They say if you wander through the lush, green hills of the Serra di Sintra on bright moonlit nights, chances are you will come upon a stunning Moorish maiden all in white. Her enchanting figure will emerge carrying a pot, which she will fill with fresh water at a nearby spring. She will not speak to you, nor look you in the eye, but as she passes you, listen carefully for it will seem as if the earth, trees and the wind are sighing in unison for a time that is now gone and will never again return.
Muslims first arrived in al-Gharb al-Andalus – modern day Portugal – in 714 CE as part of the North African conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. They stayed for over 400 years changing the way people farmed, ate, spoke, dressed and behaved. Theirs was a legacy remembered fondly – the above legend of the mystical Moorish maiden was still doing the rounds centuries after the Muslims had left in 1147 CE.
During those years, like neighbouring al-Andalus (Spain), al-Gharb al-Andalus flourished. Innovative agricultural techniques were introduced; new and exotic food and spices became the norm; major centres of learning were established in cities like al-Ishbun (Lisbon); music and poetry were widespread, and an air of tolerance allowed Jews, Christians and Muslims to live in relative harmony. It is no wonder so many reports claim long after Alfonso Henriques took al Gharb al-Andalus and declared it the Christian Kingdom of Portugal, many still pined for that golden age. Nowhere is this melancholy more deeply apparent than in the beautiful green hills of Sintra’s UNESCO World Heritage Park, 30 kilometres north-west of the country’s capital, Lisbon. Here, stunning remnants of Portugal’s Muslim past stand alongside a wealth of later romantic Moorish re-imaginings.
Built in the 10th century, the Moorish Fort of Sintra was a strategic construction designed to protect the city of al-Ishbun. Today, it is probably the most atmospheric and best preserved Muslim fort in Portugal, if not Europe. Only the outer wall still survives, and this stretches from the old Royal Tower all the way to what was the Castle Keep – a stunning walk that offers breathtaking vistas across the foothills and the other monuments in the national park. The path is marked by eleven flags, ten of which show the evolution from the simple blue and white cross of the 12th century to the current modern version with its complex mix of old and new. In the middle of this parade, seemingly out of place, is a green flag with white Arabic writing – the word ‘Sintra’ – a nod to the fort’s founders. Easily reached from
the capital, Sintra with its mild, cooling, climate and lush hills, has always been very popular with Lisbon’s ruling elite, be they Muslim or Christian. The countryside pleasure palaces the Muslims built are no more, but in their stead remain those put up by the later Christian aristocracy and royals. And almost all of these folk had a certain weakness for the region’s Muslim heritage. As a result, Sintra is littered with post-Moorish palaces where visitors can admire the Romantic 17th and 18th-century re-imagining of Moorish artistry. The wildest expression of this is
the Pena Palace – today regarded as one of the finest examples of the Moorish-influenced Manueline style.The Pena Palace is the fantasy of eccentric King Don (Dom) Fernando II, who purchased
the then neglected monastery back in 1838, before going ‘to town’ with it! His architects were asked to mix global Muslim styles with 19th-century European ones – the result is something akin to Hogwarts on LSD. The dominant influence though is clearly Islamic. The entrance to the palace is a stunning gate that belongs to a medina somewhere in Fez, as does the riyad-like open courtyard behind the Queen’s Terrace, where a host of rooms offers an insight into palatial life. Almost all of the archways in the Pena Palace are elegant arabesque arcades inspired by far off places like Isfahan and al-Qarawiyyin. Meanwhile, walls have been decorated with tiles whose geometric patterns are filed under ‘Alhambra’ in modern design stores. There is even an Indian Mughal-style turret, complete with a yellow onion dome, perched on the palace’s corner where the visitors’ roof-terrace cafe sits.
Loud, colourful and garish, the Pena Palace speaks volumes about Don Fernando’s eccentricity, but it also says much about the historic Portuguese pining for all things Moorish. How else do you explain the desire to blend a floor to ceiling wall of Moorish-tiles with an allegorical gateway guarded by a half-man, half-fish figure from European mythology?
Where in the world: Sintra National Park is just north-west of the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon in the municipality of Sintra.
In and out: Fly into Lisbon and then catch the suburban line that goes from Lisbon’s Rossio Metro station and terminates at Sintra.
Top tips: Although Sintra National Park is a wonderfully walkable place; it is also a very hilly place where your calves are bound to punish you the next day. To avoid this buy the day pass for the local hop-on-hop-off tourist bus which does a circular route from the town at the foot of the hills where the train station is through all the major sites, allowing you to travel between them without cursing the bourgeois choice of terrain!