Friday 5 October 2012

Eccentric Sintra

If you're building yourself a summer palace, you might as well go the whole hog, and back in 1840 King Ferdinand designed himself a Romantic fantasy with Germanic thoroughness. In a town where every building is a self-indulgent riot of towers, turrets and tiles - it's Portmeirion, for real - the Palacio da Pena is literally top of the heap. At the end of a winding cobbled road through an extensive English woodland garden, it grows out of the rock on top of the crag like something you'd see in Disneyland. We were assured that all this architectural extravagance was paid for with the king's own money - though that's hardly the same thing as being earned by honest toil.

Every square inch is decorated, with tiles, relief work, paint and carvings: lions, dogs, crocodiles, birds, plants and patterns. It looks like nothing so much as a playground for grown-ups, and it really is a delight, every room bringing some new astonishment. One struck me before we'd even entered: seeing cabbage trees and flax planted around the gateway, an odd sight against such an exotic backdrop - although for Ferdinand, and European visitors, of course it was the other way around, with the New Zealand native plants being the exotic feature. Inside, in pride of place in a courtyard with tiles and pillars, is their most treasured plant: a tree fern growing in a stone shell with tortoise feet. It's a young plant, but the original was placed there by Ferdinand himself - he built up a collection of 2000 plants from around the world in his garden.

It was the second palace we saw today, the first being the Palacio Nacional down the hill, which is even more grand, though we had to hurtle through it as, once again, we were running late. It's been the theme of this trip, and one of its greatest frustrations. Portugal is simply too good to rush, but that (apart from all those interminable meals) is exactly what I've been doing for the past five days - and now I have to leave.

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