The Castelo dos Mouros in Sintra – Or how I overcame acrophobia in Portugal

The Castelo dos Mouros in Sintra – Or how I overcame acrophobia in Portugal

with 22 Comments

 

Standing on the outer fortifications of the Castelo dos Mouros, Kerstin is holding out her hand to me. Come closer! Take my hand; you really can’t fall from here. I keep looking down at the valley of Sintra, while clutching at every available rough patch on the stonewalls. The town center doesn’t seem very far away. But in between lie infinite granite boulders and sharp rocks on the 40% steep gradients. My legs begin to shake, my heart rate raises, and I start to feel dizzy, nauseous and weak.

 

I was never afraid of heights when I was a kid. As a teenager, I even made fun of people who were scared to cross a suspension footbridge. I would run and hop from one side to the other, without worrying about the altitude. I wish I could do that right now, right here in Sintra. Really, why the hell do I have acrophobia now?

 

Can you see the ocean? What is over there? Kerstin takes her time to walk over to me. Stop yelling. And yes, you can see the Atlantic from up there. Now hold my hand, it’ll be OK.

 

 

Perched high above the town of Sintra, the Castelo dos Mouros is not really a castle per se, but a military outpost, which consists of a double belt of military walls. Now standing inside one of the 5 fortified towers, I’m feeling a bit safer, and can finally let go of Kerstin’s hand and stop clinging to the walls. On the brochure that we got at the ticket office, it says that this castle was built by the Moors in the 8th century, and that it became an important strategic point during the time of the Reconquista in the 11th and 12th century.

 

Looking over the Serra de Sintra, I’m trying to imagine how Christian forces attacked this military stronghold during the Middle Ages. In 1093, the Moors managed to repel an initial Christian crusade led by King Alfonso VI of Castille. But in 1147, they ran out of luck and lost to Afonso I, the first king of Portugal. Legend has it that the Moors surrendered voluntarily to the Christian army, when they learned that Lisbon was conquered. But didn’t the Moors still fight back? Did they really abandon the Castillo dos Mouros without even trying?

 

 

Left with my unanswered questions and doubts, I turn around to look for Kerstin, who already left the tower to meander on the castle walls. She’s not very far away, and I know that she would come back for me if I asked her to. But I decide that it’s time to control my fear of heights. Stay where you are, I shout over to her, and climb down one step at a time, while controlling my breathing.

 

In the past, whenever I got too scared of heights, I would walk fast and avoid looking down. But rushing never helped to surmount my fear. So this time, I decide to change method. I slow down my pace, and stop every 5 to 10 seconds or whenever I feel the need to halt. Holding on to the merlons, which are pierced by a narrow, vertical embrasure, I peer through the slit, once designed to observe and fire if the need were to arise. The horizon seems infinite. It draws a thin line over the hills and the plains, stretching west to the Atlantic Ocean, and east to Lisbon.

 

 

I close my eyes and imagine myself jumping off the crenelated parapet. My heart immediately begins pounding. So I take one deep breath, open my eyes again and see myself still standing on the rampart. I’m safe. I advance a few steps, while repeating my breathing/closing the eyes-experiment several times, until I reach Kerstin. Are you all right? she asks. Yep, just playing with my acrophobia.

 

At the next vantage point, I decide to walk in front of Kerstin, because not having anyone waiting for me helps to reduce the stress. I keep making stops to take deep breaths, and force myself to look down the valley while telling myself that there’s nothing to fear.

 

 

As we move forward, it suddenly occurs to me that the steps of the Castelo dos Mouros, as well as the walls of the castle are in a rather good condition. That is because the whole Moorish Castle was reconstructed under King Ferdinand II, after it was totally ruined by the devastating 1755 earthquake and almost forgotten.

 

Obsessed by art and good life, Ferdinand II acquired a large part of the Sintra region and ordered the different medieval properties to be metamorphosed with romanticized features. The Castelo dos Mouros was renovated so it could be viewed from the Pena Palace, whereas the grounds were conceived to be used by the king’s “visitors” as a romantic place for relaxation and contemplation.

 

 

Behind the last fortified tower of the Moorish Castle, I can finally see the colorful Pena Palace, atop another lush green hill in the Sintra Mountains. Even from afar, one can easily recognize it as a 19th century Romanticist castle. Let’s go visit that fairytale castle, I say. Somehow, the way back to the exit seems to be less steep. Or am I just less scared of heights now?

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Castelo dos Mouros, Sintra, Portugal © Travelwithmk.com

Follow Mei:

Traveler - Storyteller

30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, Mei loves eating stinky cheese and raw food, as well as listening to Kerstin’s stories while driving on long road trips. She speaks 7 languages, and wishes she had time to pick up Ancient Greek. She’s afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

22 Responses

  1. Punita
    | Reply

    Sintra is such a stunning place, like the rest of Portugal. We missed going to this castle, though 🙁 I love how you weave yourself into the narrative, without obstructing the information angle. Subscribed to your blog. Writers like you are hard to come by!

  2. Agness of eTramping
    | Reply

    Sintra seems so awesome and outstanding, Mei and Kerstin! This place definitely needs visiting soon. Is one day enough to explore it?

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Sintra is doable in one day, but two days would definitely be better to explore the different castles and palaces more in depth. 🙂

  3. Meg Jerrard
    | Reply

    Congrats on conquering your fear of heights! For some reason I’ve become more and more apprehensive of heights as I get older. I love exploring though, so would definitely not miss a walk on the castle walls. It looks very similar to the Great Wall of China – glad you made it to the end for the views of Pena Palace and the Sintra Mountains. And maybe you did conquer your fear if the way down was easier!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Meg! I keep controlling my fear of heights since our trip to Lisbon and Sintra. In Crete this summer I managed to hike without fear, so I guess I got some progress. 🙂

  4. Cat
    | Reply

    Wow the view from up there is gorgeous! So glad that you overcame your fear for height. It’s absolutely worth a visit from your beautiful pictures!!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes Sintra is totally worth visiting! And I’d say you should spend there at least 2 days or return for a second time if you’re staying in Lisbon!

  5. Anna @ shenANNAgans
    | Reply

    Congratulations on overcoming your fear of heights, I agree with you if you don’t control irrational fears like this, they get worse (well, so the books say), we shall see just how brave I am when I jump out of a plane (a challenge coming up for me).
    Beautiful pics and the Pena Palace, Sintra sound and look amazing.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you Anna! I’m not sure if I’d ever jump out of a plane though! Haha…

  6. AllGudThings
    | Reply

    Portugal looks beautiful and your pictures too. I liked your style of writing and the way you have shared your feelings while standing at the top and the technique you used to overcome it. The views from top might be amazing,

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you! Portugal is such a wonderful country, that’s why it was easy for me to take beautiful pictures. 🙂

  7. Drew Seaman
    | Reply

    I visited the Castelo dos Mouros years ago and loved it. It was great to remind myself of the trip (where I drank far too much Vinho Verde everyday) and learn more about the history. I loved the Pena Castle too, but the view from Castelo dos Mouros was my favorite in Sintra actually.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      The view from the Castelo dos Mouros is definitely more breathtaking than the ones from the Pena Palace! Did you also visit the Quinta da Regaleira? Such a gem, right?

  8. Linda de Beer
    | Reply

    I am also increasingly struggling with a fear of heights as I get older. Not something a traveller can really afford! For those views, I would also brave standing on the walls of Castelo dos Mouros.

  9. Tom
    | Reply

    You did very well with facing your fear of hights! Courage is not the absence of fear but the power to do something even though you fear it. And from all the pictures you show us, it was absolutely worth it as well 😀 Imagine how afraid the Christian soldiers must have been in conquering this well fortified outpost!

  10. Travel Textbook
    | Reply

    Such a great post! Portugal looks so beautiful.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thank you! Yes, Portugal is a wonderful country. We loved Lisbon, Sintra and Porto, and can’t wait to return to explore more in depth! 🙂

  11. Marcus and Mel
    | Reply

    We were here last April and also had some good weather and brilliant views. The castle, the Pena Palace and Sintra are definitely worth a visit and they are quite easy to get to from Lisbon.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Hey Marcus and Mel. Glad to hear that you had great weather too in April! Indeed, it’s so easy to travel to Sintra from Lisbon that we chose not to stay overnight, and to return there a second time.

  12. Wow, you are an archaeologist! Would love to meet you sometime somewhere. As someone who is scared of heights, I can completely relate to what you say. I have felt my legs wobbling and my heart beating faster and my vision getting blurred.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Sure, we should meet someday! 🙂 There are different techniques to overcome or control your fear of heights. What I did in Sintra was just one of them. Some people prefer to just avoid going to such places, but I think it would only get worse in time.

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