by Hank Leukart
January 24, 2013
A royal Christmas miracle
Celebrating Christmas Eve at four Portuguese castles — and a gas station.
The palace at the Quinta da Regaleira estate looms over its surrounding, lavish gardens in Sintra, Portugal. (view all Sintra, Portugal photos)
INTRA, Portugal — My mom, brother, and I are driving a narrow, winding mountain road in the UNESCO World Heritage town Sintra, toward the Romanticist Pena National Palace, when a frantic Chinese man approaches our car, with his wife, daughter, and another Chinese couple behind him.
“Hello! You have any gasoline in a bottle?!” he yells.
“Sorry, it’s a rental car,” my mom replies. “We don’t have a gas can, and our car runs on diesel.”
“Really, our car runs on passion,” Brian mumbles, “the passion of Fado.”
The Chinese man looks back at his family, looking sheepish.
“We should probably help him,” Brian says, though we’re rushing to see Sintra’s castles because they’re all closing early for Christmas Eve.
“Maybe there’s a gas station nearby,” I say, doing a search on my iPhone’s Google Maps.
“Get in!” my brother says to the Chinese man. He joins my mom in the backseat and introduces himself to us as Quon.
“Car gas gauge works opposite,” Quon explains. “The whole week I thought full. Thank you! Thank you!” It occurs to me that this explanation makes no sense, but, nevertheless, Brian redirects our car toward the least scenic destination in all of fairy-tale Sintra: its gas station. After Quon buys a can and fills it with gas, he puts it into our hatchback.
“It really smells like gas in here,” my mom says as we begin driving back up the steep hill toward the Palace.
“Yes, well, there’s a gas can in the trunk,” I say, as Brian accelerates into a tight curve. We hear the gas can tip over.
“Wow, now it really smells like gas,” Brian says. He stops the car. Quon jumps out anxiously and opens the hatchback to investigate.
“It’s miracle,” Quon says. “Gas can tip over on camera, but lid safe.” Quon hands me my camera. “Camera safer in its box.” Relieved that our trip to Sintra has not ended with the three of us drowning in gasoline in our rental car, we continue up the road. When finally we reunite Quon with his car and family, they’re ecstatic.
“We must, must pay you,” Quon says.
“No, just do something nice for someone else,” my mom says.
“It’s Chinese tradition to give gift,” Quon’s wife insists. She runs to her family’s car and returns with a small shopping bag containing a wrapped gift. “A Christmas gift from Portugal,” she says eagerly as she hands it to me through the passenger-side window. “We bought it today.”
“Thank you so much,” I say. “It was great meeting all of you!”
“Thank you! Thank you!” Quon says. He and his family stand in front of their car, thanking us profusely and continuously. “Thank you! Thank you!” Quon’s wife says. “Thank you! Thank you!” Quon’s daughter says. “Thank you! Thank you!” Quon’s wife’s friend says. “Thank you! Thank you!” Quon’s wife’s friend’s husband says.
“You’re welcome! Merry Christmas!” I say.
“Merry Christmas! Thank you! Thank you!” Quon says. There seems to be no stopping them, so Brian simply starts driving away. When we look back, we can see them still thanking us and waving. It occurs to me that a small sightseeing delay for us has become a Christmas miracle for the Chinese families. When I open Quon’s wife’s package, I discover a ceramic azulejo, just like the ones decorating the walls of our hotel. The beautiful, blue tiles seem to be shepherding us through Portugal.
When, finally, we arrive at the Pena Palace at the top of a mountain above Sintra, we find ourselves in the middle of a 500-acre park, filled with trees from around the world and a labyrinth of walking trails. The hilltop is covered in a dense fog, and I feel like we’re floating through a surreal cloud world as we walk past the Palace’s yellow, medieval castle turrets and under a large, stone triton (a half-man, half-fish statue) emerging from a clamshell. In the castle’s courtyard, we discover another abstract Christmas tree to add to our Portugal-has-no-real-pine-trees photo collection: a stone spike adorned with wooden balls attached to metal branches. Next, we take a tour of the Sintra National Palace, admiring its distinctive spiral staircase, a ceiling painted with the coats-of-arms of Portuguese noble families, and rooms decorated with Arabian motifs. Afterward, we head toward Quinta da Regaleira, a castle surrounded by another famously dreamlike garden estate, but, we’re disappointed to discover that the gates are already locked.
“Well, I think it was worth it to deliver a Christmas miracle,” my mom says.
When we return to the Palacio Belmonte in Lisbon, we don our best clothes to meet hotel manager Maria and her family for Christmas Eve dinner. We walk into the dining room expecting a stuffy, formal dinner party, but we’re greeted instead by chaos: kids are playing kickball in the azulejo-adorned rooms, adults are chasing kids through the maze of the palace, and dinner is far from ready to eat. For a dinner party in a fifteenth century palace, the family chaos feels surprisingly similar to my childhood, suburban Christmases in the American Midwest.
“We used to make the kids wait to open their gifts until the adults finally finished their dinner at around 2 AM, but the kids would lose their minds,” Maria’s cousin tells us as we get ready to eat. “This year, we’ve decided to try having Father Christmas deliver the gifts before dinner so that they can play with their toys while the adults eat.” Just as she says this, Santa Claus appears in the next room and doles out a large sack of gifts to the rabid gaggle of children. Quickly, the toys pacify the children, and the rest of us sit around the palace’s enormous dinner table, surrounded by azulejos next to the Christmas tree made from fashion magazines.
Maria was right. We don’t feel at all like we’re at a hotel. We feel like we’re the Christmas Eve guests of an eccentric Portuguese king, one with a penchant for ceramic blue tiles, abstract Christmas trees, and delivering children’s Christmas miracles.
Sintra’s Pena National Palace sits in the middle of a 500-acre park, filled with trees from around the world and a labyrinth of walking trails.
The Pena National Palace sits on a hill above the Sintra town square, featuring a steel, abstract Christmas tree. (photo by Brian Leukart)
Castles to See in Sintra, Portugal
- OVERVIEW: Sintra is a fairytale town filled with surreal palaces and dreamlike gardens, and it’s only 30 minutes away from Lisbon. If you decide to stay the night, consider the beautiful Tivoli Palácio de Seteais. You’ll at least want to see the hotel’s cream and gold interior design.
- PENA NATIONAL PALACE: Often enveloped in a clouds at the top of a mountain above Sintra, the Romanticist Pena National Palace sits in the middle of a 500-acre park, filled with trees from around the world and a labyrinth of walking trails. Yellow, medieval castle turrets and a large, stone triton (a half-man, half-fish statue) emerging from a clamshell transport visitors to another era.
- QUINTA DA REGALEIRA: The most inspiring site in Sintra, this estate’s eccentric gardens feature beautiful fountains, lion and gargoyle statues, shadowed grottoes, and sprawling botanicals. The distinctive gothic palace looms above like a madman’s fantasy.
- SINTRA NATIONAL PALACE: The best-preserved medieval royal palace in Portugal, the Sintra National Palace’s interior features a mixture of Gothic, Manueline, and Moorish styles, including a domed room decorated with 72 coats-of-arms of Portuguese noble families.