Take one look at this castle and you know implicitly that its creators weren’t concerned with defence. Palácio da Pena, in Sintra, Portugal, is pure fairytale romanticism; indulging every architectural whim no matter how fanciful, fantastical, or ridiculous.
The origins of Palácio da Pena
The first structure to grace this hilltop was a small chapel built sometime in the Middle Ages. The chapel – erected in the location of a purported sighting of the Virgin Mary – was eventually upgraded to a monastery. The monastery was in use for several centuries, with 18 monks in residence. It met its demise in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
With the monastery destroyed the site was abandoned, and abandoned it remained till being acquired by Ferdinand II in 1838 – he also obtained the neighbouring site containing the 9th Century CE Castle of the Moors.
Ferdinand II, who was a prince of the German house of Saxe-Coburg, and king consort of Portugal when he married Queen Maria II in 1832, had designs for this lofty hilltop. He intended to build upon it a Romantic castle the likes of which had never before been seen. Construction commenced in 1842.
The architecture of Palácio da Pena
Ferdinand II engaged German mineralogist, Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, to build his great Romanticist castle. Why did he choose a mineralogist instead of a recognised architect? That’s a good question, and one that only Ferdinand II can truly answer. Suffice it to say that von Eschwege was in the confidences of the royal family.
As the appointed architect, von Eschwege travelled to Germany to study the castles of the Rhine, and to North Africa to study Moorish architecture.
The final product is a mix of architectural styles, with influences from Gothic, Renaissance, and Moorish sources. Von Eschwege also incorporated features of the Manueline architectural style – a Portuguese architectural style famous for its incorporation of nautical themes in its decorative elements (some of the finest examples of Manueline architecture include Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon).
But overall it is a Romanticist castle. Today Palácio da Pena is regarded as one of the best examples of 19th Century Romanticism.
Parque de Pena
Palácio da Pena is surrounded by 200 hectares of parkland, much of which is dense, unadulterated forest, and the rest is highly manicured gardens designed and implemented by mineralogist/Romanticist-architect-extraordinaire Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege.
Exotic species from around the globe were imported to the gardens, including an enormous quantity of ferns and tree ferns from Australia and New Zealand.
The parklands also contain a farm, the royal stables, a chalet used by Ferdinand II as a summer retreat, and a series of ornamental ponds where the waterfowl are treated to their own castles.
Parque de Pena is definitely worth exploring, particularly as the castle itself can be swamped with busloads of tourists. The gardens, by contrast, are vast and largely empty.
And for those who are willing to climb through the parkland to the lookout point known as High Cross, and there climb to the highest point of the rocky outcrop (not recommended for those who aren’t steady on their feet), you’ll be rewarded with a superb view of Palácio da Pena (the best possible short of owning a drone 😀 ).
Practical information and how to reach Palácio da Pena:
Palácio da Pena is accessed from the town of Sintra, 28 km from Lisbon. There are frequent trains running between Lisbon and Sintra (trip time is 45 minutes). From Sintra it is worth catching a local bus to the palace gates as it is a steep uphill climb. More transport info here.
Read more about Palácio da Pena in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.