GPA Visits Sintra, UNESCO World Heritage Site and Cultural Inspiration

By Ellyn Matta and Zabeth Teelucksingh, for GPA -- Small but significant, Sintra used to house the Portuguese Saxe Coburg Gotha branch of the Royal family in the 19th century, when summers were too hot to bear in the capital. Tracing its history back to the Neolithic era, Sintra’s favorable climate, fertile soil and location near the River Tagus has attracted settlers for thousands of years and also made for an ideal climate where exotic plants thrive, adding to the allure and charm of this unique town.

A History of Heritage

The development of the town’s historic fabric has come as a result of the changing natural and political environment, starting with the Moores in the 8th century, throughout its height as a center for the arts and humanities in the 16th century and into a tragic earthquake in 1755 that shook the town’s construction and natural landscape. Sintra is recognized worldwide for its beauty and as an original center of European Romantic architecture, which developed in the 19th century. During this period, the town attracted many Portuguese and foreign travellers, writers and aristocrats who were enchanted by the restoration and construction of quintas and mansions in a mixture of architectural styles including Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish and Renaissance.

The town’s rich history, diverse mix of architecture and gardens and respect for its natural environment culminates into a unique relationship between man and nature that can be found only here. Sintra’s outstanding qualities would be recognized worldwide after it was inscribed on the World Heritage List as Europe’s first Cultural Landscape.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) celebrated the town during its evaluation for inclusion on the World Heritage List in 1995, exclaiming it as an “extraordinary and unique complex of parks, gardens, palaces, country houses, monasteries, and castles, which creates a popular and cultural architecture that harmonizes the exotic and overgrown vegetation, creating micro-landscapes, of exotic and luxuriant beauty” and that its “structures harmonize indigenous flora with a refined and cultivated landscape created by man as a result of literary and artistic influences.”

Sintra is one of 15 sites in Portugal inscribed on the World Heritage List and was the first of three cultural landscapes to be inscribed. Cultural landscapes exist all around the world and represent the harmonious union formed by man’s interaction with the natural environment. Prior to the recognition of the cultural landscape as a category, World Heritage Sites were divided into only two categories: cultural and natural. The World Heritage Committee adopted the “cultural landscape” category for World Heritage Sites in 1992, enabling a global recognition and celebration of some of the world’s most diverse and incredible landscapes. Today there are 85 cultural landscapes on the World Heritage List. Some of the other sites include the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range in Japan, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London and the Rice Terraces of the Philippines.

A Journey to Sintra

A journey to this magical town begins with a comfortable 45 minute train ride from Lisbon. After alighting the train, you notice a large bilingual sign that celebrates Sintra’s special designation as a World Heritage town. In fact, signage clearly designating this as a World Heritage cultural landscape is found everywhere, including on tickets to museums and other venues, buses and even on wall posters. From the train station, a 10 minute gentle climb along art strewn walkways leads you into the town center, where the first of several royal palaces greets you. It is known as The National Palace and famed for its two oversized, white, bottle-shaped chimneys.

But this is not the most notable palace of Sintra. A taxi drive through elaborate terraces of walled gardens and secret locations takes you an additional four miles, through a Romantic Scotch mist which has settled above the town. Atop the rocky peaks of the Serra de Sintra you will find the entrance to the Pena Palace. Be prepared for a mixture of Balmoral, Alice in Wonderland, The Alhambra and Neuschwanstein all combined into one. The Pena Palace takes you out of the ordinary and to a life of imagined cultural opulence and isolation enjoyed by royals in elaborate rooms and castle finery. This is chateau life on steroids.

Once the chateau has been visited, the gardens go on for kilometers with several Moorish duck houses, the Queen’s Garden, featuring a waterfall and tree lined canopy, numerous international tree species and plants and a hidden chalet used by the last king in the 1920s and his second wife. An entire day could easily be spent visiting this part of Sintra alone. As you travel through the gardens and witness the romantic buildings that wonderfully interact and compliment the natural landscape, you begin to grasp the concept of a cultural landscape, a place where the history and heritage of man comes alive with nature.

The pathway back down to Sintra village, takes you past an original Moorish Palace dating from the 12th century, a Monastery of some repute and Villa Montserat. Many royal cousins and families stayed in the town back in its heyday, requiring several country homes to be built to house them all. Each and every one help to make up Sintra’s renowned cultural landscape.

But these buildings do not tell the full story. Nature is also in the forefront. A plethora of trees from all over the world inhabit the parklands surrounding the area. Many of which come from as far as Australia and Brazil. The climate allows them to grow here, creating a dense and varied canopy. The results are stunning. Carpets of red petals from fallen camellia trees adorned the grounds when we visited in late Spring.

A visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site can be extended by a stay in the oldest inn on the Iberian Peninsula, the luxury Hotel Lawrence. Once visited by Lord Byron and famed Portuguese author Quintes, this is the best place to stay and savor this hidden gem of culture to be explored over several days. The combination of stunning landscapes, countless castles and a historic hotel underscores the World Heritage experience at its best. Sintra is a place to see and stay when visiting Portugal.

A Return Home

Full of inspiration and still in awe of all the wonders of the small town of Sintra, we returned back home to Philadelphia. Though worlds apart in terms of architecture and landscape,the similarities between Philadelphia and the historic town of Sintra shone through. Both have been shaped by and still thrive on the arts and the humanities, serving as a source of inspiration for both visitors and residents alike. Furthermore, both Greater Philadelphia and Sintra have become leading forces of innovation in technology and in the pharmaceutical industry. Though operating on different scales, pharmaceutical and chemical industries in both Greater Philadelphia and Sintra have become important to the local economy and have also become prominent internationally and compete globally.

As the Global Philadelphia Association continues its pursuit to obtain a World Heritage designation for the city, it is worthwhile to look at Sintra as an exceptional example of a cultural landscape within the scope of World Heritage. Though Sintra’s landscapes have changed and evolved throughout the centuries, a remarkable amount of historic monuments, streets and gardens have remained and can be enjoyed by generations to come.

Sintra embodies the concept of the cultural landscape, where man and nature unify as one, which is why it became the first of its kind in the whole of Europe to be inscribed on the World Heritage List. Sintra is a town that has experienced several different reigns over the centuries, which produced its unique mixture of architectural and landscape styles. Furthermore, Sintra is exemplary in that it has developed and maintained an admirable respect for other people and cultural tolerance, which lends itself to one of UNESCO’s missions of safeguarding and promoting cultural diversity. More importantly, Sintra, as a historic town, is still a living landscape. It is a thriving centre of arts and internationally recognized by the pharmaceutical and chemical industries and is also well reputed for its efforts in sustainable development.

Just as Sintra was Europe’s first cultural landscape, we want to make Philadelphia the first World Heritage City in the U.S. Like Sintra, Philadelphia’s history is prominent, visible and still alive. We strive to celebrate the achievements of our founding fathers, safeguard the historic monuments of the past and elevate the sense of pride for all those who live in or visit this great city. This is our heritage and we want to share it with the world. We strive to learn from other World Heritage Sites like Sintra and in the future, we believe that Philadelphia will serve as a model for other World Heritage designated cities.