Like many children probably did and still do, I used to tell my parents that I wanted to live in Disneyland. Known as the “happiest place on earth,” with castles, oversized teacups, and song, Disneyland is the epitome of every child’s dreamworld.
I still love Disneyland and Disney, despite their artificial, commercialized creations of happiness and gender role implications, and the false idea that once you get married, it truly is happily ever after and smooth sailing from there on out. But what is actually even more exciting to me than Disneyland is the romance and enchantment that exists in real life, both in nature and what has been man made in history. Sintra, Portugal, is like the multicultural European Disneyland for adults, full of picturesque terrain, majestic mountains, and a large concentration of historical castles, palaces, and estates that have given the town its UNESCO World Heritage status.
We took a day trip to Sintra today, exploring the town, visiting three major sites: Quinta da Regaleira, the Palacio da Pena (Pena Palace), and the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors). Quinta da Regaleira was an estate built in the 1800s and passed on from one wealthy family to another, but what makes it quirky is not its romantic palace and chapel, but instead its lush park filled with lakes, grottoes, wells, and fountains. The wells, called the Initiation Wells, are the strangest feature about it that seem like they came straight out of a fairy tale. It was known that these wells were never truly used as water sources, but instead as underground towers that were used for ceremonial purposes, including Tarot initiation rites. The windy and dark tunnels on the property connected the wells, in addition to other caves and grotto areas. Pena Palace, built in the mid-1800s, was one of the most eclectic and interesting castles I’d ever visited due to its unique mix of architectural styles, combining Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic, and Neo-Renaissance. As soon as we got closer as we climbed the steep hills of the Sintra Mountains to get to the palace, I noticed many elements of the arches and the detailing of the designs that resembled Persian-Mughal architecture that we saw in Agra and Jaipur, India, during our summer trip. There was much in common with the detailing here, which I wasn’t expecting at all, but was a really pleasant surprise. It made the Pena Palace even more exciting in taking in all the different towers, arches, tiles, and pillars. It was like an intersection of culture being represented in the form of a palace.
One of the things that traveling has made me more aware of and want to learn more about is all the history I missed while I was in school. History was never that fun of a topic to me, but that’s partly because it was never connected to real life… or at least, that’s how I perceived it. There was no connection to real people or places for me. But it’s different when you’re learning history as you are traveling to different places. You’re taking these sights and sounds in and learning more about it by reading about how these places came to be. And that’s always going to fascinating if you really care about what is in front of your eyes. Sintra really is the fairy tale city that I never knew existed. It’s like Disneyland in real life, and not an amusement park.