Pena Palace in Sintra is top of the visitor’s list of places to see when in Lisbon. And it is indeed spectacular – not only in its position, but in its overwhelming palette of colours and extreme design. The story behind it is fascinating, too…

It was an unusual arrangement when Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg- Gotha married the Portuguese queen, Maria II. According to Portuguese law, until such times as a child was born, Ferdinand could only be called Prince Consort, not King. Undertaking his matrimonial duties with vigor, he simultaneously planned an extraordinary architectural construction to be built in the Serra de Sintra. It was to become his legacy… the exotic Pena Palace.

Ten children later and with his building project well underway, by 1853 Ferdinand had been Portugal’s king for 14 years. But when Maria died, following the delivering their eleventh child, he reverted to being a prince again. This time, Prince Regent, ruling on behalf of his eldest son.

Now a widower with a large family and an almost finished palace, Ferdinand had ambitions to see it completed. Avoiding the oppressive heat in Lisbon, it was to become a summer home and the focus point of Ferdinand’s new life.

Challenging tastes
From the outset, Ferdinand faced criticism for the Palace’s impractical location, perched on top of the second highest mountain in the Serra; it was reached by a treacherous zig-zag road. Some people denigrated its ornate style, saying it “exhibits a cacophony of minarets, crenellations, battlements and dome.”

Visitors on their arrival were met by a spread-eagled stone Triton sprouting tree roots instead of hair. Holding up a Neo-Gothic window, the grotesque figure presented an image that perplexed most Portuguese. From below in Sintra, for much of the year, the palace seemed to float unnaturally in a hazy mist. According to the townspeople, its architect, Baron von Eschwege, was a Bavarian eccentric better suited to designing castles on the Rhine. It was evident that Ferdinand’s family homes in Austria, Slovakia and Germany were unconventional compared to local tastes. Despite this general disapproval, the Prince Regent pressed on with the finishing touches to complete his summer home.

At the same time, over in England’s Isle of Wight, Ferdinand’s cousins Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were undertaking a similar but more lightweight building project. Constructing a predictably conservative summer residence, Osborne House was conceived as a place to escape from London and the stresses of court life.

Like Ferdinand, Albert was often subjected to criticism by the public but unlike him, Albert was never elevated to the status of king. Even after fathering nine children, he remained Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Prince Consort. English Parliamentary law prevented – and still prevents – anyone who is not a member of English royalty from becoming king.

When Victoria and Albert purchased Osborne House, they immediately had the original building demolished.  The new house was designed by Albert in an Italian Renaissance style with two belvedere towers. By comparison to Pena Palace, it was a much simpler construction with easy access, a private beach and views across the Solent.

Victoria and Albert kept in contact by letter with their recently-widowed cousin. They had met when they were children and in more recent years as married couples. Shared topics of interest included the planting out of the gardens and grounds to enhance their summer homes.

Prince Albert’s knowledge of landscaping and forestry enabled him to plan and oversee the Osborne estate, while Ferdinand introduced a selection of striking and uncommon trees to Pena Park. Originating in diverse countries and collected over many years, Portuguese arborists were enthralled to see Sequoia trees, Red Cedars, Magnolias, Japanese Cryptomeria and Chinese Ginkgo. Close to the palace, the garden was planted with ferns from Australia and New Zealand and this area was named The Queen’s Fern Garden, after Maria.

Sadly, Ferdinand no longer had a queen and his duties as Prince Consort came to an end when his son Pedro V came of age. By now superfluous to royal requirements in Lisbon, he spent most of the year alone in his fairy tale palace on the mountain top in Sintra. Known by the Portuguese public as Dom Fernando, he was soon to embark upon a fairy tale romance. Still a relatively young man at 44 with a palace like no other, he was cultured, handsome and distinguished: “so tall they said he could light his cigar from the gas lamps in Lisbon”.

On the minus side, he was lonely and felt he was leading a purposeless life. It was hardly surprising that he fell in love with the beautiful Elise Hensler who he first saw in performance at the Teatro São Carlos.  She was a trained opera singer and 20 years his junior.

A new chapter
They were soon married and lived a happy and secluded life enjoying the palace and the glorious outdoor surroundings of Pena Park. To please his Swiss wife, Dom Fernando commissioned an extra special love nest to be discreetly located in the grounds. Built in the style of an Alpine chalet it reminded her of Switzerland where she had grown up.

On his death Dom Fernando bequeathed the palace, the chalet and the grounds to Elise but unable to afford the maintenance, she sold the entire estate to the then King Dom Carlos I, and moved to live abroad.

Words: Carolyn Kain

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