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Mad with inspiration and raging to write, 21 year-old George Byron fled his native England in 1809 to swallow the world whole. And devour it he did, so that the story of young Lord Byron’s adventures became the stuff of legend. In fact, his furious life became the model for the idealistic adventurer that we imagine today. He collected talented friends, argued the heated politics of his times, spilled his imagination on thousands of pages, defended religious freedom, wooed women his stories of adventure (including swimming the Hellespont), and joining revolutions. His premature death of an infection at age 36 as he fought with a band of Greek revolutionaries was a sad end to a life of remarkable adventure.
Born to English nobility, Byron had always been a lively child with an especially vivid imagination. From the very beginning he did not suppress his urge to write poetry and plays in which he acted with friends. His curiosity for life was enormous. By his 21st year, he had dreamed his way around the world numerous times and he decided it was time to leave for real. In 1809 (barely two months after taking his family’s seat in the House of Lords), he took a friend and left his homeland for the first time to sail south for a long tour of the Mediterranean. His first stop: Portugal.
Unable to keep his mind quiet or his hand still he kept a furious diary and constantly wrote letters. But he chose to write his journal in the voice of Childe Harold, an imaginary young poet who was essentially Byron himself. Thus began his world tour as well as his famous adventures and vivid career, all of which started in the two glorious weeks he spent in Sintra, every day a rapture for him with its natural beauty and fantastical history.
On his voyage to Lisbon, Byron suffered rough seas in the Bay of Biscayne which left him sleepless through four tumbling nights. Finally, his ship spotted land - the magical Serra da Sintra (1) - as it passed the churning white water around the dramatic Cabo da Roca (2).
Rounding the bend into Lisbon (3), they sailed into the Tagus River with pilots guiding them to the harbor (after paying a “tribute” of gold coins to the harbor pilot). The hour was early enough that the passengers standing on deck could admire Lisbon – bathed in the magic of the morning sunlight! The beauty of the harbor before them exceeded that of Naples! Its panorama rivaled Constantinople! And surrounding the bay was an amphitheater of ridges where shepherds already stirred on the hillsides (4) tending their flocks. Young Byron likewise was enthralled by the sight.
Spotting a foreign land for the first time in his life – and after four days on the barren ocean – Byron was joyous! His vigorous imagination started at once to take flight, and everything he saw became is a “delicious” feast for his ravenous curiosity. The warm climate, the colorful orchards, the new and rich smells of the land mixed with the salt of the ocean (certainly in those days the air was cleaner). Even from the middle of the river, Bryon imagines that he sees the oranges and pears “blushing” in their bloom on the trees, painting the trees themselves with the warm colors of their fruit. But just as Byron’s lively mood rises with the beauty of the new sights, he just as easily swings to anger – by the end of the verse he’s clenching his teeth in fury, angry at Napoleon who had led France to invade much of Europe, bringing war and upheaval to the countries where his armies passed, and especially to small and vulnerable Portugal. Defending the integrity of the Portuguese who hadn’t provoked the French onslaught, he calls the French invaders unchristian and invokes God’s revenge.
It was during these first few days after landing in Lisbon that Byron – always adventurous – jumped into the river and swam from Almada (5) to Belem (6) a dangerous two hour feat, fighting winds and currents that could have swept him out to sea. This certainly was inspiration for the similar stunt he made a few years later at the Hellespont.
Disembarking in Lisbon harbor, Byron goes on musing on the beauty of the city glimmering in the morning light, but then again reverts to anger at the political situation and how the Portuguese ought to have been more grateful for the help they received from the English Navy (those “thousand keels”) against the French invaders. But in using this phrase Byron also tips his hat at the Portuguese sailors and their thousands of ships that departed Belém on their voyages of discovery and trade (7), as chronicled in the great Portuguese national epic of the Lusiadas (8).
Indeed, the story of the English involvement in Portugal is a long and fascinating one. Many spots in Lisbon reflect the influence of the longtime English colony there, which included their own fascinating cemetery (9). In those days of the early 1800’s, Lisbon must have been a muddy, filthy place. Although from the banks of the Tagus the colorful tiles and painted walls enchanted Byron, his mind soon changed as he wandered its hilly streets (10) and couldn’t help but notice the grime on all buildings and the locals’ clothes. In those days, Portugal was no longer the glorious empire that it had once been. By the 1700’s, its golden age of discoveries had passed, and Lisbon’s central role for European trade had been replaced by London and Amsterdam as those countries established their own network of colonies. But above all, the sorry and dirty state in which he saw the Portuguese was thanks to the roughing up they suffered during the French invasion which had only ended just the year before. Portugal indeed suffered greatly (11) as a pawn in the clash of the great English and French armies on its territory.
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Fed up with Lisbon’s grime, Byron escaped to Sintra. His disappointment at the filth underneath the glimmering city of Lisbon and his rage at the politics of the Napoleonic wars disappear when he enters the magical world surrounding the mountain of Sintra. Here his wild imagin-ation again took full flight. A glorious Garden of Eden! Unmatched beauty of forest and meadow! Marriage of mountain and sea! He’s once again awestruck, this time by the hillside forests and gardens (12). To him it’s a scene of living poetry: "It is, perhaps in every respect, the most delightful in Europe,” he wrote. “Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices, convents on stupendous heights, a distant view (13) of the sea and the Tagus." Sintra is where he would spend the remainder of his time in Portugal, staying at Lawrence's Hotel (14) in the center of the village. Near here is the town fountain (15), where Byron certainly stared and admired the Portuguese people, reflected in the simple and honest folk who came by at every hour filling their earthen-ware jugs with water. “The village of Cintra in Estramadura is the most beautiful, perhaps in the world. I am very happy here,” he said.
Gazing to the top of the mountain, Byron first spots the mysterious ruins of the Moorish Castle (16) which was built in the 8th century by the Moors shortly after they had conquered the majority of the Iberian Peninsula from barbarian tribes. After nearly 700 years of occupation, the Moors left a tremendous influence on Spain and Portugal, including in the very languages and art of the natives. Though they had fostered centuries of harmonious co-habitation between Christians, Moslems and Jews, the native tribes pushed for hundreds of years to regain their ancient lands from the Moorish foreigners and they ultimately succeed and established the kingdom of Portugal.
Reflecting on this colorful and dramatic history, Byron decides to climb to the top of the mountain and on the way loses himself in the dense and moist foliage on the path and in the shady glens of crooked cork trees (17) which hang with moss as though weeping in the shade. The rich colors everywhere flood his sight as the trees’ deep green is tinged with the sunlight’s orange. In clearings he looks out over the lush greenery to the splendor of the smooth ocean on a sunny day, hearing the sounds of a nearby waterfall (17). Truly the beauty of Sintra that Byron paints with his inspired language is a “mighty scene.” Up the narrow paths of Sintra’s mountain, Byron works his way to the top where during his time there was a poor monastery. The monks there belonged to an order that lived like hermits and rejected all worldly comforts, or even any recognition of beauty in the world – their only concern was the afterlife of Heaven for which they completely renounced the world around them. As a young man passionate about the world’s mortal beauty, Byron mocks these monks calling their miserable life a “hell on earth” for rejecting the natural beauty surrounding them. What irony then that the same pitiful monastery would in 30 years become what is today the extravagant and spectacular Pena Palace (18) built by the Portuguese king in the high Romantic style deeply inspired by the lofty language of Byron’s poetry!
Today, the mountain of Sintra is a national park teeming with trails and vista points. Hidden in its dense forests are many sights including a notable convent (2) as well as a mysterious pagan moon temple (2) on the far western end. There are also many enchanting villages nestled around the base of the mountain in addition to the town of Sintra itself. From the town’s setting on the steep side of a lush green mountain above a dry plain and overlooking the wild and endless ocean, there is a magical quality to the geography of the place. Add to that the mad mix of styles – gothic palaces, Moorish ruins, extravagant baroque palaces (19), and romantic forests, mysterious grottos (20) all jumbled together, and you can understand that Byron could not have chosen a more evocative place to ignite his vivid imagination.
As he winds his way through the mountain trails, Byron carries on his fantastic allusions, poetically referring to castles as “domes.” Gazing on the Moorish ruins, he imagines the ancient Moslem kings (including Vathek, a fictional Muslim caliph who was made popular in a novel of the time). Byron’s fantasy is deeply inspired by the ruins which speak to him powerfully. Looking at the pile of stones, Byron conjures the grand empire that it represents, philosophizing that whatever great opulence and wealth exists, all of man’s creation and vanity will inevitably fall into oblivion. As he strolls through the town lost in his musings and admiring the wonder, he probably hardly noticed the old firehouse (21) that he no doubt passed. But nearly two centuries later it would be dedicated to an impressive collection of toys, certainly a museum that he would have relished!
Now Byron turns his eye toward the strange pair of cones in the center of town that are impossible to miss. They are in fact the chimneys of the national palace’s (22). This was the palace where the Portuguese king and his court would spend their summers in Sintra’s cooler climate, served banquets prepared in the enormous kitchens. But to Byron, they remind him of schoolboys’ dunce caps which recall for him the peace treaty signed by the English and French “chiefs” in a nearby palace (23) which ended the Napoleon’s occupation of Portugal. Once again Byron flies into a rage against the warlike French who he accuses of falsely agreeing to peace.
Byron’s musings on the beauty of Sintra are constantly overtaken by his indignation at the political intrigues of the time. As soon as he comments on the beauty of the place, he quickly jumps to comment on the tumultuous political situation. Perhaps he needed more distraction to escape his grief over the politics of his age, for which he certainly would have enjoyed a traditional Portuguese bullfight (24), which at the time was a very popular sport. Now, walking the trails of Sintra’s mountain, he realizes that perhaps was the very beauty of the place that prompted his constant “moralizing” on politics. He suddenly decides that it’s time to move on.
However before he leaves Portugal for Spain, he stops briefly by the Convent and Palace of Mafra (25), and reflects on the excess that it represents – especially considering how the current political situation disgusts him with the authoritarian pomp and the disingenuousness of the officials whose meddling had only created misery for the simple, noble Portuguese.
Thus end the handful of verses where Byron describes his short stay in Portugal. What an astounding glimpse into his fertile and feverish young mind with its rare talent for seeing beauty and appreciating for life. Moreover, his observations are very honest, since he wrote those verses without intending to publish them. It was only when a friend read them that he persuaded Byron to share this account of his trip to Portugal and beyond, when it became a huge success and the foundation of his career as a poet.
Ultimately, Portugal – and especially the magical setting of Sintra – was the perfect place for Byron because it inspired his brilliant mind. Those ten short days that he stayed there wandering the hills and writing his thoughts inspired the tone that was to echo throughout the Childe Harold poem and the rest of his grand voyage through the Mediterranean. We’ll conclude with Byron’s own beautiful words, a gorgeous verse from further along the Childe Harold story that truly embodies Byron’s unique and immortal sensibilities as a poet.
1) Cabo da Roca, Cascais – This is the most western point on the European continent (although Ireland has a point further west yet). Even though it has the air of a barren and lonely place, it mournfully embodies Portugal’s situation on the extreme end of Europe, with its melancholy contemplation of an eternity of ocean.
2) Serra da Sintra – Mount Sintra is an unusual formation on the Portuguese coast with a height of 530 meters high and width of 16 km stretching from the town of Sintra on its eastern slopes to Cabo da Roca on the west end. Known as the Mountain of the Moon to the Romans, they dedicated it to the goddess Cynthia of hunting, from which the word Sintra (or Cintra, as Byron spells it) is derived. Among the many curiosities in its western expanse is the most mysterious temple of the moon as well as the celebrated Capucine Convent (Convento dos Capuchos).
3) The bend into Lisbon – Most notable about this stretch of the coast north of the Tagus and Lisbon harbor are the many forts that were built to protect Lisbon from warships that would approach the capital city from the same direction as Byron did.
4) Hillsides surrounding the river, south of Lisbon – For an unusual view of Lisbon, consider a trip to the town of Seixal (perhaps combined with an excursion to points south of Lisbon, such as the beach at Caparica).
5) Almada, south of Lisbon – The opposite coast of Lisbon is the county of Almada in which the town of Cacilhas is directly opposite Lisbon. Though of no particular interest itself (besides a quaint church and very local flavor), Cacilhas is a short ferry ride from Lisbon which offers wonderful views of the Lisbon waterfront.
6) Belém – Once a small village to the west of Lisbon, it is now part of the metropolis and the home of significant sights including the Tower of Belém. Finished in 1521 as a defensive position for the Lisbon harbor, it was designed with the glory of Vasco da Gama’s recent opening of India in mind, which accounts for its elaborate decoration. Only a few hundred meters away is the famous Monastery of Jerónimos. Begun in 1502, the monastery is a masterpiece of Portugal’s iconic Manueline style (with its extravagantly ornate marine imagery). Here you’ll also find the Tomb of Vasco da Gama, international hero of the Portuguese discoveries. When he died in 1524, Portugal was nearing the peak of its glory having opened up much of the world to trade. Across the way is the Monument to Afonso de Albuquerque, the great Portuguese viceroy of India who followed in da Gama’s footsteps in opening India before he died in 1515.
8) Lusíadas, Lisbon – A copy of the Portuguese national epic written by Luís de Camões on all of the heroism of the great age of Portuguese discoveries can be seen at the national archives called the Torre do Tombo in an elegant and amusing neighborhood of Lisbon. You will also find there an engaging museum of important Portuguese documents.
11) Lisbon City Museum – An account of as well as vestiges of the French occupation of Portugal are on display at this worthwhile historical stop.
12) Sintra’s Gardens – The Palace of Monserrate has phenomenal gardens that take the best advantage of Sintra’s moist and temperate climate. The Quinta da Regaleira is also an astonishing mansion with vibrant and very unique gardens.
16) Moorish Castle, Sintra – The stunning ruins that inspired Byron are just as full of wonder today. Constructed probably in the 800’s and 900’s by the Moors who occupied the Iberian Peninsula at the time, it was controlled by a series of kings and invaders over the centuries. Its conquest in 1147 by Portugal’s founding king Afonso Henriques was a major victory in the reconquest of Portugal. Beginning in the 1600’s it fell out of use and into ruins, although it was restored in mid-nineteenth century.
17) Cork Trees & Waterfalls – The singular Cork tree is the country’s national tree (and an important part of the economy) and can be seen in all of their crooked splendour throughout the hillside and plains surrounding Sintra. You will also stumble on many waterfalls throughout Sintra’s trails.
18) Pena Palace – During Byron’s time this extravagant castle didn’t exist. Rather, it was the humble and run-down monastery of Nossa Senhora das Dores in which a few dozen monks lived. Then in 1830, it was acquired by the Queen’s German husband who promptly hired the same architect who designed the fantastical palaces (especially Neuschwanstein) for his German uncle mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria.
19) Seteais Palace – Built in 1789 as the personal residence of the then Dutch ambassador, it is one of the grandest palacettes in the area. Its unique neoclassical arch was erected in honour of Prince John VI and Princess Carlota Joaquina, who visited the palace in 1802 (the royal couple can be prominently seen in its carvings). Today, Seteais is a hotel and restaurant.
22) Royal Palace – Also known as the Palace of the Vila or the Paço Real, it was begun in the 14th century. It has served as a summer house for Portuguese Kings since then, its design becoming more haphazard as portions were added over the centuries. The exterior style is a mixture of Gothic and the Manueline with a good deal of Moorish influence. The resulting interiors are also remarkable, including some of the oldest and the most valuable tiles in Portugal. Within, note especially the gallery above the Palace chapel where prince Afonso VI was confined for six years by his brother Pedro II and where he eventually died. The myth is that the worn floor is a result of his constant pacing up and down. Also be sure not to miss the Sala das Armas, where the ceiling is emblazoned with the arms of 72 noble families of Portugal.
23) Palace of Queluz, Oeiras – This was actually the hall in which the treaty between the English and the French over Portugal was signed. It is remarkable for its extravagantly Rococo style, but not necessarily worth a detour.
24) Museu Taurino – Some 5km north of Sintra (the town of Terrugem), this museum dedicated to Portuguese bullfighting includes some 8000 artifacts and is a significant Portuguese collection.
25) Palace at Mafra – This enormous palace and convent 20km north of Sintra was built in 1729 by King John V as a tribute of thanks that his wife bore him a first child. It was a vast undertaking funded principally with gold from the prosperous Portuguese colony of Brazil.
 The strait connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Black Sea and splits Istanbul in half. It’s only 1km wide, however the currents between the two seas are strong. Most importantly, it symbolizes the narrow divide between Europe and Asia.
 In fact, the meaning of “childe” has little to do with children. It is actually an old word referring to one who was being proven for knighthood – thus relatively speaking, a kind of child indeed!
 These were the famous Peninsula Wars, part of Napoleon’s rampage of Europe, during which he overran Spain and Portugal. It was only with the intervention of Portugal’s old ally, the English, that Napoleon’s forces were finally defeated by Nelson at Trafalgar. In fact, Portugal didn’t really have a king at the time – just the year before he fled the country by ship to Brazil only hours before the French armies would have captured him in Lisbon. Portugal was truly a country in a poor state at the time Byron visited.
 Sintra was long prized by the Portuguese nobility as a lovely refuge from the heat of the city and lowlands.
 It may not look exactly as the Moors built it since it was partially restored in the 1800’s to make it look more authentic.
 Mafra was built by a Portuguese king in 1730 who in gratitude at his first child’s birth fulfilled his vow to built a glorious convent on the site of the poorest friary in Portugal – Mafra is where he found 12 monks living in a most miserable hut.