Cintra – Portugal

I came to Cintra in the light of the full September moon. The low buildings were chalk-white among the green-black palms and dense masses of foliage crowding up the mountain side. Along a winding way the road led from the station through tunnel-like gloom of far-reaching branches; out again into clear spaces, where the moon looked down; past a slanting street of steps lit part way up by a faint lantern casting strange lights and shades upon the mysteriously shadowed buildings; by an archway through which a dim, half-seen alley led to blackness; along the open road with a vivid view of the palace with its weird, gigantic chimneys; and finally into an irregular market-place that seemed a stage setting for some comic opera. Other market squares, particularly that of Middelburg, have seemed like this, but none so eminently.At one side is the entrance to the ancient palace of the Moors, the palace whence only a few years ago poor Queen Maria Pia fled on that fateful morning of the revolution. Flanking this are two enormous palms set round with bench-like seats of quaint Moorish tiling; nearby a strangely twisted column of Manueline design, half hid in the shadow; opposite, a three-story building of bright-blue glazed tile, and by it on the right a long, low, tiled hotel of varied colors and patterns; on the left, a salmon-colored house, and close at hand one of deepest crimson; in one corner of the square a fruit-stand piled high with white and purple grapes and yellow pears, and red peaches, and pale-green melons, presided over by an old, old woman with strange, heavy earrings in her ears, and over her head a rainbow handkerchief.

Everything was wonderfully foreign. To and fro went peasant women with short skirts and bright-hued waists, and headdresses of a hundred colors. Out of the gloom a slim girl passed to the fountain with a dull-red water-jar carried on her thick, black hair. Men in long-tasseled caps came and went on little donkeys. Under a window stood an enamored lad shouting out courtship to his Heart’s Desire, who called responsively down to him, for thus only, saith Mrs. Grundy, may courtship progress in these little towns of Portugal. Everywhere was the strange and the unfamiliar. And then, looking up, I saw by the white moonlight, crowning the mountain-top, the splendid walls of a Moorish stronghold, old these thousand years.

Cintra is one of the world’s show places. For centuries poets have sung its beauty. Byron exclaims, ” Lo, Cintra’s glorious Eden! ” and in a letter to his mother says, ” The village of Cintra is, perhaps, in every respect the most delightful in Europe.” Southey, the poet, writes that ” Cintra is the most blessed spot in the habitable globe.” Beckford, who wrote Vathek, and built here a wonderful palace, says, ” The scenery is truly Elysian and exactly such as poets assign for the resorts of happy spirits.” ‘Way back in 1450, a German bishop sighed on his return, for ” Cintra, most pleasant place,” and Baedeker quotes an ancient Spanish proverb, ” To see the world and leave Cintra out is to go blindfold.” A modern Portuguese poet thus praises the town:

Ah, Cintra, blest abode, Who loves thee not; and who Can e’er forget in life

An hour passed in thy lap?

The late Queen Maria Pia would ask every stranger presented to her, ” Have you been long in Portugal? ” and then, ” Have you been at Cintra 2 ” and if the answer was ” No,” she would exclaim, ” Ah, then you have not seen Portugal! ”

The little town of some five thousand people is about fifteen miles from Lisbon, and four or five miles from the coast. The mountain of Cintra is a narrow, precipitous range about eight miles in length, rising eighteen hundred feet above the level of the sea. Near the highest point a rocky spur is thrown out into the valley, and here, clinging to the slopes, lies Cintra. Directly over the town, and a thousand feet above it, upon the edge of an almost inaccessible cliff, rise the long walls and irregular towers of the Moorish fortress. Beyond this is the exceedingly picturesque Pena Palace.

Climatically, there is probably no other such favored country on earth as Portugal. Here at Cintra frost never comes, and, on the other hand, the elevation of the town, and the cool breezes from the sea, prevent extremes of heat. These breezes also bring moisture, with the result that the trees and plants of every clime f flourish vigorously, and the gardens and groves of Cintra are conceded to be the finest in the world. All around lie the villas of people of wealth, who come here from England and nearly every country of the continent, and maintain, summer and winter, a life that for splendor and luxury can scarcely be equaled in Europe. An added brilliancy was formerly given by the presence of the Court, The Queen Grandmother, Maria Pia, always lived in the Moorish palace in the town, and King Carlos made his home in the Pena Palace on the hill, and there his Queen kept her residence after the murder of her husband and eldest son. The result has been to make Cintra the most civilized and agreeable, as it certainly is the most beautiful village in Portugal. The word ” civilized ” is used advisedly, for while the landscape of Portugal possesses much beauty, and the singular architecture known as Manueline exercises the spell always felt at first encounter with the bizarre and the unusual, and the semitropic vegetation stirs with delight the northern heart, yet there is no country of Europe where revolting poverty is so in evidence, where beggars are so persistent and so sickening in their paraded deformities, where dense ignorance is so general, and where ignorance and poverty have so brutalized the masses of the people. But Cintra is clean as well as beautiful, and the peasants have faces more intelligent and persons more cleanly than anywhere else in Portugal. Poverty here is not such utter and abandoned destitution, and there is a brighter and livelier mood than else where in the nation. Among the local institutions which may have contributed to this result is an official ” Beggars’ Day.” This is Saturday, and then it is ” Hark, hark, the dogs do bark, the beggars are coming to town.” They come early, and they stay late. They come from villages miles away, and they come from the lanes and the streets of Cintra. They come literally in rags and tags, but none in velvet gowns. By twos and threes, and by the score they come, till the market-place is filled and the ways of the town are thronged by them. By the unwritten law that rules the day, every merchant contributes his dole, and at least two of the hotels furnish bread and wine in a specified amount. But the other six days of the week the town is free from them, and the tourist can take his way unmolested by the motley crew that elsewhere dog his footsteps continually.

Long before the beauty of this little town on the mountain became known to the world, its attractions were acknowledged by the Moors, the most temperamental of any race that ever lived on European soil. It was not long after their conquest of the country in the Eighth Century that they established the seat of their power at Cintra, built a palace in the town, and, upon the impending cliff above, a vast impregnable fortress. Protected by this great castle, the exquisite life of the Moors flowed on for centuries till the Christian King of northern Portugal bribed the keeper of the citadel, and through this purchased treason the Mohammedans were surprised to ruin and death. As time went on, the palace in the market-place fell to ruin, and the fortifications on the mountain entered upon that slow process of decay which, persisting for centuries, still leaves these great walls among the most impressive ruins of Europe.

Four hundred years ago, when John I came to the throne and Portugal entered upon her brief career of greatness, he built out of the ruins of the palace in the town a queer-looking pile, which, with additions by later monarchs, stands today. Its most striking architectural features are the two curious chimneys, the most celebrated in Europe, that rise above the kitchen. They are great inverted hollow cones, entirely covering the room beneath.

Royalty always occupied this palace, for Cintra has ever been the favorite home of Portuguese rulers. Now the republican government is in charge of the property, and officials show you through the queer old rooms, where legend and romance wait on every step. The ceiling of one room is black with painted magpies, each with a scroll in his beak on which appears a sentence which, freely translated, means, “With good intent.” They say that King John was once caught by his Queen, who had red hair, kissing a pretty maid, and that the unfortunate monarch stammered, “With good intent, my dear; a fatherly kiss, that’s all.” But the Court were skeptical, and all the ladies-in-waiting kept murmuring, “With good intent,”

And then King John made a bold bluff, and adopted the words as his motto, and painted this ceiling-a polite way of calling the ladies a lot of chattering magpies.

Then there is another sad little room, where the boyish King Sebastian, in his untaught enthusiasm, decided on carrying the war into Africa that he was waging against the Moors. He sailed away with his army, and palace and kingdom knew him no more, for there came a day of bloody disaster, and the young king vanished forever. His body was not among the dead, but he was gone, and whether he lingered in some far-off prison, or had been put to death, his people never knew; no one will ever know.

A sadder room is shown, little more than a cell, where, back in the middle of the sixteen hundreds, a king was imprisoned for twelve long years until he died, while his brother sat on his throne and became the husband of his wife. Sack and forth through the years the caged King paced in front of the barred window, till his footsteps wore in the brick floor a pathway still visible.

And perhaps saddest of all the sad memories that gather around this home of kings, is that of Queen Maria Pia, driven out in her old age from the home of her youth to die broken-hearted in Italy in the summer of 1911.

Back in the closing days of the Fifteenth Century, while Columbus was carrying Spain’s flag to the west, Da Gama was tracking unknown oceans to the east, with Portugal’s ensign at the mast. King Manuel had staked much on this voyage of the Portuguese navigator in search of the ocean way to India, and, as the months of absence lengthened into years, the King was wont daily to leave the palace in the town and climb to the highest point of Cintra’s hill, there to watch the empty sea for the great explorer’s sails. Finally he vowed that if Da Gama did return in triumph, he would build on the spot where he had watched so long, a monastery that should fittingly express his gratitude; and when at last the ships showed white against the blue, he kept his word, and part of that monastery is now incorporated in that remarkable building piled upon the crag, and known as the Pena Palace. I have never seen a more romantic spot. On its rocky height it lords it over a vast park. From the entrance the road leads through gardens of beauty, over arched bridges, and by the side of the mysterious ” Seven green pools of Cintra,” shadowed deep by palms and trees strange to northern eyes. Presently the great walls of the Castle tower over you, a gateway opens in the rock, and across a drawbridge and through a twilight passage you come upon a platform where before you are two of the strangest gateways set in the palace wall-gates that are a mass of twisted carving and queer and intricate odd design. These gates let upon a courtyard with outside stairways and Moorish towers, turrets and arches everywhere.

Here was the favorite home of the late King Carlos, and here, after he was done to death by a bomb, lived his widowed Queen, and Manuel, the boy King. After leaving the palace in Lisbon at dawn on that October day in 1914 that marked the beginning of the Republic, Manuel drove his car to Cintra and, for the last time, up the winding road to the Pena Palace. It was only eight o’clock when he burst into the room where the Queen Mother was at her desk. She was in the act of signing her name to a certificate of bravery accorded a Norwegian captain who had rescued some shipwrecked Portuguese sailors. She tossed the pen from her as she rose, and where it fell it lay for months. Absolutely nothing in the Palace was changed. The caretakers installed by the Republican government were under strictest orders not to disturb the slightest detail. Dead flowers stood in a dusty vase upon the table; the European magazines lay here and there, and the newspapers of Lisbon and Madrid, as well as the London Mail and the Paris edition of the New, York Herald. The signature to the captain’s certificate was still unfinished, and the ink dry in the opened well. Over the Queen’s bed still hang, signed with loving inscriptions, photographs of the murdered King Carlos, and their two boys, one of whom died with his father. It is a wonderfully homey and unpretentious palace. In the chambers is black walnut, marble-topped furniture; there are no electric lights, and no bathrooms. 1Vlanuel’s room is very boyish, full of the little valueless belongings of a boy. Photographs, some swords and odd bits of armor, with a picture or two, make up the decoration. Under the bed is a big tin tub for his bath. A fireplace with an easy-chair before it; some books upon a shelf; a telephone near the door, that is all. Throughout the entire palace nearly everything is just as it was on that fatal morning, save that royalty is gone. Only the royal cat or its descendant remains, pathetic sight, curled up on the window-sill in the Queen’s chamber, waiting the mistress who will never come.

One of the chief charms of Cintra consists in the innumerable beautiful walks and drives that bring fresh interest to each day spent there. Most popular of these is the drive of a few miles to the gardens of Monserrate, that are said to be unequaled in the world. Nowhere but in the unique climate of Portugal can grow in perfection the plants and trees of the tropics and of the temperate zone as well, so in the century since Beckford ransacked the world to find specimens for these gardens, which he laid out at fabulous cost, the trees and vines, and shrubs and flowers he planted there have developed into wonderful beauty. The property is now owned by the estate of Sir Frederick Cook, who spares no money to keep and increase the splendor of the place. There are palms and bamboos; oaks and evergreens; orchids and roses; vines that are perfect sheets of strange, intense color; uncanny-looking flowers lifting their blossom of flame or lavender straight from the earth; queer trees with long, pendulous blooms of scarlet; ponds where pink and blue lilies grow; Roman benches whence are views of mountains and the passing ships at sea; and in the midst the beautiful Moorish-like house where Sir Frederick lives.

Another delightful walk takes you in the opposite direction, where there is a little pink town that seems to have strayed out one day from Cintra, and, nestling down contentedly under the mountain, never returned. Tall palms grow there, and glossy-leafed magnolias which even in midSeptember were sending out a few huge, cup-like, creamy flowers. Along the street at the mountain’s foot, the houses cling to terraces covered with ivy and roses of cream and pink, led up to by the most picturesque steps imaginable. At one point the rock is hollowed out, and here a fountain fills a large basin. Around are broad stone seats, and nearby a tiny public garden, where grow more beautiful begonias than I ever saw before, even in Holland. Double shell-pink blossoms, each as large as a rose, hung in clusters of six or more, literally covering the plant. They were in endless variety, white, red and white, and deepest crimson. Then there were single ones that glowed with flame, like cadmium, and all the shades of pink and red in rare profusion.

When tired of the land one can seek the sea. Trolley-cars made in Philadelphia run down to the shore, indented here by a little cove not more than five hundred feet wide, at the mouth of which thunders in a most magnificent surf. Solid walls of green water ten feet high stretch at times from shore to shore, and, as they break, the whole little bay becomes a furious welter of foam. Beyond this cove reaches the westernmost land of continental Europe, and along its verge is a glorious walk cooled with the spray dashed from the longbacked waves that break on the rocks below.

But the most splendid thing in Cintra is the Moorish ruin hanging high above the town. The road that swings far round in long, gentle grades is the easiest way by which to reach the summit, but lovelier by far is the path that leads up from the market-place. It leads even within the town, into such quaint corners of toppling houses, and by such charming wayside fountains, and stone walls, and under ivygrown trees, and up moss-covered steps cut in the stone. And once it enters the wonderful park it all but loses itself in a tangle of giant rocks and dark forest vistas. It takes its course right through a bit of an ancient mosque, where a great tree now grows from the center to a height far above the roofless walls; and by the side of a rock where the cross is cut above the crescent, and a death’s-head over both. At last it leads out upon the overhanging cliff, and through empty chambers to the ramparts that for so many centuries guarded the Moorish town below. The long walk along these battlements seems to me to be the finest in the world. To the right is a sheer drop to the town and the plain a thousand feet below, and beyond the plain, miles and miles of blue Atlantic, where the liners track for home. Back of you is the Tagus, reaching from the sea to where Lisbon lies clear-cut in the bright light, and on beyond to the great dim mountains that mark where Spain begins. On the left, a vast confusion of enormous rocks, and on the greatest of them all, the tremendously effective pile of the Pena castle, and just beyond that, outlined against the sky, a gigantic statue of Da Gama. Right ahead, zigzagging up and down and in and out, and marked with tower and turret, the walls themselves extend. And if you have the gift of imagination you can hear the swish of the silken robes of the Moors, and reconstruct the splendid pageant that came and went the ways you tread, in that time that once was so very real, so very vital, so full of splendid color, and that now has gone so utterly, leaving no more impress than a dream at dawn, save for gray ruins like these that still stand in Spain and Portugal, monuments to a day that is done.