Sintra; Quinta da Regaleira; Lisbon to Coimbra

Today was dedicated to a day trip to Sintra, which is a small town west of Lisbon which served as the summer residence for generations of the Portuguese monarchy. We jumped on the commuter train which leaves every 20 minutes, and which our Lisbon pass got us for free. It was a 40 minute trip and brought us into Sintra at 11 o’clock. The weather in Sintra was dramatically different from Lisbon or anywhere in Portugal so far. It was chilly, damp and foggy. It had been so long since I’d seen any lush green, or felt even a breath of moisture in the air, that I hadn’t realized how used I’d gotten to the heat and the ever-present smell of dust.

We had planned to visit as many of Sintra’s attractions as we could, including the Castelo dos Mouros - a Moorish-era castle perched on the hilltop overlooking the town; The Quinta da Regaleira, a neo-Manueline house and estate (about which much more below); the Palácio Nacional (which was staging an exhibition on pirates); the Capuchin convent; the gardens of Monserrate, and the Toy Museum if we had time and energy left. Oh, and we had to catch the train back to Lisbon by 5 at the latest.

This was a patently over-ambitious plan, but we were able to eliminate a few things from the list immediately - the convent and gardens were too far from town to reach and return in time, and the fog had closed in on the hilltop and the Castelo dos Mouros, so there wasn’t much point in climbing the hill and then not being able to see anything. So that left the Palácio Nacional, the toy museum, and the Quinta da Regaleira, which we decided to do first. It was about a 20-minute walk through the centre to the outskirts of the town. Sintra is old and quaint, and all the buildings have fanciful roof shapes and bright, cheerful tiles and colours. It lost something in the grey overcast light but it was still fun to see.

The Quinta da Regaleira, though, was a fantastic romantic and mystical confection of a place. It’s owner, the fabulously wealthy António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, who was a gentleman scholar with mystical and alchemical leanings, very much in the Victorian Eccentric mold, collaborated with Italian set designer Luigi Manini to produce his inner vision. The mansion, a neo-Manueline extravaganza, was stunning in itself. The first floor had red velvet doors with elaborate fittings, and rooms with intricate stone carvings and walls painted with murals. The second floor was all small rooms in rich wood, with window and door hinges and latches that reminded me of Gaudí’s work on Casa Battlö. The third floor, though, was… odd. Strangely-shaped rooms with stone spiral staircases to the roof, and a library room with strips of mirror around all four edges of the floor, so that it seemed I was floating in the center of a square shaft of books. I got the very strong impression that the first floor was meant for the public, the second for the family, and the third for Carvalho Monteiro himself. The house’s Gormenghast-like roof had fantastic nooks and strange angles, with terraces that were only accessible from one spot in the house - and a laboratory with its own terrace, with gargoyles in symbolic forms facing the four cardinal directions. One can easily picture Carvalho Monteiro cackling insanely on his roof laboratory terrace in a lightning storm. I was mad with retroactive jealousy. I wanted to be him - wealthy at a time when great discoveries were being made and mysticism and alchemy were not yet absurd, with the time and leisure to pursue any interest I wanted, and the money to build myself a house that suited me perfectly.

The grounds were an even stronger reflection of Carvalho Monteiro’s mysticism. He had had them terraced and sculpted into fantastic gardens, stone outcroppings, grottoes and tunnels, and had build a wonderfully elaborate stonework chapel, couch-house and stable, and a few purely decorative structures like huge walls backing a little fountain, with names like the Fount of Abundance, the Terrace of the Celestial Worlds, the Chimeras Court and the Guardians’ Entrance. There was a labyrinthine grotto winding in and around a little lake - the pillars in the caves descending into the silent green water. The grounds were a perfect allegory - the gardens, worked stone and towers above contrasting with the underworld of still water and jagged, twisted stone below.

There were many paths between the underworld and the overworld. One was a perfect Peter-Pan waterfall and lake with a twisted stone bridge and stepping stones which led to another winding system of tunnels - Sheryl had a flashlight, otherwise we’d have been lost for sure. After one turn we saw light glowing from ahead, and emerged at the bottom of a deep, deep well, with a star in tiles on the small circular floor, and a spiral stair leading up seven or eight stories around the outside edge of the well. The light got stronger and greener as we went up, round by round, until we finally emerged at the lip of the well in a ring of stones covered with soft green moss. The way out of the well was not easily discovered, but we found a secret door behind a hidden pivoting panel of stone. We later realized that this must have been the famous Initiation Well, intended to be an illustration of the ascent of the soul into cosmic enlightenment. One of my favourite parts of the grounds were the ruined greenhouse, an elaborate iron and stone structure with half its small, square window panes cracked and fallen, and the interior overgrown with living plants around the walls and brown, dry dead plants and vines inside, wound around the tables and pillars. It looked perfectly gothic and atmospheric and I was again overcome with a longing to live there and spend my days wandering the grounds, brooding tragically. I told all this to a small black cat I found in the chapel, and told her she was very lucky, but she didn’t seem to care.

We spent more than four hours at the Quinta da Regaleira, when we’d intended to spend no more than one. It left us with no time to see anything else in Sintra, but we didn’t mind at all, being overcome with the wonder of the place. We wandered in a daze back to town, had a picnic lunch and took the train back to Lisbon. We’d hoped to catch another train to Coimbra at 7pm, but after walking from Rossio Station back to the hostel, making tea and arguing with the crazy hostel lady about the price of the last night’s lodgings, getting the packs and walking back to Rossio Station to catch the metro to Oriente Station (during rush hour, which was no fun at all) there were only two minutes until the train left by the time we found the right platform. We would have made it onto the train, and we were about to board, but were told that the train required reservations, and we hadn’t made any because the website didn’t indicate the need. Lesson learned, and we missed that train - but luckily the next came along in half an hour and was only fifteen minutes slower getting to Coimbra.

Coimbra is a small nothing town - there’s no reason for tourists to be there, and no real reason for us to be there either, except that it was en route to Guarda near the Serra de Estrella National Park, and that there was a hostel there. We arrived at Coimbra’s secondary, smaller train station at just past 9:30pm. Our directions said to take a bus to the Plaça da República, but it was late and there didn’t seem to be any buses running. We had no idea where the Plaça da República was, or how far it was from the train station, but we decided to ask directions and walk there. It was a nice night for a walk, but our packs are very heavy and it took us more than an hour to get there. At one point we briefly thought we’d reached the Plaça, but it was only a smaller square full of a huge crowd watching a traditional dancing demonstration. The happy music and happy people, and the bright lights strung along all the main streets, made us instantly like Coimbra even if there was no reason for us to be there. It was hard to pick up the packs again, and the second half was all up steep hills. The hundred stairs to the hostel and the thirty up to our floor just seemed like adding insult to injury, at that point. But the hostel was quiet and the staff were incredibly nice, and put us alone in the loft, a lovely big wooden space softly lit with hanging lanterns, and a nice double bed. It felt like being pampered, it honestly did.

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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