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Retracing Byron’s Steps in ‘Glorious Eden’

<i> Lowry is a Wayland, Mass., free-lance writer</i>

Of all the words spoken and sung about Sintra, poet George Gordon Noel Byron’s had the most lasting effect. When he put this flowering mountain town in “Childe Harold” he put Sintra on the map. “Glorious Eden,” he called the city.

Wherever he stayed Byron was taken with Sintra. He wrote his mother: “Sintra . . . contains beauties of every description, natural and artificial. Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices; convents on stupendous heights, a distant view of the sea and the Tagus.”

Sintra, 17 miles north of Lisbon, hasn’t changed much from that description. Open are castles, convents, botanical gardens and Pena Palace, the wedding-cake structure that crowns the Serra de Sintra.

Looks Like Balmoral

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Pena Palace was built by a cousin of Queen Victoria’s Albert and resembles Balmoral on the inside, although it is more like Bavaria’s Neuschwanstein on the outside.

When Byron visited the mountain was topped by a monastery built by Manuel I in gratitude for the safe return of Vasco da Gama. The king was hunting on the mountain when the fleet was spied entering home waters. Monastery ruins include a chapel, an alabaster altar and a cloister.

Farther down Pena Ridge, Byron undoubtedly walked the parapets of Castelo dos Mouros, an 8th-Century Arab stronghold later occupied by Norsemen. In the clear mountain air, views are still amazing.

We know he hiked to Capuchos to see the Convento de Santa Cruz, a Capuchin monastery carved in the rock and insulated--as well as furnished--with cork.

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St. Honorius, a hermit who lived in a cave nearby, gets credit lines in Byron’s poem.

Capuchos Monastery

Capuchos is still a dark warren. Visitors are shown where eight penitents at a time lived in discomfort, despite such facilities as an infirmary, a dining room, a kitchen and an indoor bathroom.

Byron probably strode on to Colares, a town of vineyards and villas, pausing for bread, cheese and claret in a small taverna.

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An English merchant, Francis Cook, 40 years later claimed that Byron inspired him to import eminent horticulturists to the old monastery grounds at Monserrate to oversee exotica from Africa as well as Europe.

Cook then built a bizarre neo-Oriental mansion for which he could blame no one but himself.

Still later, another Englishman acquired Monserrate, sold the antique furnishings at a profit and proposed to divide the property into house plots. As shudders ran down the mountain, the Portuguese government stepped in and declared the place a national treasure.

Today the gardens of Pena and Monserrate feature more than 3,000 plants.

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Twin Chimneys

The distinctive twin chimneys of the Royal Palace of Sintra reminded Hans Christian Andersen of champagne bottles when he visited in 1866.

Byron ignored them in “Childe Harold.”

The palace began as the home of a Moorish potentate, was taken by Alfonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, in 1147, and early in the 15th Century was rebuilt as a summer palace for King Joao.

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A century later more additions were made by Manuel I, who lived there and was called “the Fortunate King.”

The romantic interior has a Swan Room that commemorates the wedding of Princess Isabela and Philip of Burgundy, and a Magpie Room--to reprimand palace gossips after the king was caught kissing a lady-in-waiting.

Sintra’s highland setting has always drawn those wilted by the summer heat of Lisbon, but it has remained a serene place.

Casinos and Beaches

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Casinos and condos belong to Estoril and Cascais at the foot of the mountain, a short trip by auto or bus. Equally convenient for today’s visitor are the Atlantic Ocean beaches and such seaside villages as Ericeira, where lobsters are bred in nurseries.

The Serra de Sintra ends in a spectacular cliff at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of Europe and a great place to watch the sunset.

Mafra, the combination Franciscan monastery and royal palace, was the object of a day’s hike for Byron. The 800-room edifice included a 35,000-volume library, the pride of Portugal.

Byron afterward told of the monk who guided them through and who asked politely if there were “any books in England?”

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Byron does not mention fog or mists, so he must have been as fortunate as we in having clear skies. It can be damp and gloomy at times, especially around Capuchos and Castelo dos Mouros. Byron would have appreciated the ghost stories.

Displaced European nobility and expatriate Britishers still own the country estates--the quintas --of Sintra.

Several quintas have become country-house hotels at which the line between paid and invited guests is casually drawn and the bedrooms are full of museum-quality antiques.

Swimming Pools

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Swimming pools and tennis courts dapple the manicured grounds. The horses and flower gardens are cloned from Kent.

In Byron’s eyes no place on the grand tour matched Sintra. He would write from Greece of a town “in the most beautiful situation (always excepting Sintra in Portugal) I ever beheld.”

He was not alone in praise. Robert Southey, English poet and historian, and William Beckford, an English author, also enticed British tourists to undertake what was then a rough ocean voyage. Portuguese poets would sing of it as “a garden of earthly Paradise” and claim “here is Spring enthroned.”

Andersen observed that some aspect of Sintra inevitably reminded the visitor of home. He saw in Sintra flashes of Denmark as we see California compared to New England.

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Andersen also said that Byron had stayed in “a private house now the Hotel Lawrence” on the Setais-Monserrate road. No hostelry of that name survives.

Actually Three Towns

Sintra is really three towns rising one after another on the mountain, with the oldest at the summit.

On a second or fourth Sunday you can attend the street market in Sao Pedro de Sintra. Curio and antique shops are open in the Santa Maria section of town every day.

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It may not be that the cheese tarts known as Quejadas de Sintra were invented in Byron’s day, nor that the cooks of 1809 added a mound of sauteed shrimp to the fresh-fried mountain trout “in the Sintra manner.”

In any event, Byron visited only four days, July 12-16, then went to Spain, Greece and Turkey. Even Eden didn’t hold the 21-year-old Byron for long.

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Car rentals at the Lisbon airport begin at $124 a week plus 16% tax for a Citroen Visa with unlimited mileage.

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Hotel Palacio dos Seteais, 2700 Sintra, has 18 rooms, including two suites. It’s a five-star hotel, $120 and up, double occupancy, including continental breakfast.

Hotel Tivoli Sintra, 2710 Sintra, has 70 rooms. It’s a four-star hotel on the Praca da Republica, about $50 double.

Quinta Sao Thiago, 2710 Sintra, a private manor house, has seven doubles and two singles. It’s about $70 for two with breakfast.

Condos for Rent

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Guest houses and B&Bs; may be booked at the tourist office. There are condos for rent in Cascais and Estoril, and hotels in all classes.

The nearest pousada (government inn) is Pousada do Castelo, a nine-room castle on the coast at Obidos.

Palacio dos Seteais has a notable dining room. Dinner for two costs about $40. Reservations are essential.

Galeria Real, Sao Pedro, in a building full of antique shops and history, serves dinner for two for $45.

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A Tiborna, opposite the Royal Palace, is a small cafe with good service and inexpensive food.

For more information on travel to Portugal, contact the Portuguese National Tourist Office,, 548 Fifth Ave., New York 10036, or call (212) 354-4403.


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