I am having a "where am I?" moment. The itinerary says Sintra in Portugal but my nose is definitely saying Australia. Throwing open the French doors of our airy sitting room, the familiar aroma of eucalyptus wafts in from a mighty flowering gum tree that's spilling over the balcony. However, a narrow cobblestone laneway below named after Lord Byron and peek-a-boo views of a castle perched on a hillside confirm my suspicions.
Sintra is quite possibly the most romantic spot in Portugal and definitely one of the most picturesque, attracting flocks of would-be artists. One from Texas has set up his easel and paintbox next to our hotel to capture the vast plain below that smudges into the far horizon, while in the old town square a forest of easels has been planted as artists work on their picture-postcard images.
You can take a beautifully restored train from Lisbon to Sintra but we've already survived driving through Spain so the 40-minute drive west of the Portuguese capital is a doddle. Nestled in the rugged Serra de Sintra mountain range, Sintra was a favourite summer retreat for royalty and the well-to-do who liked to live and play in private. The phrase "a man's home is his castle" may be hackneyed but during the 18th and 19th centuries, this isolated mountain retreat took it to the limit. What brings busloads of visitors in each day is the chance to visit the great estates and fine gardens that are sprinkled throughout Sintra's forested hillsides.
Picking up a walking guide from the tourism office located in the square in the old part of town, we set off to stroll in the footsteps of kings and queens. First stop is Pena Palace, built by Dona Maria II Queen of Portugal and King Consort Don Fernando II, an artist-king who clearly had an overactive imagination. Pena is a flamboyant palace that could have provided Walt with the blueprint for Disney's Fantasyland. Washed terracotta walls and custard-yellow domes have commanding views of an expansive woodland fantasy park, but while the exterior is over-the-top 19th-century architectural bling, the interior is surprisingly intimate. Personal photos, an open book, half-written notes, cups set for tea, an open doorway it's as though people left the room just moments before.
Clambering up a stone staircase, we reach the ramparts for a view of the eighth-century Moorish castle that sprawls along the spine of a bluff below. The Moors occupied Portugal for 400 years until 1147 and this would have been a vital lookout in their defence of Lisbon. In the mountain-fresh air, we head down to clamber up the old castle's winding walls.
Stone steps contour around the parapet with vertiginous drops to the valley below and I half expect to encounter a sword fight between Moors and Crusaders clad in chain mail. Reaching the castellated lookout where Moorish and Portuguese flags sway in the breeze, the view stretches to a distant strip of the Atlantic Ocean.
Sintra's homes and castles were classified by UNESCO in 1995 as a cultural landscape of human heritage, the first in Europe. Half a dozen extraordinary palaces and castles that could suit any cinematic plotline litter a landscape filled with luxurious vegetation from all over the world. Sleeping Beauty could snooze undisturbed under vaulted bedchamber ceilings and Rapunzel could easily unwind her hair from imposing turrets.
One of Sintra's most surprising castles is Quinta da Regaleira, built by the immensely wealthy doctor Carvalho Monteiro, who employed Italian Luigi Manini, one of the best architects money could buy. If you think your renovation or home build is taking a long time, consider the 12 years it took to create the castle's ornate interiors and fanciful gardens. Displays of the architect's plans and working drawings for both house and grounds provide an intimate insight into the lengthy collaboration. Inside, scenes from the Garden of Eden are carved onto decorative plasterwork, while in the garden, paradise merges with a Dante-esque underworld of secret grottoes and temples.
But it's not just castles and convents that bring so many here, it's the urge to splurge. We plunge down narrow cobbled streets, shops crowding each side, to search out mementoes. Colourful provincial ceramics hang from whitewashed walls and narrow stairs lead to charming boutiques and hidden cafes.
We join the queue crowding around the counter at Periquita patisserie for sweet queijadas tarts, a local delicacy, before haunting Portuguese fado music lures us upstairs into Loja do Arco, where we pore over a selection of local CDs.
Many houses feature hand-painted blue and white Portuguese tiles and near the tourism office we check out Casa Alegria, which specialises in the art and will even do designs to order. We track down 17th- and 18th-century original tiles at Henrique Teixeira Antiques on Rua Consiglieri, exquisitely embroidered Portuguese linens and home textiles at Artnis and a boxed set of local ports from Loja do Vinho.
On Praca da Republica, the old town's main square, the lunchtime crowd is putting it away under shady trees at Cafe Paris and Central Sintra but I head for Museu do Brinquedo, one of Sintra's many small museums. Here, children of all ages are held spellbound by a toy collection that spans 2300 years, from Egyptian marbles to 1960s pedal cars.
Sintra may be undeniably popular with day-trippers but at sunset, when the last coach rolls out of town, it reverts to its own quiet tempo. We enjoy a plate of bread, sardines and local wine at Xentra, a basement restaurant and bar, before strolling the now-deserted streets.
The monarchy might have failed and the Euro-rich moved on to new playgrounds but their castles in the air continue to cast a spell over magical Sintra.
GETTING THERE Sintra is a 40-minute drive west of Lisbon.
Tempo Holidays offers day trips and tours of Sintra from Lisbon or you can take an eight-day self-drive tour of Portugal incorporating Sintra.
For more information see tempoholidays.com or phone 1300 558 987.
STAYING THERE Lawrence's Hotel, Rua Consiglieri Pedroso, 38-40,
Sintra, claims to be the world's
second-oldest hotel, built as a
private house in 1764. Phone +351 219 105 500, see lawrenceshotel.com or wrhotels.com.
FURTHER INFORMATION See www.cm-sintra.pt.
The writer was a guest of Lawrence's Hotel.