Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne


If there is one spot in Portugal more famed than another for its beauty, it is Cintra. The little town lies about seventeen miles from Lisbon, perched on the side of the Cintra Mountains. Many of the well-to-do people of the capital have villas there, where they go for change and bracing air when the heat of summer makes town life unendurable. The best time to be at Cintra is, however, in April and May, when the piercing winter winds are gone, and before the sleepy little place—half town and half village—is awakened out of its usual quiet by the invasion of the smart society folk from Lisbon. It is then that Nature puts on her fresh spring dress, and every nook and corner is bright with wild-flowers.

There are many things which lend charm to the place: the beauty and historic interest of the old half-Moorish palace in the village itself, the wonderful Pena Palace, perched high on its rocky pinnacle on the mountain-top; the ruined Moorish fort and castle, whose solidly-built battlements and low towers crown another summit a thousand feet above the town; the many quintas  or country houses hidden away among the trees; the lovely gardens, full of flowers, palms, and semi-tropical plants; the cool splash of water falling over rocks, and the deep still tanks, covered with water-lilies, and reflecting the surrounding beauty in their quiet depths.

Stone-pines near Cintra.


Above all, there are the countless beautiful walks in every direction. You may go by the road which zigzags down the steep hillside to the valley below; wander eastward for miles towards Lisbon, over rough and bleak moorland, or westward towards Collares, through the cork-woods, where gnarled and twisted branches and grey-green foliage meet over shady footpaths, and huge boulders rise out of a carpet of ferns and flowers.

Of the many delightful walks and scrambles, the most charming of all is a climb to the top of the hill—not by the dusty, winding highway, but by a rough and steep footpath. It starts between overhanging trees and high walls, old and lichen-covered. Maidenhair and other ferns grow in every chink of the stones; primroses, periwinkles, and violets stud the grass below.

Farther up the walls grow low and crumbling, and seen through the blossom-laden branches of a Judas-tree is a bold mass of giant rocks, crowned by a group of old stone-pines, with their dark umbrella-shaped tops, and their stems glowing red and purple in the afternoon sunlight.

Far below lies the plain, neither green, nor brown, nor grey, nor olive, but a little of all; bare undulating country stretching away to the sea and to the hazy blue hills in the distance. Long white roads can be clearly seen, like narrow tapes, leading over hill and dale to the far horizon.

At length, standing high on its granite rock, you come to the Pena Palace, with its many domes, towers, and turrets, a royal palace, whence King Emanuel the Fortunate used to gaze out to sea, watching for the return of Vasco da Gama from his first expedition to India.

The most striking features of the old Palace in the town below are two tall chimneys, shaped like the tops of a couple of gigantic soda-water bottles. They belong to the royal kitchens, and were intended to carry off the fumes from the row of little charcoal fires along one side of the vast apartments, and on which in days gone by all the cooking was done. The kitchens have no ceiling at all, the walls simply narrowing in to form the chimneys, and I fear that in winter-time the poor cooks must have found it uncommonly draughty.

To enter this Palace you pass the old women who sit under their big umbrellas, selling oranges at the corner of the little market-square, and, taking no notice of a sleepy sentry, who as often as not leans propped up against the gateway, you walk into the courtyard, and up a broad flight of steps.

Most noticeable in the Palace are the exquisite old Moorish tiles let into the walls, and the painted wooden ceilings of some of the rooms.

A Quiet Pool at Cintra.


There is one of these in which poor King Alfonso VI. was imprisoned for many years by his wife and younger brother, who usurped the throne. Whatever his faults may have been, one cannot help feeling sorry for the wretched man, who tramped up and down his prison till the stone paving became worn away in a groove.

Whilst on this subject, I must not forget to tell you about Portuguese prisons in general, and so I will describe the one at Cintra, which is a fair sample of the others. It has large unglazed windows looking on to the square, and behind a double row of iron cross-bars you see the haggard pale-faced prisoners, herded together in filth and squalor. They spend most of their time begging for alms from the passers-by. Sometimes their friends stand in the street below, and hold long conversations with them, or pass up food and tobacco in the prisoners' long bag-shaped caps, which they lower by means of a string. The sentry who keeps guard outside takes no notice of these proceedings, for Portuguese criminals are allowed this one indulgence, perhaps to make up for their otherwise wretched lot.