would say it is modest compared to some of the stately piles in England. It was built around an original monastery and many of the rooms are small and on a human scale, almost intimate. The architecture and elaborate furnishings remind me a little of the Brighton Pavilion, being a bizarre mix of Gothic, traditional Manueline Portuguese, Moorish, Indian and Turkish. Buckingham Palace it is not, but then our Queen isn’t perched on top of a mountain, looking over her land like Zeus from Olympus. I was entranced by the place.
I should point out that, in this modern age of steam transportation and the horseless carriage, we don’t really expect to have to climb mountains. Well, yesterday, I climbed a mountain. Two. Several times. No choice. And, in the process of paying my respects to these stately ruins, I think I’ve become one myself.