Quinta da Regaleira (Sintra, Portugal)

by smokinchestnut

Did you know that not all vacations are spent in complete, all-encompassing bliss? Don’t get me wrong; most of our trip to Portugal was absolutely incredible. But there were times when I became homesick for our dog, I became sick-sick from the food (or lack of vegetables), and I became sick of traveling, period. Two weeks is a long time to be away.

Luckily those feelings of sickness were fleeting, but they can still leave you a little irritated at the world, or perhaps at your significant other when you’re supposed to leave for Sintra right after breakfast and all of the sudden you’re closing in on noon and you haven’t even left the hostel! So let’s just say part of the walk to the train station was tinged with huffy impatience, with me stalking ahead of Matthew until I ran out of steam (and my sense of direction). And thankfully, my feelings of irritation are always less of a slow burn and more of a swift flare, quickly replaced by forgiveness, acceptance or whatever happens to be in front of me.

Which was about to be Sintra.

Our last two days in Portugal were spent visiting this small little mountain town, which is only a 45-minute train ride away from Lisbon. We had just come back from Aveiro (which I have yet to post about but will one day…. maybe) and were excited to spend more time around Lisbon and in our awesome hostel. When we told Gui, the hostel’s expert sausage chef , that we wanted to visit Sintra, he told us to go to Quinta de Regaleira.

“I have been eight times with my family and we never get sick of it. I don’t even think we’ve seen all of it, either.”

Coming from a local, this sounded pretty good. I had a vague idea of what it was – some rich dude’s estate – but we figured we’d visit a bunch of other spots in Sintra that day. “We can do this all in one day!” Ha, very funny. Our first stop was lunch in Sintra – as it was past lunch time at this point and my hunger demon was threatening to rise – where we split some spaghetti and meatballs at an overpriced Italian restaurant on the square. We consulted our map and found out it would be an easy 20 minute walk to Quinta da Regaleira.

Before continuing, I have to say that this town revived me – and I mean that somewhat in the literal sense. After walking around too many crowded cobbled streets, each one lined with shops and tourists and people trying to sell us their wares, I yearned to be out in the country. I wanted to go hiking, to see something green, to be immersed in nature’s tranquil influence. To me, a New York City penthouse has nothing on cottage in the country.

And before you think I’ve gone off the deep end, I’ve just never been a city girl. So Sintra was balm to my travel-weary, sick-of-the-city self. I immediately fell in love with its damp, moss-lined streets, where many shops and quaint hotels sat idle in the off season. I could barely keep my enthusiasm down and practically tap-danced my way to our destination. I felt a burgeoning sense of excitement as we came closer and closer to Quinta da Regaleira.

I stood awestruck in front of the main palace while Matthew paid for our entrance to the grounds. It reminded me a bit of Hogwarts and I briefly entertained a vision of me in my first year robes, following Hagrid into the Great Hall and waiting to be sorted into GRYFFINDOR! Then Matthew materialized (or maybe he apparated?!) in front of me and I sadly snapped out of my reverie.

Sad until we started walking around millionaire António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro’s estate. He bought the 10-acre property in 1892 and commissioned Italian architect Luigi Manini to begin construction in 1904. By 1910, the elaborate estate was finished, with its winding trails and secret grottoes decorated with symbolic structures and statues.  Here ends your history lesson.

In between my ecstatic exclamations and stunned exhalations, I snapped photos and tried to capture the essence of what Quinta da Regaleira embodied to me. We wound our way through random paths that had no rhyme or reason to them, except to bring you somewhere that made your mouth drop open in awe. Matthew would check the map periodically while I raced around like a hyperactive, sugar-fueled child at Disney World. And if you saw me here, you would have to say that’s an accurate analogy.

We looked up at mossy castle turrets, smiled at each other, and then raced to climb each one’s slippery stairwells. One of them afforded us a view of Sintra far below, looking like some magical modern kingdom. This is probably close to reality, as I’m almost certain only very rich people can afford living in or around the town.

Matthew, who held the treasure map (as I like to refer to it), kept telling me something was coming up that would “blow my mind.” Sorry, my mind had already EXPLODED upon arrival, but I decided to humor him. So he attempted to guide my easily-distracted self – “What about this path?! Oh my gosh, look at the kitties! I love moss. I love moss!” – and my attention deficit brain towards this secret place. We came upon the structure below and Matthew ran inside so that I could take a photo of him behind the statue. To the right of the photo you can see a darkened entrance to somewhere unknown. Oh, the surprises it had in store. There was a bit of light at the end of the tunnel so we walked towards it.

And we ended up here, in the Initiation Well, modeled after the initiation practices of the Knight’s Templar. I stared at him and once I found my voice I kept saying “Oh my gosh. Look at this place! Oh my gosh… Look at – wow. Wow.” I had never seen or been to anything like it before. We were alone save for one lone man who was closer to the top of the well (and who could probably hear my inane and repetitive exclamations echoing up from below). There aren’t too many words to describe it all, so I’ll let the photos do what they were meant to do.

The photographer in me curses at some of these photos because I allowed parts of the wall to get in the way of a balanced shot. I wished I’d had a wide angle lens to capture some of the photos but all in all, I’m happy with most of the shots I took here.

A string of lights guided us towards a grotto, which eventually led us back into the open. It rained on us briefly, but we were well-prepared and pulled out our jackets. We happened to be passing by some gorgeous flowers so I switched to my 50mm lens and waited for the rain to die down a bit. The flower shots turned out pretty well and I wish I could grow that species here in Indiana. I also wish I had this entire estate to myself, but that won’t happen either.

The inside of the palace was pretty uninspiring. The entire upstairs was poorly-lit and each square room contained scraps of information about the history of the architect, the owner and the estate. I freely admit this portion of our journey did nothing for me, but that’s probably because A) it was inside an old, musty palace that didn’t photograph well and B) I have ADD when it comes to history lessons. However, this makes Matthew a perfect partner for me because as I was taking photos of the property, he would share little tidbits about the estate. In fact, he did this throughout the trip. Very helpful!

So, after passing from owner to owner in the mid-1900’s, Quinta da Regaleira is now considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. There were a few pieces of furniture left in the palace’s first floor and the only thing that caught my attention was the enormous and elaborate door knocker to the main hall. I wanted it. And I still want it.

We eventually found our way back outside and, with the remaining time we had left before it started getting dark, we chose to visit the grottoes. We could have made our way to the top of the estate to see cork trees and other sights, but Matthew thought it would be fun to visit the “Playboy Grotto.” I kept giving him looks of confusion when he kept repeating that and he said “You’ve never heard of the Playboy Grotto?”

No, Smash, I have not. And no, this grotto was not named the Playboy Grotto but it was probably just as frightening. We found an open, dark entrance and decided to go in. After a few seconds of walking in complete darkness and not seeing any light up ahead, we pulled out my phone and turned the flashlight app on. We walked down, down, down… until I started getting uncomfortable. How long had we been down here? How much further were we going to go? What day was it? Was Matthew really my husband or was this about to turn into one of those creepy Saw movies?

We came to a fork in the dark tunnel – again, we’re alone here, with no one else to save us from imminent doom – when Matthew said he’d like to keep going. Suuuure, that’s what everyone in the movies wants to do before their head gets chopped off! But I said fine, we’ll take a right here and if there are any forks in the paths up ahead, I think we should turn back. I did not want to get lost in some underground tunnel while a random earthquake decides to hit Sintra. What? I don’t have an overactive imagination. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

As you can see, since I’m writing this post right now, we lived. We came out in an underground pond, where we saw ducks happily quacking in the distance. “If anything, I can always swim my way out of here!” Seriously, my brain wouldn’t stop with the Saw images. We did end up coming across another couple, who had their phone flashlights out in front of them and who laughed shakily as we passed by them. See? I wasn’t the only wimp.

All in all? An incredible and memorable trip. I don’t know that I’ll ever experience anything like it again.