Cintra – Portugal Travel

The village of Cintra lies in one of the folds of the great hill, at perhaps a third of its height up the side; a little Swiss-looking pleasure-town round an open praca, like a set scene upon a stage. Sheer aloft upon a precipice a thousand feet and more above its roofs there stretch the mighty battlements and massive keeps of a huge castle of fawn-colored stone, a castle so immense as to dwarf Thomar, Leiria, and even Obidos almost to insignificance. Long lines of crenellated walls, following the dips and sinuosities of the crest of the peak, appear to grow out of the mighty, rounded boulders; some of these great masses of rock seeming to hang over perilously—as they must have done for thousands of years—top-heavy and threatening.

To climb such an eminence looks impracticable when seen from the praca of the little town, and yet it is but a pleasant and easy walk up the zigzag road round the projecting shoulder of the hill. As I start in the early morning to ascend the two twin peaks, only one of which is visible from the praca, the air is indescribably sweet with the mingled freshness of the sea and the perfume of herbs and flowers. The way winds upward between the trim walls of villas em-bosomed in gardens. Ampelopsis, blood-red now, long trails of wistaria and starry clematis, and large fuchsia trees loaded with flower, hang over the pathway everywhere, while masses of heliotrope clothe the jutting gables and corners, and pervading all are the scent and sight of oceans of flowers. Palms, planes, poplars, and firs shoot upward, and around their straight, bare trunks there clusters a tangle of figs, laurels, mimosa, camellias, aloes, and cactus. On the outer side of the road, as the villas are left behind, you may look over the dwarf-wall down the tree-clad slopes into glens of deep shade, with here and there a glimpse through the branches of a vast sunlight plain far below, while on the inner side of the zigzag way, the mosses and ferns, and the pendent greenery of the precipitous hillside, with an occasional break into a deep ravine, exhibit at each turn and step some new beauty of tint or atmosphere.

Presently, at a turn of the road, after half an hour’s climb, you see right overhead the bare granite cliff covered with huge overhanging boulders, and on the summit a long stretch of yellow battlements and a huddle of enormous towers. The trees around us are mostly oaks now, and the gray boulders are covered on their inner faces with ivy and lichens, while clumps of purple crocuses star the grass by the wayside. The sun is as hot as July in England, but the breeze is delightfully fresh and pure, the sky of spotless azure, and the air so clear that the ancient fortress, still far above us, is seen in all its detail as if we had it near to us under a giant microscope.

Suddenly, as I turned a corner, there burst upon my view another and a loftier peak than the one upon which stands the Moorish strong-hold that had hitherto been my objective. A crag so inaccessible it looked, as to suggest that the imposing building upon it, with its lofty towers, was the work of a magician. The royal palace of the Penha is this, piled up rather than built upon a sheer precipice. Here upon the highest point of the rock of Lisbon was King Manuel the Fortunate wont to linger for hours and days for many months together, climbing up from his palace in the town below, that he might gaze far out upon the Atlantic, watching and praying for the return of Vasco da Gama from his voyage to India round the African continent, the route that in two generations the impetus of Prince Henry the Navigator had opened up. There was but a tiny Jeronomite hermitage or penitentiary here in this savage eyrie to shelter the anxious king, and during his vigils he vowed that if the great explorer came home successful he would build upon the spot a worthy monastery of the order, in memory of the event. The work must have been a prodigious one, for even now the place is hardly accessible by carriages, and the quantity and the weight of material necessarily brought from below was enormous.

This monastery, like the rest, was disestablished and secularized by the State in 1834, and King Ferdinand, the consort of the Queen of Portugal, and a first cousin of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, bought the building for conversion into a royal palace, as it remains to-day, and here he lived the latter , years of his life with his second wife, the ex-opera-dancer, the Countess of Edla. Ferdinand altered his palace, in many eases with very doubtful taste, Moorish and German baronial features being liberally grafted on to the Manueline edifice, with the result that the whole building when seen closely is a pretentious muddle, saved from contempt by some of its ancient portions, and by its sublime situation.

The palace on the peak was soon lost to sight again on my climb upward, and the path led direct to the outer donjon of the Moorish strong-hold opening upon a narrow path cut along the face of the rock, and bordered on the outer side by a low stone wall. The view down over the steep, rocky slope, with the town of Cintra far below, and the plain limitless beyond, is very fine, and the walls that border the path are clothed with mosses and ferns.

To describe in detail this prodigious ruin would be impossible in any reasonable space. The summit of the crag consists of two separate peaks at some distance from each other, the higher one occupied by the main keep, “the royal tower,” and long battlemented walls reach from one point to the other, with bastions at intervals and massive square keeps at the salient angles. On all sides within the great enclosure formed by the battlements, covering the whole summit, remains of towers and buildings of various sorts are scattered, amid the dense growth of trees and brushwood that have intruded upon the space.

The battlements, many of them built upon the rounded boulders that border the precipice and following the contour of the hill top, are strong and perfect still; and it needs but little imagination to people them again with the turbaned and mailed warriors, sheltered snugly behind them, watching for the advancing hosts of the Christian king, certain that, so long as Islam was true to itself, no force could take this stronghold of their race. The view over the battlements on all sides is tremendous. Just below the walls a Titanic scatter of boulders, varying in size from a few feet in diameter to the bulk of a cathedral, and then the descending folds of greenery, with the sunlit plains and clustering towns below; and there on the west, seemingly almost at the foot, a long stretch of breaker-strewn beach, and the blue line of the sea. The view on the Cintra side is almost appalling, the drop from the battlements and boulders to the town being almost sheer, and on the southeast a great bay opens, and the mouth of the Tagus bounds the prospect.