Today a train journey from Lisbon to Sintra takes 50 minutes and a one-way ticket costs €2.15. Like most railway journeys in Portugal, it is inexpensive and reliable – 150 years ago, Hans Christian had an entirely different experience as he recounts in his book.
“The railway line between Lisbon and Sintra, although marked on some maps, is not finished. A couple of station-houses have been built, but plans for the railway service have been laid aside and more or less given up.” Despite this haphazard state of affairs, he does not complain and tells his readers: “To get from Lisbon to Sintra you must go by omnibus or on a horse or donkey.” Having already spent three months in Portugal, I can only assume he had grown accustomed to the general lack of efficiency as compared to Denmark, the country of his birth.
He goes on to say what he expects to see in Sintra and quotes Lord Byron, who called it a “new paradise”. He tells us it is a summer retreat for the royal family and that “diplomats and rich Portuguese have villas in this lovely district and the hotels are full of visitors both foreign and Portuguese”.
Hans Christian stayed at the home of someone he’d not met before, a man of some importance and the Danish Consul’s brother. His house had numerous rooms and backed onto a rock face down which one of Sintra’s many streams trickled.
From the front garden, Hans could see the National Palace where the young King and his wife were currently residing. His description of the exterior is observable today. A monastery-like building – with parts of it dating from the 12th century – it is topped by giant up-turned champagne bottles instead of normal chimneys. In the further distance - on the tree covered hills and through the clouds - there was the resplendent Pena Palace, “half Italian and half Moorish in style”, it was occupied by the King’s father who had restored and extended this extraordinary palatial dwelling.
Hans Christian was over-awed by his proximity to such architectural splendour. Even more so if he had been able to look inside either of these opulent buildings. Today both of them are national monuments and open to the public.
The author informs his readers: “My host liked solitude and his quiet comfortable home.” He neglected to provide Hans Christian with his company or entertainment leaving him to his own devices. Perhaps the Consul’s brother had received a tip off from Charles Dickens who had entertained Hans Christian so successfully in England he had overstayed his welcome!
Conversationally, he might have been an irritating guest. Instead of living in the minute, Hans Christian continuously compared his surroundings to somewhere he had visited before. To quote a few examples, he writes that Sintra reminds him of the hills around Silkeborg, the green fields of Kent, the huge wild rocks of Brocken, the shores of Lake Geneva and the birch woods of Leksand.
From his comparisons, it is evident he spent much of his time in Sintra walking around the countryside. Often peering over walls and hedges, he admired the elegant real estate. A similar experience today would be a round of golf at Quinta do Lago and a sneaky peep across the fairway to see how the other half live.
On one occasion he stopped to view an elaborate mansion, just visible behind huge gates. Having made enquiries, he relates that Monserrate is owned by a wealthy Englishman who spends two months there each year. Looking across the gardens, he is spellbound by the scent of flowers wafting him from reality. As usual, he is reminded of somewhere else. On this occasion, the Middle East and a fairytale vignette for a “A Thousand and One Nights”.
Strolling home along the road under the shade of a cork oak forest, he tells us that by chance “I met and greeted the young king and his wife”. The royal couple was D. Luís and D. Maria Pia.
Exchanging a few polite words in this tranquil setting, none of them could have predicted the tragedy to come. Their son, Prince Carlos - then three years old – would be assassinated in 1908 and the monarchy overturned two years later. These facts explain why the National and Pena palaces are now open to the public.
Today there is no royal family to stroll around the roads and fields but tour guides try to recreate a regal atmosphere as if they were still there. Dancers and musicians dressed in period costumes entertain the public, the paintings of King Carlos are displayed along the walls and family photographs remind us these palaces were once family homes.
A Series by Carolyn Kain