Brunette is a savant about UNESCO World Heritage Sites so it was pre-ordained that our trip to Lisbon would include a visit to Pena Palace, Sintra.
Sintra’s UNESCO status
The “cultural landscape” of Sintra is what has UNESCO status, not the Pena Palace, as many less intellectually rigorous travel writers fail to clarify. (This is nearly impossible to believe but there actually are a few who are less “intellectually rigorous” than we are.)
But, to further muddy something very simple, the palace and its architectural significance and prior history as a monastery are part of the reason for the area’s UNESCO designation. The palace is considered to be one of the most dramatic and expressive specimens of 19th century romanticism (in the architectural sense) in the world.
So how did that happen?
Glad you asked.
How did Pena Palace in Sintra come to be?
The original structure on that plot of land was a monastery. It’s common knowledge that monks tend to lack romanticism (and fashion sense, but we won’t go into that here).
The Hieronymite monastery of Our Lady of Pena was built in 1511. Presumably monasterial activities commenced immediately and ensued until 1834. That was the year the Portuguese Civil War ended and a decree was issued by Joaquim António de Aguiar nationalizing over 500 monasteries. (To put it mildly he wasn’t a fan of religion.)
The government’s stated plan was to distribute (by which they meant “sell”) the land and buildings to poor landowners. But, um, they were really poor so that didn’t work out too well.
If you think about it this was not surprising. Is it usually the best thing for a very poor person to purchase a deserted monastery? Ask Suze Orman – we’re sure she’ll say “No, pay off your credit card debt first”. That advice may have been a little strange in 1834 but we’re hoping you get the point.
Hence the former Our Lady of Pena monastery fell into disrepair.
Along came Ferdinand II of Portugal. who decided to repair the deserted monastery.
As has happened to so many of us, his renovation project ran amok and a run down monastery was turned into a palace. (Blonde once bought a refrigerator that didn’t fit in the allotted space in her kitchen so she remodeled the entire kitchen. Hence the monastery fixer-upper turning into a palace doesn’t seem unreasonable.)
Back in the days the palace was renovated people enjoyed the outdoors from a courtyard so there are not many good views to the outside from within the house.
How did Ferdinand II become the King of Portugal?
Ferdinand II of Portugal got the job because he “married up”. He married the queen, Maria Antonia Koháry de Csábrág. When she produced their first child her husband got automatically promoted to king. Talk about sleeping your way to the top!
But Ferdinand II was apparently a quite enlightened sort of fellow and he and Maria got along so well (or had so much make-up sex) that they had 11 children.
It’s easier to understand why you would create a palace when you put it in the context of a family of that size. (Also shows that they were already prone to excess.)
Architecture and Pena Palace, Sintra
Ferdinand hired the Prussian architect and engineer Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege and had him develop a plan that preserved some of the existing structures from the monastery. For the rest of the project three architectural styles were used; Bavarian, Manueline Gothic and Moorish.
It’s what might have happened if Walt Disney had dropped some acid and then drew the palace’s blueprints.
The bright exterior colors were restored in the 1990s but are the original colors.
Ferdinand was either secure in his masculinity or Maria picked the paint.
The colors and fairy-tale like appearance of the exterior are disconcerting but beautiful. It can’t be said that the styles exactly blend seamlessly (because they don’t at all) but they sure do produce a “wow” factor.
The inside of the palace is somewhat oddly chopped up and the rooms are small in terms of what you might expect from looking at a structure of the magnitude of Pena Palace. Some of the small, choppy interior is because various remaining rooms were part of the original structure.
It seems that the rest of it is due to trying to glue together three disparate styles of architecture.
Pena Palace, the story after the story
We do need to reveal that the love story of Ferdinand and Maria, though true, was not without disturbing developments. Maria died giving birth to that 11th child.
Ferdinand mourned her but guys aren’t good at being on their own, so he remarried. The new wife moved into Pena Palace.
OK, fair enough.
But when Ferdinand died his will gave the palace to Wife #2.
The good citizens of Portugal were about as happy as the British would be if Camilla got Windsor Castle so they purchased it from her. (She went on to star in The Real Housewives of Sintra and created a clothing line and a fragrance.)
We hope you have benefited from our intellectual rigor as applied to the history of Pena Palace.
FCC Disclosure: We went to Pena Palace as the guests (aka freeloaders) of Viator and we would recommend other people do the same. It’s easy, you get a great guide and you don’t have to wait in line or figure anything out.