Sintra off the Beaten Track

Quercus Ruber
Bark on a cork tree, Quercus Ruber

Did you know that Portugal is the world´s largest producer of cork?   60% of the world´s production comes from this small country in Southern Europe, on the Iberic peninsula fronting the Atlantic ocean.  The climate is mild and that is why the great cork oak, Quercus Suber, thrives here.  Cork oaks are grown for their bark, which is harvested every 8 years.  The bark yields the raw material to produce the corks we all know from our wine bottles.  But cork is also a sustainable building material, used in particular for flooring, and insulation.


On my recent trip to Sintra, I discovered two sites where cork plays a star role, illustrating the versatility of this natural and sustainable material.  Located a mere 15 miles outside Lisbon, Sintra has been since Moorish times a beloved summer residence for the Kings of Portugal and their court.  


Pena Park Fern Garden
View of the Palace of Pena from the Chalet

The Pena Palace is one of the main sights in Sintra.  It is hard to miss when you arrive :  its bright red and yellow towers dominate the town.  


The Pena Palace is the creation of Duke Ferdinand of Saxe Coburg and Gotha (1816-1885) the King Consort to   Queen Maria II of Portugal (1819-1853).  Don Fernando, as he is known, bought the property in  1838, two years into his marriage.  It consisted of the former Hieronymite Monastery of Our Lady of Pena in Sintra and the surrounding 200 hectares of land. 


A lover of the arts, Fernando set about transforming the monastery into a summer residence for his growing family.  He built on to the the monastery, forming the structure we know today as the Palace of Pena.  An artist and musician himself, Don Fernando supported the arts throughout his life, in particular the applied arts, commissioning furniture, tiles, and decorative objects for his new palace.    


Upon the untimely death of his beloved wife at the age of 34, the grief-stricken Fernando retired to his property in Pena where he found solace in nature, modeling the rocky landscape below the palace by planting shade trees and creating gardens, building trails to connect them, all very much in the romantic spirit of his time. 


Seven years later, in 1860, he met the Prima Donna Elise Hensler (1836-1929).   Born in Switzerland and educated in Boston, Elise was a successful soprano who toured the European opera houses, including Lisbon where Don Fernando heard her for the first time.  Elise and Don Fernando fell in love.  They shared not only their German mother tongue but also a love of the decorative arts and music.   Because the liaison was considered unworthy of a King as Elise was not nobly-born and a performer to boot, Pena became their refuge, a place where they could be together away from prying eyes and disapproving society.  


chalet of the countess of edla in the pena palace sintra
The Chalet from the Fern Garden

  In 1864, perhaps as a tribute to her Swiss origins, Don Fernando built his lover a chalet, in the woods of the park of the Pena palace.  This is the structure we know today as the Chalet of Countess of Edla, the title that Fernando acquired for Elise when they finally got married ten years on.


As the name implies the Chalet is a two story wooden structure, a building of modest proportions by all standards and in particular in comparison to the Palace on the property.   There are only four rooms on each floor and it almost looks like a doll house or a play house.  Though the architecture looks somewhat incongruous in the Sintra hills, the décor of the house is very much in the vernacular. 


  Looking closely you see that the outside walls are decorated with cork – geometric ornaments made out of rough cork.  These decorate not only the facades but also the balconies and the eves. 


Entering the building is like stepping into a gingerbread house – the rooms are all stenciled in bright colors.  The elaborately carved wooden staircase leads upstairs to the bedroom, the dressing rooms (his and hers) and the study.  The stenciled walls are decorated with cork – the impression is cheerful, rustic yet refined.

 Around the Chalet the couple laid out a garden Taking advantage of the shade of deciduous trees, they planted a valley of giant ferns.  When I visited in late February some camellias scattered here and there added a touch of color.  The impression is one of a magic kingdom, away from reality, a world of fantasy where one would not be surprised to run into a gnome, or one of the Seven Dwarfs of perhaps Goldilocks.


Don Fernando and Elise did not get married for 10 years.  Even when they did and Don Fernando acquired the title of Countess of Edla for his wife, Portuguese society did not accept them.  The park at Pena Palace and the chalet remained a place where they could pursue their companionship, their common love of decorative arts and landscaping.  It was their refuge away from the world.  When Fernando died he left the Pena Property to Elise, to the chagrin of his children.  She eventually donated the palace to his family, keeping for herself only the chalet and the surrounding gardens.  She died in 1929.


The second monument is also a refuge from the world:  the convent of the Capuchins,officialy known as the Convent of the Holy Cross of the Sintra Mountains.  About a 10 minute drive from the Contessa´s chalet, the Capuchos Convent is off the beaten track.  You should come here if you want to avoid the crowds of the center of Sintra, away from the day trippers.  The parking lot is unassuming and at first you might wonder where you have ended up.  You can either follow the main path down to the convent which is a couple of hundred yards long or walk on a newly created path through the woods.  This new path is meant to enhance the visitor experience.  As you walk towards the monastery through the woods, you are shifting your mindset towards that of a monk, at one with God´s creation.

The Capuchins came here in 1560 establishing a community around a chapel which had been built on the order of Dona Joao de Castro (1500-1548), fourth Viceroy of India.  Legend has it that while out hunting in the forest, Don Joao took a nap under a boulder:  He h had a dream, commanding him to build a chapel at that spot. He died before he could make good on this vow.  So it was his son Alvaro who built the chapel and sponsored the community. The Capuchins, also knows as Minorites, are an offshoot of the Franciscans, who found that over the years the order was becoming too lavish and who therefore wanted to return to the roots of the order, by living extremely simply, at one with nature and therefore closest to God.




A famous monk of this community is Friar Honorio, who is said to have lived to be 100 years old.  Honorio spent the last three decades of his life in penance, living inside a small hole inside the convent.  He died in 1596.  His life fired the imagination of the romantic poets.  In particular,  Lord Byron wrote


Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,

In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell [1]


[1] “Childe Harold´s Pilgrimage”, by Lord Byron, Canto the First, 1812

Convent of the Capuchos, Sintra
Fountain in the courtyard, Convent of the Capuchos, Sintra

And yes the buildings of this community can best be described as primitive.  The structures of the monastery are there to provide shelter from the elements only.  The space is small, to remind the monks that  God is great.  The door jambs are shoulder height to induce genuflection and therefore penance.  The walls are built of dried mud.  Looking up, the ceilings are covered with slabs of rough cork.  The cork provides insulation from the humidity and therefore the cold.  The monk´s cells are spartan – there is no furniture.  The monks would have slept on slabs of corks.

The community was active until 1834 when secularization forced the monks to leave.  After that the property passed through various owners until the Portuguese State took it over in 1949.  Restauration works started in the 1950`s. Since 1995 the site is part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  



convent of the capuchos, sintra
The Chapel with frescoes of St Anthony and St Francis. Note the cork.

 The convent of the Capuchins is a very spiritual place.  One is removed from the world and at one with nature.  Everything is made of natural materials:  boulders and natural rocks form the steps, the buildings are nested in the side of the hill under the original boulder.


The feeling is one of humility and respect towards nature; the space that the monks occupy is minimal – by leaving first place to the woods and the boulders, they display their humility and affirm the greatness of nature and creation. 


A lesson for the traveler?

If you are in Sintra, and if you want to avoid the throngs at the main sights, do not miss these two visits.  While perhaps not as glamourous as the main sights, they are authentic and very typically Portuguese.  The use of cork as a decorative and structural element makes them unique.   You will experience a fantasy world and then a spiritual one.  Nothing like going off the beaten track for a memorable experience!





Chalet of the Countess of Edla:  can be reached by walking down through the park from the Palace but also, if you are driving, through its own gate.  Open 9:00AM to 6:00PM.  If you enter the Park through the Chalet gate, be aware that it closes at lunchtime between 1:00 and 2:00PM.  Admission 14€.



Convent of the Capuchos:  although there is a bus from Sintra station that will drop you off at the entrance (about a 40 minute ride) your best bet is to take a taxi as the buses do not run that frequently.  Open 9:00AM-6:00PM.  Admission 7:00€ 

Sources:  “Park and Palace of Pena”, A.N. Pereira, N. Oliveira and A. O. Martins, Scala Arts & Heritage, London, 2016


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