What better place to spend your birthday than at a castle? My husband and I share the same birth date, which just happened to coincide with our trip to Portugal. We decided to spend the day in a sweet, picturesque little town called Sintra. Sintra has a ridiculous number of castles and palaces littering its countryside, to the point that there was no way we would be able to see them all in a single day trip. So we chose two: the Palacio Nacional da Pena (National Palace of Pena) and Castelo dos Mouros, otherwise known as the Moorish Castle. So this is where we’ll begin.

Moorish Castle map
Map of the Moorish Castle and surrounding grounds

The Castelo dos Mouros and National Palace of Pena can easily be reached by the 434 tourist bus which leaves from the visitor centre. The buses take a few different loops depending on which sites you plan to see. If you’re really feeling energetic you can hike all the way up the rolling hills to these sites, but we decided the bus would suit us fine as they ran quite frequently (roughly every 20 minutes during high season, and about every 40 minutes during low season) and drop you off right at the entrance. We began at the Moorish Castle, which was the first big stop.

Moorish Castle
Castle keep where the civil or church authorities lived. It was the last stronghold in the castle in case of enemy attack.

The castle’s official history began as far back as the 10th Century, when it was built as a military fort by the Muslim populations that inhabited the Iberian peninsula. It was an outpost for the city of Lisbon, and acted as a control tower for the Atlantic coast and the land to the north. But occupation of the area itself goes back even further, to Neolithic times (at least to 5000 BC). Ceramic fragments have been found in the region from this time period.

Sigurd I, King of Norway and the first European king to participate in the Crusades, led an incursion into the castle in 1109 AD. Moorish rule over the castle ended in 1147 AD after King Alfonso Henriques took Lisbon. Following this Christian Reconquest, King Alfonso had the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim built, which was the first parish church of Sintra. The church and fortifications continued to be used throughout the reign of Fernando I (1383). By the 15th Century, use of the castle and fortifications had ceased and the site was virtually abandoned.

In 1839, King Ferdinand II began a campaign to renovate the castle in the 19th Century Romantic style. He turned the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim into a romantic ruin. It now houses an interpretive center for the history of the castle, with artifacts found on site during various rounds of archaeological excavations.

Interior of the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim
Interior of the Church of São Pedro de Canaferrim

During the restoration work conducted under King Ferdinand’s rule, part of the Christian necropolis located around the church was damaged. A small tomb was built to re-inter the remains that had been unearthed. A crescent and a cross were carved into the tomb, with the epitaph, What man joined only God may separate. This inscription inferred that they could not identify whether the remains were of Christians or Muslims.

Moorish castle tomb
Tomb (identified with skull and crossbones)

You can still walk along the sentry walkways along the castle walls to this day. This perspective offers spectacular views of the town of Sintra below:

Moorish Castle walkways

You can also pop down into the cistern, which was designed as a vaulted reservoir. It could store up to 600 cubic meters of water. And there is still water in it to this day!

Moorish castle cistern

These holes were used to store grain back in the castle’s heyday (or hayday if you’re feeling punny):

Moorish Castle granary

You can easily spend a few hours at the Castelo dos Mouros, though there isn’t much to see inside. Most of the interesting bits are outside, including walking along the outer wall and the beautiful grounds surrounding the castle. Do take advantage of the augmented reality points located on the green interpretive plaques around the site, and there is also a downloadable app called “Talking Heritage” that can also add more substance to your visit. It’s available for:

  • the Palace and Parks of Pena
  • Parque of Monserrate
  • the Convent of the Capuchos
  • the Moorish Castle.

One last parting shot before we go:

Moorish Castle tower

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