Can You Handle the Heights of Portugal’s Moorish Castle?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because no one wants to go over the wall.
A crenellated silhouette captures the imagination long before you get anywhere near the mountaintop ridge overlooking Sintra, 30 minutes outside of Lisbon by car. Streams of pedestrians, buses, cars and motorbikes continue on from the Portuguese Riviera town to the top of the Monte da Lua — Mount of the Moon — and we follow them, keeping our eye out for the castle’s gray granite rocks.
The ancient fortifications stand in stark contrast to the more colorful Romanticist National Palace of Pena. But for lovers of an even older era like us, the Moorish Castle, built in A.D. 714 as a means to protect an area important for the movement of goods and people along the Atlantic coast, is the truly romantic sight. For centuries, the castle was fought over by Muslims and Christians; it was renovated under the first Portuguese dynasty of the 12th century. By then, it was more than just a strategic stronghold: It symbolized dynastic power, over both its enemies and its subjects — inspiring awe as well as fear.
Mesmerized from afar, I was scared shitless up close.
It still does. Mesmerized from afar, I was scared senseless up close. Though the castle had been ravaged by wars, time and the earthquake of 1755, King Ferdinand II fell in love with it in the 1800s, making it his mission to incorporate the castle into the Park of Pena as a romantic ruin. But neither the king nor the 2009 “Conquering the Castle” project, which improved access to the site, could fix the height of those walls: The royal tower, the highest point, is more than 1,500 feet high.
Just like the 351,037 visitors who soaked up the castle’s history firsthand last year, I looked up in awe this spring before beginning the climb around the site with my husband and young kids. Having lived in Europe with a castle-lover for much of my adult life, I’ve toured hundreds of ancient ruins, and while I appreciate sympathetic renovations, in the hills above Sintra I learned that I also enjoy the modern addition of railings.
The entrance fee is eight euros, and a walk through the woodland that surrounds the castle offers peeks at 300-year-old graves and archaeological finds on display. Two concentric curtain walls are built atop one of the highest points of the hills, the buttressed inner one comprising six towers and a keep. Anyone nursing a hangover should steer clear, and toddlers should be restrained from running riot. Tripping, stumbling or pushing are also not advised. The outer wall has crenellated buffers, making it difficult to accidentally fall off. That’s not the case, though, with most of the inner walls, which have far stubbier barriers … to a serious plunge. When my youngest tried pushing past my eldest, I was frantic.
Has anyone actually been hurt? “Not recently,” says Ana Pais, press officer for Parques de Sintra, explaining that refurbishments have turned it “into a very safe monument.” Which makes me wonder how scary it must have been before. But for those in search of a historical adventure and stunning views — a clear day offers glimpses of the sea and nearby palaces of Sintra, Monserrate and Pena, to name a few — the Moorish Castle will leave you wanting more, even if you’d prefer to climb a little bit less.