September 15, 2012

We started the day with a walk through the tiny town of Sintra and its 18th century steep and winding streets, and its collection of castles, palaces, and estates perched on the hilltop above. My dad and I then explored the Palácio Nacional de Sintra, which is located right in the center of town and which was occupied almost continuously from the early 10th century through the late 19th century. I think it’s pretty neat how many people, governments, religions, and customs these places have seen over their many years of existence. I MEAN, WE’RE TALKING 1100 YEARS HERE. Granted, none of the original structure has survived (having been restored in the 15th century), but still. That particular hilltop has been a residence for Moorish leaders and Portuguese kings for centuries.

The building as it stands now is elegant, but in the Mediterranean style. Instead of the plush carpets and tapestries of the English and French monarchies, the National Palace is comprised largely of stone and tile, with windows and doors and terraces all flung wide to circulate the warm air. The place has the feel of an inside-outside building, one room leading to a terrace leading to another room and so on, all tile and brick and tile and more tile. With striking views of the countryside around every corner, it’s no wonder that the building remained a favorite among royalty.

Here’s something interesting. Kings used to believe that they lead the people by divine right, that they were appointed by God to serve as a leader. And the people believed this too. So, the kings could live wherever they wanted, and the people would come to them. Nowadays, with our democratic republic, politicians are elbowing their way to live among the people, to seem of the people. Just imagine if Senators had to take a full day’s journey (by foot) to see the President. That President wouldn’t last very long.

As I walked through the National Palace, I felt a little overwhelmed that there is a whole other monarchy to learn about. Just when I feel like I’ve got my head wrapped (loosely) around English and French history, I head off to another country. I know I don’t have to learn the history of a place I am visiting, but I do think it’s far more interesting to have some background, to know some of the country’s stories.

We had lunch in the center of the village, and looking around, it was so clear to see why this was a favorite destination of people like Lord Byron. The Romantic Movement, of which Byron was part, was in opposition to the Industrial Revolution and instead prioritized intuition and human emotion, the sense of sublimity over logic, and a return to nature and the medieval Chivalric codes. And nothing could have been more romantic than the Sintra streets, which practically begged for poetry to be written about them. As Byron himself writes in a letter to his mother, “Perhaps in every aspect the most delightful in Europe, [Sintra] contains beauties of every description natural and artificial. Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices, convents on stupendous heights, a distant view of the sea and the [river].”

(Incidentally: the French Revolution hugely influenced Romantic poetry. Previous to this point, most poems were written for or about nobility and clergy. The French Revolution focused on the common man, and the poetry that rose out of it — Byron, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth — was written by and for the masses… I’m still lovin’ me some French Revolution.)

You know, according to William Wordsworth, poetry should be "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” I actually think that all of life should be this way.

In the afternoon, my dad and I visited Palácio Nacional da Pena while my mom lay low. (My mom had knee surgery last year, and is due to have her other knee replaced soon. The cobblestones and thousands of stairs in these tiny Portuguese towns usually result in her needing to put her feet up before the day is out.) Pena Palace began as a chapel sometime in the Middle Ages, and was gradually expanded into a monastery and then a summer home for the Portuguese royal family. What began as a modest place to worship on the top of a rocky outcropping eventually grew into a Romantic castle replete with turrets and spires, Gothic arches and elaborate Manueline windows, blue tile and pink and yellow plaster, and a verdant forest all around. It was gorgeous, and full of a million different games of pretend.

In the early evening, we went to Praia Grande. It was fairly packed, so we lay out our blankets and put our feet in the surf, mostly looking seaward. (When I looked beachward, I was mostly reminded of just how VERY WHITE I am. Seriously. These people are all tan and beautiful. And basically not wearing any clothes.)

I’m headed off to bed now, back at the guest house, but before I sign off, I’ll leave you with my Parent Quote of the Day:

Dad: “Why do you need a stripper when you’ve got me around?”