After too little sleep, we grabbed a really light breakfast and were out the door by 8:30 for a scenic, one-hour drive to the village of Sintra nestled in the pine-covered hills north and west of Lisbon. A longtime royal sanctuary, it is dotted with 19th century pastel-colored palaces, estates, and villas built in an unexpected blend of Moorish, Manueline (what the heck?), and Romanticist styles. Sintra’s unique architecture and history has landed it on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
We visited two estates with expansive gardens: Quinta da Regaleira and Monserrate. Downton Abbey fans will appreciate the fact that life in the stunning estates of Sintra pretty much paralleled life for the Crawleys outside London.
Quinta da Regaleira was built in the early 1900’s by a man with wealth beyond measure and a very imaginative architect and landscape architect. The grand house, situated on a rise, is split over five floors and has an ornate gothic façade with fairytale flair, gargoyles and all. Personal chapels were the style of the day, so there was a small, beautiful one on the grounds with red Templar crosses laid into the mosaic floor. We enjoyed the inside of the house, opulent stables, tennis court, and expansive garden with its grottoes and fountains. We were especially intrigued by the initiation wells. They are actually hidden, underground, circular, stone towers lined with stairs. In spite of what the name implies, they never served as water sources. Instead, they were used for ceremonial purposes having to do with spiritual enlightenment and mysticism. A large, heavy, stone door pivots open and shut at the secret entrance to each well insuring that only those intended to use the wells and the tunnels that shoot off of them are allowed access. Light as well as visitors enter from the top of the 88-foot deep well we walked down. Best of all there were no crowds what so ever, so we went down twice exploring different tunnels each time. In our group the well was a fan favorite
After our second trip down the well we strolled the gardens and were led by our terrific guide, Teresa, to a break in the trees where a delicious picnic lunch was set up for us, catered by Arturo. We had had so much fun and spent so much time together yesterday it was almost like seeing an old friend. Mariana was there too. It was the loveliest picnic I’ve ever had. Think cloth napkins, hot soup, table cloth, wine glasses, home-roasted almonds, cheese, chicken, an assortment of bread, and a special local dessert.
The second garden property we visited was Monserrate Palace. We roamed the garden with its endless imported plants: ferns from Australia, redwoods from California, cacti from Mexico. The terrain is naturally hilly plus, where needed, elevations had been increased by bringing in tons and tons of natural material to create an even more exaggerated artificial garden designed to look totally natural. Unexpected was a very believable fake ruin that was the cornerstone of one area of the garden. It’s semi-overgrown and moss covered, no doubt just as the landscape architect planned it over a hundred years ago. An outdoor laundry room also took us by surprise with its stone sinks and built-in washboards. The most stunning aspect of the property, however, was the house. After strolling around the lush garden we approached the house from a large pond at the bottom of an expansive, slopping lawn. We looked up and looming in front of us was a huge summer retreat designed in a stunning blend of Arabic, gothic, Moorish, and Indian architectural styles. There were beautiful carved doors, stone floors, marble filigree panels on top of marble filigree panels, marble columns, a dumb waiter, a massive kitchen, and lots of bedrooms. Just like Quinta da Regaleira, the property slowly became rundown and neglected after the owners could no longer afford to keep it up. The furnishing had long ago been slowly sold off leaving the rooms virtually empty but no less grand. Teresa shared her little secret with us that the property, now refurbished, had become so neglected that as a teenager she and her friends used to climb the walls and walk around the inside of the house.
After lingering too long, asking too many questions, and taking an unprecedented number of picture we got back to the hotel two hours later than anticipated after a foggy drive. We had a light dinner in the hotel and headed to bed early.
… For the Insatiably Curious …
Portuguese Jesuit missionaries introduced tempura to Japan.
Pastel de nata was created in the 18th century by Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. THANK YOU clever monks is all I’ve got to say!
Portuguese is the official language of nine countries.
Portugal accounts for 50% of the world’s cork production.
Port and Madeira are popular Portuguese wines.