One of the most famous beach houses in Portugal is Casa Branca (white house) in the village of Azenhas do Mar. Architect Raul Lino designed it in 1920 to be his Summer home. Lino had to choose between building within the village perimeter to gain access to electricity and running water, or to forego these modern comforts and place the house on a cliff with an incredible ocean view. For him, the choice was obvious.
Raul Lino is famous for synthesizing the vernacular traditions that go back to Roman times to create the archetypal Portuguese house. The Casa Branca is based on this archetype, but Lino made two surprising choices. Instead of using the traditional green color for the windows, he chose bright orange. Then, he painted the orange roof tiles white, thus accentuating the orange of the windows.
Orange is the complementary of blue and so the windows of Casa Branca became the complement of the sea. It’s as if, to be beautiful, the sea needs someone admiring it from the window.
The French use the expression “village perché” to describe a village on top of a hill, overlooking the surrounding landscape. One of the prettiest village perchés in Portugal is Azenhas do Mar. Built on a cliff in the Colares region near Sintra, it has amazing views of the Atlantic ocean.
If you rent a house in Azenhas do Mar, you can spend the day listening to the waves and watching the sea try different shades of blue and green. It’s a very fine use of time.
The story of the Pena Palace begins in the 16th century. King Dom Manuel was hiking in Sintra when he sighted Vasco da Gama’s sailboats arriving in Cascais from their voyage to India. To celebrate da Gama’s feat, the king built a monastery on the top of the Sintra mountain. But, over time, the building fell into disrepair and was eventually abandoned.
When Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Queen Dona Maria II, visited Sintra, he saw the derelict monastery surrounded by a barren landscape. Ferdinand imagined a beautiful palace and an enchanted forest. He bought the property in 1838 and restored the old monastery to use as a Summer residence. Later, he built an adjacent palace with larger rooms to accommodate state functions. The monastery is pink and the new palace yellow, so they are easy to tell apart.
Around the palace, Ferdinand created artificial lakes and an irrigation system. He studied the soil and supervised the plantation of trees brought from all over the world.
In 1853, Dona Maria died and Pedro, the couple’s elder son, inherited the Portuguese throne. Ferdinand was offered the throne of Spain, but he loved living in Pena so much that he refused the offer. The Pena Palace is the dream of a German prince who fell in love with Portugal.
Eça de Queiroz (pronounced essa de kaeroz) is a great 19th century writer whose novels cast a critical eye on Portuguese society. Eça loved wine from the Colares region, and so do his characters. Here are the words of Teodoro, the protagonist of Eça’s novel, The Mandarin: “What a day! I dined in selfish solitude in a private room at Hotel Central with the table full of bottles of wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and the Rhine, as well as liqueurs from every conceivable religious community, as if I were trying to quench a thirty-year-old thirst. But the only wine I drank, until I was satiated, was from Colares.”
Colares wine is made with a unique varietal called Ramisco. Farmers plant this vine on sand, digging a deep hole until they find a layer of clay to attach the roots. All this hard work paid off during the phylloxera epidemic because Ramisco was one of the few varietals to survive the disease.
If you’re in Sintra and you’re interested in wine, visit the nearby town of Colares to drink a glass of Ramisco at the local cooperative. It’s not everyday that you can taste a wine unscathed by both the phylloxera plague and the criticism of Eça de Queiros.
Adega Regional de Colares, Alameda Coronel Linhares de Lima, 32, Colares, tel. 219291210, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Wine tastings by appointment. Click here for the Adega web site.
No trip to Portugal is complete without visiting Sintra and no visit to Sintra is complete without eating a travesseiro at Piriquita. Travesseiro means large pillow, and that is what these pastries look like. But, instead of cloth and feathers, these pillows have layers of puff pastry filled with an egg and almond cream.
Despite many attempts, no one has been able to copy these travesseiros since Piriquita first opened its doors to the public in 1952. Some say that fairies sprinkle them with star dust. Others claim to hear sirens singing while they prepare the pastry. All we know is that for us, mere mortals, these heavenly travesseiros are one more reason to go to Sintra.
Piriquita-Antiga Fábrica de Queijadas, Rua Padarias 1/7, Sintra, tel. 219 230 626. Lines can be long in the Summer but, if you go up the street, you’ll find a second Piriquita café with much shorter lines (please don’t tell anyone!).
Sintra is a village near Lisbon where Portuguese monarchs used to seek respite from the Summer heat. It is a place like no other, with its lush vegetation and fairy-tale palaces. The National Palace (shown above) is the oldest and most historically significant. It was remodeled so many times that it looks like a visual dictionary of Gothic, Manueline and Moorish styles. The Pena Palace is the newest and most romantic. Built in the 19th century, it sits on top of a hill where, in ancient times, the Romans worshiped the moon.
On the way to Pena you can visit a 9th century Moorish castle with wonderful views to the surrounding region. From here you can get a glimpse of other palaces, Monserrate, Seteais (an 18th century palace converted into a luxury hotel), and Quinta da Regaleira. They are all worth visiting.
Staying in Sintra is a privilege. In the morning, you can see Pena while the fog hides the modern world and brings back the 19th century. And at night, you can walk to Seteais to see the moon paint the hill with silver light, waiting to be worshiped.