Those Romantic Portuguese

La Pena colors
Reach for a word to pair with “Portuguese” and what do you come up with?

Until our week in Lisbon, we were pretty much stuck at “seafaring” (Vasco de Gama, etc.) and “man o war” (a jellyfish-like sea creature also known as “floating terror”).

By the end of our week, we had added another: “romantic.” Not “romantic” as in hearts and flowers (or Louis and Doris) but romantic as in a distinctive style so idealized it evokes Disneyland’s magic kingdom, except this one is real.

Sintra city hall
If this couldn’t be the city hall of Disneyland, what else could? (In reality, it is Sintra’s.)

Some of this comes down to something called “Manueline” style, Portugal’s extravagant take on late Gothicism, which already was pretty extravagant before the Portuguese got their hands on it. Since we had never heard of Manuelism before this month, we will leave the details to Wikipedia and actual authorities. For the purposes of explaining Louis’s images, suffice it to say the style is named for King Manuel I of Portugal, and it is indigenous and unique to the country he ruled. Its architectural reign of not even 30 years barely outlasted Manuel himself (d: 1521), yet the landscape in and around Lisbon is strewn with its confections.

We did not set out to learn any of this when we began traipsing around Lisbon but Manuel’s eponymous legacy fast becomes inescapable.

Belém Tower, for example, was built as a fortress (and a very effective one at that), but its style was Manueline. With its curves and flourishes like the rhinoceros gargoyle (not pictured), is there any doubt this stronghold is romantic?
Many an invasion plan literally sank as a result of this World Heritage site.
Down the river from the fortress in Belém, the Jerónimos Monastery reigns from a hillside, another World Heritage site.

Version 2
In the cloisters, the Manueline design makes lacework out of stone.
Jerone cloisers
That’s a sailing ship in tiles halfway down the refectory wall. Nautical and ocean images are characteristic of the Manueline style.

In the church of the monastery, two national heroes are prominently entombed. One is native son Vasco de Gama, the first European to sail to India. The second is the Luís Vaz de Camões, a romantic poet. What country gives equal billing to its poets and its adventurers? Only a romantic one.

De Camões is the Shakespeare of Portugal. His epic work, Os Lusiadás (the Lusiads), chronicles de Gama’s discovery of the sea route to India.

But the hottest bed of Portuguese romanticism on our visit was Sintra, about 15 miles and 40 minutes by cheap train from Lisbon. Sintra is the site of so much Manuelism and neo-Manuelism (a 19th-century flash to the past) that the tourist magnet is simply called “Romantic Sintra.”

Here, the World Heritage La Pena Palace perches on the highest point above town in full fanciful bloom. Considered one of the most significant expressions of 19th-century Romanticism in the world, La Pena is a legacy of the Austria-born King Ferdinand II, whose only instruction was that the palace should reflect an opera. The city of Sintra itself describes the palace as a “hedonistic mix of vividly painted terraces, decorative battlements and mythological statues.”
Pena panorama

Pena detail 3

 Pena detail 1
The Moors, of course, pre-date Manuelism, but the Moorish fortress in Sintra was recast in a more romantic light when Ferdinand II restored and embellished it with gardens as an extension of La Pena on the next hilltop.
Tower climb

Castelo dos Moros – Version 2
Then there is nearby Quinta da Regaleira, a palace and gardens that bring adjectives like “fantastic” (as in “of fantasy”) and “fabulous” (as in “of fable”) to life.
Quinta palace
From 1898 to 1912, the celebrated capitalist Carvalho Monteiro dedicated his life and fortune to transforming a former summer palace of aristocrats into a “mysterious iconographical programme.” When the French landscape architect he hired to design the gardens didn’t pan out, the visionary employed from the set designer from the legendarily romantic La Scalia of Milano to get the job done.

The results are … romantic! And another World Heritage site. The official guide uses words like “exuberant,” “quixotic,” “enigmatic,” “esoteric,” “magical” and “alchemical” for the orgy of structures, figures, carvings, labyrinths, tunnels and other creations that combine to make Quinta da Regaleira.

Quinta walkways
Quinta well 2
The “Initiation Well” was used for secret initiations. It has nine platforms evoking Dante’s nine levels of Hill. They end at the entry to a maze of underground tunnels.

A single week and a single blog are barely enough to reflect infatuation, much less all the romance of Portugal. In the end, the decidedly unromantic magic of commercial airline flight whisked us off to the Czech Republic, trailing clouds of romantic fancy.

In the rear-view mirror:
  • Trains, planes and elevators, oh my: Lisbon has a marvelous transportation system in which one ticket card (rechargeable at any Metro station) provides access to every public conveyance the city offers: bus, cable car, tram, train, ferry, even the fee elevators. Better yet, there is a pensioner rate they extend even to visitors with proof of 65 years are more. What could top  romance in Lisbon? Romance on the cheap.

    Train grafitti
    Doris and the train to Sintra
  •  Ginjinha in the alleys of Alfama: Portugal’s indigenous liqueur is ginjinha (or ginja), a concoction of alcohol infused with sour cherries, sweetened with sugar and, traditionally, served in a shot glass with a cherry at the bottom. In the winding alleys of Alfama, ladies like Dora stand in their doorways selling shots for 1€ a slug. This may not exactly be romantic but, given that a bottle sells for under 10€, it’s not a bad business model.
  • Travel karma: As if wandering partout at Quinta la Regaleira were not treat enough, we managed to stumble into the palace at the moment a piano maestro and opera diva were filling the music room of the fairy-tale palace with Don Giovanni. Sublime.
    Quinta concertComing soon: When in Prague

    “Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes,” quoth the romantic bard of England in 1809. Nearly 200 years later, the romance – and Lord Byron in Sintra – live on.

10 thoughts on “Those Romantic Portuguese

  1. Romantic indeed! Thanks for the Manueline treats. Snow on the ground here and, no, we have not seen a Portuguese blue sky for a while.


  2. Portuguese —— words that rhyme: 1). Lebanese 2). Gotta sneeze; 3). Pass the cheese…

    Ok alright already. You’re the writer!! Loving the journal!

    Us uptons

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Doris and Louis,
    Just loved it!
    All the best! and continue in your lovely road!
    (and the portuguese student above says “How nice!”)


    1. Thank you, Fatima. We consider that high praise from a local.

      Friends and followers: Fatima and some friends of hers own wonderful flats in Lisbon. Let us know if you are headed Lisboa-way, and Partout will connect you.


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