Lord Byron raved about Sintra, his ‘glorious Eden’. Once the summer escape of Portugal’s royal and wealthy, Sintra is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site popular with Lisbon day trippers for its romantic architecture and lush vegetation.
Lisbon is rarely blighted by miserable weather but as the last day of our trip greeted us with an icy drizzle, we escaped the slippery cobbled slopes on a 40 minute train ride from Rossio station to this glorious Eden recommended by our mad, bad and dangerous friend.
A moody fog hung around the waists of Sintra’s bejewelled hills, hiding the imposing ramparts of the 10th century Moorish castle atop. We snaked up the road, passing Hotel Lawrence, an old haunt of Byron’s, towards the supernatural realms of the Quinta da Regaleira estate.
Built in a motley of Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Manueline styles, the palace was sold at the end of the 19th century to Brazilian millionaire and eccentric entomologist António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. Together with Italian set designer Luigi Manini (of La Scala fame), Monteiro transformed the surrounding gardens into a labyrinth of secret tunnels, grottos, lakes, wells and towers. His fascination with secret societies, alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians inspired the design of this metaphysical paradise.
The ‘Initiatic Well’ is probably the garden’s most recognisable feature (from many a ‘things to see before you die’ countdown), reached from either the top of the garden’s wooded slope through an inconspicuous moss-covered opening or via a series of underground tunnels that will bring you to the bottom of the 27 meter ‘subterranean tower’. Apparently built for masonic rituals and initiations, the well was designed to realise the esoteric relationship between heaven and earth. Maninii later designed Monteiro’s tomb, which was built to Masonic proportions and laden with similar symbology.
Back down towards the house along a wooded pathway, thick with ferns, sits a Roman catholic chapel framed by a pair of Chinese Magnolia trees. The magnolia was already in bloom when we visited in January, its rosy eyelids bright against the fog. Inside, the chapel errs on the side of unholy with its depictions of Catholic saints embellished with phantom pentagrams.
As the light faded, we waved goodbye to the inside of Millionaire Monteiros bizarre mind, frothing with mythology, Olympus, Virgil, Dante, Milton and Camõs, for the more palatable Pasteis de Sintra (sugary egg custard and pumpkin in flakey pastry) waiting at the bottom of the hill before our journey back to Lisbon.
Trains from Lisbon Rossio to Portela de Sintra take 40 minutes and return tickets cost just 5 euro. The village is a short walk from the train station, where all the main sights are signposted.