I just spent a couple of hours sitting on the miradouro at the bottom of the mountain, and I realized what a sour old putz I have been about this city. From the miradouro, all I could see was the beauty, and the whole spectacle was laid out for my eyes, from the many-colored houses at the bottom of the hill, to the Pena Palace with its smudged chimney cones, to the tiled and glistening turrets, towers, and trim, and on up the hill to the very top, where the crenellated granite towers of the Castelo do Mouros tops it all. This city has been a playground for architects since the early kings and queens of Portugal started building palaces in this crystalline air. In and around all these visual marvels are the trees: thousands of trees, first the trees that were on the mountain before the royals and the millionaires came, and then trees from every corner of the world, imported from the colonies and planted here, where they have taken root and grown for several hundred years: evergreens from Newfoundland next to magnolias from Brazil, every kind of poplar and cedar and juniper, Indian trees, Asian trees, African trees, all thanks to those who brought them to their gardens in Sintra. If I look with the eyes of a child, what I see is fairy-tale stuff. And it´s NOT a theme park. It´s a living city, older than any theme park and full of history. From the miradouro, I could not see a single person–just the trees and the rooftops, the towers and the colors of the mansions, the palaces, and the Quintas that glint between the trees.
It reminded me of the Robert Louis Stevenson poem I loved so much as an invalid child, “The Land of Counterpane.” Putting aside all my adult concerns about colonization, greed, capitalism, and oppression, this could be the landscape of magicians, princesses, fairy godmothers, and chivalry. Maybe that´s what the tourists come to see. Maybe they come because each of them wants to see, once again, with the eyes of a child. Maybe they come because they ache for the world to be as beautiful as the kings and princesses who first lived here made it. Maybe they come because they want to see the spires glinting in the sun, the rooftops of every shape and angle, and all the beauty that money could buy, assembled in one small place on a mountain where the breeze caresses the trees.
I didn´t say enough about the Gardens of the Regaleira, where twentieth-century stonemasons, working just before the first World War, re-created the fantastical stonework of Batalha: stone carved to look like leaves, flesh, ropes, draperies, fantasy creatures, symbols, gods and goddesses, figures in ecstasy, terrifying beasts, moats, caves, and all the mind can imagine, made tangible. It was created by the theatrical set designer, Luigi Manini, and it provided a setting–for what? Did initiation rituals take place there? Did people like Byron (who called Sintra “the most beautiful city in the world”) laze about, plot intrigues, and start or end love affairs there? What did people eat in that dining room with a mosaic floor, murals on the walls, and the most elaborately carved mantel the world had yet seen? If I were that sort of writer (which I´m not) I could create romances, mysteries, fantasies set in Sintra. If you look at it from the miradouro, where you can´t see the cars, the frustrated tourists, the crying children, and the overworked waiters, and if you had that kind of imagination, this place could set you on fire.
Maybe that´s why all the tourists come, and maybe that´s why they seem so ill-tempered. They come here to see that, and instead they see each other. Maybe they want each other to get out of the way. They should go sit on the miradouro at the bottom of the hill. From there, there are no people at all.
One more comment before I go, and that is that I have not found a church here. There was the chapel in the gardens of Regaleira, which is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, but you can´t sit down there: there´s a rope in front of the chapel, which was only built for a maximum of a dozen people at any one time anyway. In every other Portuguese town or city I have been to except Sintra, there has been a prominent Igreja Matriz, parish church; in some cities, like Braga and Guimarães, there are a hundred or so. But here, the steeples (and there are hundreds) all belong to the palaces. There is a chapel listed on the map, but I couldn´t find it. Sintra is very different from the rest of Portugal, but it is PART of what Portugal is, and was. I couldn´t leave without saying that.