Quinta da Regaleira (try pronouncing that one correctly!) was stupidly left for the last on our day trip to Sintra from Lisbon. After having hiked the Moorish Castle, huffed and puffed through the Pena Palace, trawled impossibly through the National Palace in the blazing sun, we were done. Pushing ourselves to climb the 2 km uphill (since no taxi was willing to go such a short distance), we were ready to give up and turn back. But something about the exterior walls beckoned us. So we dragged ourselves into Quinta da Regaleira and kicked ourselves for not having visited this phenomenal site first.
A short history of Quinta da Regaleira:
It was only after our visit, once we’d discovered a small smattering of its secrets, that we were desperately intrigued about the owner and story behind this fascinating wonderland. Without giving away too much, let me just leave it at this – there was a definite sense of the otherworldly emanating from every little corner of this place. But let us put things in perspective for you first. What began as a well-sized estate in the late 1600s, Quinta da Torre was renamed a couple of centuries later by a new owner – the Baroness da Regaleira. The end of the 1800s was when the destiny of this elegant summer retreat took a mysterious turn. Purchased and subsequently expanded (to give it a pentagonal shape) by Carvalho-Monteiro, a distinguished bibliophile, collector and philanthropist who painstakingly determined the design of his estate, it is so well located between the Royal Palace and Palace of Seteais. He first commissioned a French landscape architect and then an Italian set designer who worked tirelessly to incorporate his mysterious iconograpical vision into the Neo-Manueline style of the estate.
The fantastical secrets of Quinta da Regaleira
As we entered, our hearts had been beating fast, and we were hot, red cheeked and sweaty from the uphill climb. Quickly, our breathing slowed down to a normal pace and our cheeks returned to a normal colour as we cooled down in this leafy, shaded sanctuary. Only for a short while.
As we made our way in, things got curiouser and curiouser. Like Alice in Wonderland, we peeked around every corner with trepidation. To begin, nature appeared to have simply burst into life at Quinta da Regaleira. At the peak of summer, everything was lush, green and dense. Diffusing the bright sunlight, setting everything aglow. As we looked at dandelions and butterflies floating about, we half expected them to turn into fairies. There was something magical about this place that made us want to talk in hushed whispers.
Lake of the Waterfall
“Look in there,” I whispered to Charles. We’d just turned a corner, and a murky green pond stretched out before us. Studded with stepping stones, flanked by a little path that met a bridge over said pond, passing treacherously close to a waterfall, I certainly expected fairies to fly about our heads now. This was our first glimpse of paths leading into the intricate web of caves and the underground network that ran across the property.
The unfinished well
We continued on, quickly realising the expanse of the property was large, but not as daunting as it looked on the well-illustrated map. One of the caves leads into a well that cannot be ascended, as its construction remains unfinished. Whether that was an incomplete task left unfinished as the architect ceased work at Quinta da Regaleira, or a purposeful one to signify the importance of persistence towards one’s goals remains obscure.
The Initiatic Well
Probably the most famous icon of Quinta da Regaleira, this well remains shrouded in the most exotic of mysteries. Located in the centre of this mystical magical paradise, this is where the estate’s masonic theme shows most obviously. Climbing down the spiral staircase, it seems to get cooler, darker, mossier and more isolated. The 139 steps total up to the number 13 – the number of death and rebirth. 22 niches along the way, a tarot significance – the Major Arcana. Some say the nine levels correspond to the nine circles of heaven, or the nine circles of hell. What initiation rites were performed here? Or was this where Carvalho Monteiro descended to disappear deeper into his subconscious, letting his conscious float like a far away source of light in the distant opening to the sky? On the floor at the bottom, lies a rose compass. With colours representing alchemist processes, and the four elements of earth, wind, water, fire, we hear it signifies the quest. What was this quest? The thing about masonic esotericism from whatever we’ve managed to unearth is based on this shroud of secrecy. Anything could be questioned, pondered or sought out. We’ll never know. All we knew was, if these damp, moss covered walls could talk, oh the stories they’d tell.
The Portal of the Guardians
With our heads still reeling from the questions and unexplained discoveries, we backtracked on the beaten path through the tall grass. Stopping to marvel at dragonflies, cobwebs and this strange landscaping that seemed to allow most anything to grow in absolute abundance. We found ourselves in a little gazebo, and looked down to a strange gateway of sorts. Double-checking with the map, we realised we were at a spot called the Portal of the Guardians. Beneath it hid an entrance to Quinta da Regaleira ‘s vast network of wells. We just turned and looked at each other wordlessly. We were tired. Tired in a way I cannot possibly express, but the only thing that fuelled us on was curiosity. An insatiable need to know. This was one of those moments, when we realised why travel, and why it’s such an indispensable part of our lives.
Cave of Leda
We kept on walking, and came across a greenhouse. So there was a method to this madness after all? Peeping through the windows, we purveyed all of that which lay within. It looked like something right out of Harry Potter or some similar realm of magic. I almost expected those plants to posses some sort of magical qualities too! We descended and entered a large cool cave, greeted by the sound of gushing water. Within it sat the statue of the Greek mythological Leda covering a grotto through which seeped water.
The Main House
Passing a line of oak trees and a chapel, we took a break in the outdoor cafe and then dragged ourselves to the Main House. I found it odd that the Main House sat tucked at the very edge of this vast property. I have an appallingly meagre understanding of the Masonic world given that there are rumours my ancestors were a part of this secret tribe. But Charles, with all of his unnecessary reading and information gathering recognized symbols throughout the house, and he couldn’t stop marvelling at it in a hushed almost ominous voice. Intricate Gothic, Neo-Manueline and Classical works adorn not just the paintings, but everything from the mosaic floors to intricate light fixtures. Standing at the window, I looked out, for a moment imagining what Carvalho Monteiro’s thoughts were as he himself stood her several centuries ago.
Before visiting Quinta da Regaleira we thought we’d seen the work of the craziest architect in Europe. Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona had certainly blown our minds. But having explored Quinta da Regaleira, we wondered, just how many more of them were out there? Have you seen something similar on your travels? Tell us in the comment below!