Sintra, Portugal: The real, controversial reason why afternoon tea was invented

4 years ago
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Pena National Palace in Sintra, Portugal is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

A beautiful queen. A philandering king. And a phalanx of ladies-in-waiting all eager to press their favours.

It could have ended in disaster but, instead, it culminated in the invention of one of the most civilised habits of the western world – afternoon tea.

Standing in the magnificent medieval summer palace of Portuguese royalty in the small mountainside town of Sintra, 30 kilometres west of Lisbon, it’s somehow easy to imagine the scene.

King Charles II of England is suspected by his Portuguese wife Catherine of seeing members of her entourage, so she then introduces the 5pm ceremony every day to keep tabs on precisely where every female member of her household is.

A walk around the walls of Obidos takes around an hour, with fabulous views of the terracotta-tiled, white-washed houses ...

A walk around the walls of Obidos takes around an hour, with fabulous views of the terracotta-tiled, white-washed houses that sit huddled below.

It’s a similar story with King John I of Portugal who helped build the palace from 1415. His English queen, Philippa of Lancaster, oversaw him kissing a lady-in-waiting so, to stop all the gossip, he had the ceiling of one of the grandest rooms in the palaces painted with 136 chattering magpies – one for each woman at court. That ceiling is still as splendid, and as evocative, today.

Most visitors to Portugal make a beeline for the capital Lisbon, the historic centre of Porto and the stunning university and library city of Coimbra. But it’s often in the small towns outside where much of the drama, intrigue and beauty of Portugal, both past and present, lay.

The Unesco heritage town of Sintra – called the country’s most romantic place because of its setting in steep pine-covered hills in lush national park, where royalty and nobility holidayed to escape the mid-summer heat – is an excellent place to start. With elaborate Romanticism-style architecture, it also has the 8th Century Moor castle, and fabulous shady gardens to wander around.

Another jewel is nearby Estoril, with its panoramic views down over the western coast to the ocean, its gardens and its grand casino – which is said to have inspired writer Ian Fleming to create James Bond.

It’s only a 20-minute walk from there to the gorgeous town of Cascais, an old fishing port. Its lookouts over the ocean were well-used during the Age of Discoveries, watching out for the courageous adventurers to return from their epic voyages around the world. In the 19th Century, it became another royal summer retreat and is now loved for its beaches and its surfing, as much as for its grand historic homes, museums and great seafood cafes and restaurants.

Obidos is an ancient medieval Portuguese village, from the 11th century, still inside castle walls.

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Obidos is an ancient medieval Portuguese village, from the 11th century, still inside castle walls.

From there, Obidos, 100km north, is a town that startles at first sight. A fortress in the Middle Ages, it’s still encircled by an almost complete ring of forbidding 12th Century walls. A walk around the walls takes around an hour, with fabulous views of the terracotta-tiled, white-washed houses that sit huddled below. The historic castle is these days a hotel.

Another highlight is the cobbled main street, Rua Direita, which winds its way uphill and back down, lined with little artisans’ shops that sell all manner of local handicrafts, as well as the locally-made cherry liquor, Ginja de Obidos, served in small chocolate cups.

Forty kilometres north, take a break from monuments and architecture with the small fishing village of Nazaré, where locals still drag in their catch with nets along the golden half-moon bay. From the clifftop square, staring down over its steep cliffs plunging down to the beach, locals in traditional dress – the women with seven petticoats under their skirts to keep them warm and the men in tartan shirts, chequered breeches and long woollen tasselled caps – sell a vast collection of dried fruits and nuts.

Don’t miss Aveiro, either, 150 kilometres north of Nazaré, called the Venice of Portugal where imaginatively painted gondola-like ‘moliceiros’ ply the pretty canals laced with humpbacked bridges.

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