From the rugged splendour of the north we have now driven to the environs of Lisbon before moving on to the baking heartland of the Alentjo on our way to the holiday resorts of the south. While still basking in Portuguese hospitality we arrive at the House of the She-pine-tree.
The house was bought in the early sixties by the journalist, war reporter, radio and TV producer, painter, award-winning novelist and art collector Olavo d´Eça Leal (he seems to have had a full life). It has only recently started to operate as a Museum Guest House and since I have never stayed in one I am curious to see what it looks like.
The house sits on the high ground of the traditional villages of Sabugo and Vale de Lobo, in the county of the town of Sintra (a UNESCO World Heritage Site).The famous British poet and traveller Lord Byron called Sintra his “glorious eden” in his epic poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.
Let me tell you about this beautiful and enchanted place called Sintra. I have been here many times but it seems to have me bewitched and we end up coming here when we come on holiday. Apparently the Romans made it a place of cult moon worshiping and named it "Cynthia" after the goddess of the moon. They were followed by the Moors who also fell in love with it and built a hilltop castle, a palace, and several fountains around the town.
It became the summer residence of the Portuguese royal family and attracted a number of wealthy aristocrats who built stunning mansions and villas. The most famous (for being part of the setting of Roman Polanski's "The Ninth Gate" starring Johnny Depp) is Chalet Biester, with dark conic rooftops and Gothic windows.
Since I don’t have the time or you the patience for me to tell all that is beautiful I chose two that I love, one is the Palacio Nacional and the other is Palacio da Pena.
Palacio National is situated in the main square with its two gigantic conical chimneys being the town's most recognizable landmarks, while the rest of the building is a combination of the Moorish, Gothic and Manueline styles. It was used by generations of Portuguese royalty prior to the 1910 revolution. And it was built in the 14th century by Dom João I who lived in the Palace with his wife Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt.
Their married life began officially on 14 February 1387. It seems that the Portuguese court celebrated the union for fifteen days (glad we lost this tradition because many couples/families would go bankrupt before starting married life). Philippa married King John I by proxy (meaning when the bride or groom (or both) is not physically present, usually being represented instead by another person), and in keeping with a unique Portuguese tradition, the stand-in bridegroom pretended to bed the bride (again I am so happy this tradition was lost, I have got this horrible thought in my mind now - long story).
It seems Philippa was seen in her time as the perfect symbol of queenly piety, and made public comments saying that “it would be regarded as an indecent thing for a wife to interfere in her husband’s affairs”, she actually wielded quite a bit of influence in both the Portuguese and English courts and was very involved in world affairs (now ladies she was a wise woman & we can learn a lot from her by reading between the lines).
Its real treasures truly lie inside like what is said to be the most extensive collection of Mudejar Azulejos (coloured glazed tiles) in the world. Also the Sala dos Brasões ("Coat-of-Arms Room") with its domed ceiling decorated with stags holding the coats of arms of over 70 Portuguese noble families.
And then there is the "Magpie Room"; it seems that the intricate décor here is connected to a tale of gossiping courtiers. Legend has it that King Joao I ordered the painting of magpies, as a message to the ladies of the court whose whisperings of intrigue were distressing both him and his English Queen Philippa of Lancaster. The story goes that Queen Philippa discovered King Joao I saluting one of her maids of honour presenting her with a rose that a magpie snatched.
When admonished by her, he excused himself by saying, "All to do good, my Lady". He then had the room closed, and satirised the court scandal by having the birds painted with Philippa's motto 'Por Bem' in their beaks, and a rose in their claws. It is believed that King João was completely faithful to her. Queen Philippa truly turned this dynastic marriage of convenience into a lasting and loving partnership.
Then there is the Palácio da Pena, the colourful fairy-like palace built in 1840s by German architect Baron Eschwege to the specifications of Dom Ferdinand II of Saxe Coburg- Gotha. After he bought the ruins of the Hieronymite Monastery of Nossa Senhora da Pena, this fabulous Palace served as a love nest for him and his Portuguese wife Queen Maria II; Palácio da Pena is the most notable example of Portuguese architecture in the Romantic period.
Surrounding the palace is the mystical Pena Park, where we can find a variety of trees and exotic plants from the former colonies of the Portuguese empire, ponds, fountains, and black swans.
Two days later we drive down to one of my favourite areas of Portugal - Alentejo which produces some of the best red wines due to the high temperature and arid soil. Our favourite being the “Floral de Evora” which I must say if you ever go there then do try it; feels like velvet. Portugal as an amazing array of grapes i.e. Trincadeira, Aragonez, Alicante Bouschet, etc.
The whole of Alentejo is a peaceful haven with its undiscovered territory, sleepy landscapes, adorable white houses, olive groves, vines and in the patios and gardens one bears witness to the influence of the Arabs.
Imagine driving on quiet roads with a perfect azure sky through countryside and towns seemengly unchanged for centuries; passing the vast golden wheat fields swaying in the wind and a coastline with miles of unspoilt beaches that look rugged and unexplored. Does that sound like paradise to you, it certainly does to me.
Before you rush off to the airport let me warn you that Alentejo is one of the hottest places in Europe, maybe that’s why they say “Here the time passes slowly, because the Alentejo follows the rhythm of the land itself.” To me it's more the heat that makes everyone extremely slow.
We will stay at Casa Pinto, a rustic hotel situated in the historic town of Monsaraz. From the rooftop sun terrace we can see across the plains surrounding the Alqueva Lake and Dam.
All the rooms are decorated with the theme of former Portuguese colonies and there is a lovely romantic feel in the rooftop terrace where we can watch the sunset into the hills of the Alentejo countryside. I can imagine myself enjoying the view and savouring those beautiful wines from Alentejo.
Monsaraz is perched on the top of a hill and it consists of a small walled group of dwellings that carefully preserve most of their original charm and the inhabitants of the town take particular pride in maintaining its somewhat medieval atmosphere.
Two years ago we stayed in Vila Nova de Milfontes, a pretty town on the estuary of the Mira River; we were told that it is the cleanest river in Europe. We rented a lovely town house and this was our view as we had breakfast - magnificent.
A couple of jet setter friends joined us for the last five days which they said that was their best holiday ever. There are lovely restaurants where we were welcomed with such warmth and the food was divine (yes I did have to pound the gym afterwards but by golly was it worth it).
We will then drive down to the Algarve; although lovely it is not my favourite part of Portugal and that’s due to it beeing the most turistic part of my country. Since hubby is one of the speakers’ at an EU conference we will be staying the last five days in the Real Marina Hotel & Spa, Olhao. While he is at the conference I will be relaxing by the pool, yes it is a hard life but someone has got to do it (trying to wipe the smirk of my face).
Pictures via She-pine-tree house, visitportugal.com(picturebyJoseManuel), viajar.clix.pt, Casa Pinto, portugalvirtual.pt and my own.