Position: 38°47’14.6″N 9°23’27.7″W
The Palácio Nacional da Pena is a shining “jewel in the crown” of Portuguese royalty. That Portuguese royalty, like Britain’s, were Germans is neither here nor there. The where, since you asked, is in Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, now a part of Thuringia and Bavaria. I’ve been to both Thuringia and Bavaria. They’re beautiful places. So is the national park just outside Sintra where the palace was built.
You see, Queen Maria (II) married Ferdinand (II) Saxe-Coburg making him king-consort of Portugal. Rather liking his new surroundings he bought a derelict monastery near the village of Sintra with his own money. At first the plan was to renovate the property for a summer home. But the ‘artist king’ was seized by inspiration and decided a palace was more in keeping with his new job.
With a keen sense of timing, his design incorporated fantastical elements drawn and exaggerated from nature. The result is a highly decorative, fanciful castle that presaged the decorative arts movement later embraced by architectural luminaries like Antonin Gaudí and Louis Sullivan. It also predated Neuschwanstein by 30 years.
Ol’ Ferdi was a big fan of Iberian Moorish design, too. Several outbuildings are direct lifts from the ancient caliphate. In the castle’s walkways it is easy to find that signature element endemic (emblematic – surely, ed.) to Islamic architecture: the inverted vaulted ceiling, or murquarnas, with its clever use of negative space.
My favourite eye-catching element? If I could choose only one? The snakes that darted out of the portcullis surround looking a bit like Ollie, of Kukkla, Fran and Ollie fame. The Lyle the Crocodile downspouts come a close second.
Inside, several of the rooms feature elaborately carved ceilings, while others settled for trompe-l’œil as an alternative. Given the level of artistry, I’m not sure that painting the ceiling was any less expensive than installing plaster or woodwork. Although, I suspect it was probably a measure quicker to deliver.
Maria died young at age 34. Ferdinand remarried. This time to a Swiss-born American showgirl. Ahem! Sorry, an opera singer, Elise Hensler. She must not have been a great fan of the castle because she had a house built a mile away that looks for all the world like a Swiss railway station. One can only assume it is her influence on the god-awful interior decorations. I was reminded of the set I helped build for my high school’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, such was the quality of workmanship. Whatever it was Ferdi saw in her it wasn’t a common aesthetic.
The Peace of Cod
We had a lovely wander around the grounds, spending a couple of hours trying to find our way out. Eventually, we hopped in a cab and went down to Sintra proper. As it was Monday all the museums were closed. Instead we opted for a fabulous lunch at the Bacalhau na Vila, where every dish save dessert has cod in it. They even forgot to charge us for our wine, so we reminded them. What good little tourists we are.