Royal Playgrounds – The Palaces of Portugal

It’s Friday afternoon and there are a dozen coaches parked next to the Royal Palace in Mafra. They are not Asian tour groups but school parties, probably from Lisbon which is only 30 minutes away. Building work started in 1717 on a simple monastery, but soon there were 50,000 workers creating the huge edifice. It took them 13 years to complete, by which time the country was suffering economically due to the loss of its workforce.

DSCF7628I thought the Palace would be rather dull but it’s actually quite lively with the chatter of youngsters being entertained by a man in an elaborate 18th century costume, acting the role of Dom Joao VI, who lived in the Palace for several years before leaving for Brazil in 1807 to avoid the Napoleonic Wars. Antique furniture and portraits fill every room and information panels in English tell me their origin and age. From the Audience Room I can look down into the huge church as the Royal Family probably did all those years ago.

My favourite rooms are in the far south east corner. One is full of hunting trophies, chairs made from stag horns and a chandelier featuring stags heads. The other is filled with up to 40,000 books on two levels. Unlike most libraries found in stately homes, there is no dark wood panelling but instead a soft pastel rose and grey.

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I have to backtrack through the same rooms and along the same corridors to find the exit and then I discover a shortcut to the church, through a cloister where an infant school group are sat on the marble floor eating their snacks. Inside, two secondary school groups are sitting in the pews, gazing at the high alter while being taught a lesson in history by their enthusiastic teachers.

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The next day I find myself on the outskirts of Sintra, which is not a motorhome friendly place. The roads are narrow and steep with hairpin bends, and the parking is specifically marked only for cars. So I end up leaving Trixie well below the wooden hills at the local football stadium and hitch a lift up to the historic centre with the little tourist train which parks there overnight.

I decide to make the most of the clear weather and try to beat the crowds by visiting the lofty Pena Park and Palace first. To get there I take the local circular hop on – hop off bus for €5. It’s a scary ride as the driver swings the bus around seemingly impossible curves and squeezes between inconsiderately parked cars and high walls.

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It’s a relief to get off at the Pena Palace entrance and join the mixed nationalities in the queue for tickets. Most decide to pay extra for a very short bus ride up to the entrance but, while it’s still dry, I prefer to walk. Like most sites I visit at this time of the year, it is partially hidden by scaffolding while repair work is being done on the external façade. Inside, I manage to overtake a small tour group and am able to wander peacefully through the rooms housing elegant dining tables, four poster beds and some surprisingly modern equipment such as the hot shower (heated by charcoal) and a telephone. George Clooney would approve of the cafeteria which serves Nespresso coffee on a panoramic balcony.

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It’s still dry so I set off to explore some of the 85 hectares of gardens. There’s not much of a view from the Temple of Columns as the Palace is blocked by tall pine trees, but I locate the steps leading up to Saint Catherine’s Heights, a favourite spot of Queen Amelia and one with a nice view of the lemon-coloured Moorish tower.DSCF7691
I don’t see any other people as I walk down through the Queen’s Fern Valley and beside the lakes with elaborate duck houses and a pair of regal black swans. Exiting the park at the lakes gate, I manage to flag down the bus back to the historic centre. It’s the same driver but he moderates his speed as a rainstorm passes over, making the cobbled road slippery. Or, perhaps the caffeine rush has just worn off.

My rumbling stomach indicates that it’s time for some lunch and the helpful staff of the tourist office point me to a restaurant just behind called Romaria de Baco. It doesn’t offer a Menu del Dia so whilst serenaded by soft jazz, I dine on chick pea and cabbage soup, followed by pork in Madeira sauce with rice. The waiter is keen to show off his knowledge of local wines and offers me a sample of his favourite along with a less expensive glass of my own choice. Sadly, even though it is a Saturday, there are only four other diners but I’m assured it gets much busier in the evening with tourist staying in the small historic town.

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After lunch, I visit the Sintra Palace. Apart from the Heraldry Room with its 18th century azulejos and painted ceiling featuring the coats of arms of 72 noble families, there is little of interest. In fact, I have to keep looking up for the best features. Painted ceilings of swans, magpies, mermaids and galleons give the rooms their names.

In order to get back to Trixie I have to do most of the circular bus trip again. Luckily the afternoon driver goes at a snail’s pace which is good as he spends most of the time adjusting his seat, sun visor, microphone, or counting his change. We almost mow down a few pedestrians as there are no pavements and the high walls each side leave little space to hide. It’s only a 5 minute walk downhill from the last stop and I get back to find Trixie has been surrounded by cars of proud parents who are watching their sons playing in the afternoon matches. However, once the sun sets, they leave me in peace to sort through my photos and recall all the Palace highlights of the last two days.

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