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A misconceived Portugese palace

Royal palaces should come with a health warning.  Coming away from the former Portuguese royal residence at Sintra, the Palacio da Pena (Pena Palace), I came to a decision that I don’t expect will please the Portuguese tourist board.  But I’m going to say it: the Pena Palace is vulgar and tasteless.  There, I’ve said it.  But that doesn’t mean it should be crossed off the sightseeing list.  Far from it: if anything, it shows what can go wrong if you have too much money and a propensity to excess.

The architect, Baron von Eschwege, began building over the ruins of the convent in 1840, following specifications laid down by the owner, Maria II and her husband, Ferdinand.  The latter was a German and sought to blend the features of his homeland with those of his wife’s.  The result is a bizarre mix of styles, including Moorish designs, Portuguese blue tiles or azulejos and motifs associated more with Bavaria.  The place is a riot of colour, with yellows and pinks on the outer walls and long, winding cobbled pathways from the gate to the castle’s entrance.

At first glance the scene is more Hans Christian Andersen meets Brothers Grimm than homage to Portuguese and German tradition and Catholic devotion.  Indeed, it’s almost impossible to tell from the outside that some of the features of a ruined convent which originally graced the hilltop were retained – one of the few things for which Ferdinand can be commended.  One of the most popularly photographed features is an angry Neptune, rising out of a shell and holding up a turreted window, adorned with sculpted leaves and berries.  Above stands a clock tower covered with superfluous follies, while its main purpose – to tell the time – is made redundant by the absence of any hands.

The palace looks bizarrely out of both place and time; it is made especially so by the views which can be made from around its walls and upper floors: lush green foliage stretched out through the palace’s 270 hectare gardens while further still the sea can be made out in one direction while in the other a patchwork of rolling hills and landscapes on the route back to Lisbon.  Sadly though, such idyllic visions are shattered when you look back at the jarring image presented by the palace’s appearance.

And it doesn’t get better inside either.  If anything, it’s worse, with clutter being the most evident feature.  The Portuguese royal family maintained the palace until revolution erupted in 1910, forcing them into exile in England.  Consequently, many of the features relating to the period were left behind and have been displayed in situ.  This includes furniture in the various bedrooms, dining rooms, living quarters, ballroom and kitchen.  The result is a lack of space as sofas, chairs, dressers, tables and other artefacts fill each room up, offering an insight into the way the family once lived.

Given the relative isolation of the palace on the top of a hill, it seems odd that the rooms are so dark and gloomy, while the ceilings and walls are subject to excessive detail, including geometric designs and assorted – but tedious – romantic portraits of female nudes.  Other details also highlight the tastelessness of Portugal’s royal family: in the ballroom a pair of life-size sculptures of Ottoman footmen hold a chandeliers, while on a mother of pearl and lacquer dresser sits a pink porcelain hippopotamus.  Calling it kitsch doesn’t even do it justice.

Fleetingly I wondered whether the British royal family was any better in this regard.  But as long as the royal palaces remain off-limits, I suppose we’ll never know.  Then again, it’s probably just as well.  When you consider royalty has been traditionally seen as trendsetters and a class of people to look up to, I dread to think what those recent newly weds Charles and Camilla might keep in their private quarters.

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