Travel 

Sintra, Portugal

You’ll agree with Byron, who called it his “glorious Eden”
  • You’ll agree with Byron, who called it his “glorious Eden”

By Mitchell Smyth

Meridian Writers’ Group

SINTRA, Portugal—The year is 1809. Lord Byron, who would soon become England’s greatest poet of the Romantic age, is on his “Grand Tour” of Europe, the journey he will immortalize in his epic poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

In this celebrated hill town 30 kilometres northwest of Lisbon, he’s ecstatic over the scenery. “It contains beauties of every description, natural & artificial,” he writes to his mother. “Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices, convents on stupendous heights...”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Today, in Sintra’s Lawrence’s Hotel, a portrait of Byron gazes down on the room in which he wrote those words. “We know this was his room because he carved his name on the windowsill with his diamond ring,” says a hotel spokesman. “The sill was there until the hotel was renovated in 1945. It’s now in America.”

Lawrence’s is an excellent base from which to explore Sintra, and you must explore for it’s as pretty a town as you’ll find in Europe. You’ll agree with Byron, who called it his “glorious Eden” and wrote (in Childe Harold) about, “The horrid crags, by toppling convent crown’d/The oak trees‚ hoar that clothe the shaggy deep...”

In all, he said in a letter home, Sintra “united in itself all the wildness of the Western Highlands (of Scotland) with the verdure of the South of France.” It still does.

Lawrence’s is at the edge of Sintra’s historic centre, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From the hotel, the road rises steeply to the Pena Palace, one of several jewels in Sintra’s crown. Although Byron doesn’t mention it specifically, we can be pretty sure that he visited it on one of his walks. (“Then slowly climb the many-winding way/And frequent turn to linger as you go”—Childe Harold.) Perched on a plateau above the town, it is truly a castle in the sky: a rococo dream of towers and turrets and domes in ochre, yellow and burnished copper.

Pena Palace was last occupied by Queen Amelia, mother of the king, Manuel II. They fled the country in 1910 just before a revolution turned Portugal into a republic. The palace remains much as Amelia left it, giving us an insight into royal life in Portugal a century ago. Other windows into Sintra’s past include the National Palace, the Moorish Castle, the Convent of Santa Cruz and the Regaleiga Palace and Gardens.

Lawrence’s Hotel dates from 1764, when Jane Lawrence, an eccentric English innkeeper, arrived in Sintra. Byron’s writings gave it and Sintra a massive boost in the 1800s, and it was a “must” stop for aristocracy and gentry on the “grand tours” of Europe in the 19th century. It fell on hard times in the 20th century before Jan Willem Bos and his wife Coreen, from Holland, bought it, sank millions on restoration, and reopened in 1999.

Visitors over the past six years include Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, former United States president Bill Clinton and current British prime minister Tony Blair.

ACCESS

For information on travel in Portugal visit the Portuguese Trade and Tourism Commission website at www.visitportugal.com .

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