12 October 2010

Palace and Gardens of Monserrate in Sintra

As you drive from Sintra towards Colares, after you descend from the heights to the valley, the road goes through a village called Galamares and as you exit this village and look above and ahead of you, a vision called Monserrate appears in the distance.

For quite a few years when I first moved here, nothing could be seen of the palace except for scaffolding and green netting and then, in about 2006 (I am not certain of the exact year), the netting came down and this beautiful palace was revealed in its glory.  I had never been inside but had walked around the gardens once before and had managed to obtain a ticket for a visit around the restoration works for my sister and brother-in-law, who found it fascinating.  Yesterday, again thanks to having visitors - does make you visit places you idly think about but never get round to - we went to check it out. 

You can visit the palace and gardens as a separate visit or combine the ticket to visit the other Heritage Monuments in Sintra, so we decided to do the combined ticket as we could then cover the Pena Palace, the Mourish Castle and the Cork Convent.  The cost of this was a staggering 20 euros per person - I would imagine you pay nearly that for one visit to a National Trust property these days.

As you enter from the main road, there are signs indicating the various gardens, from Japanese to Mexican to Scented etc.  We made our way down a winding, cobbled path through an mixture of trees, plants, bushes and every so often a strange water-filled deposit - a basin - which is part of the complicated watering system of the gardens.  As you reach the bottom of this path, it opens out with a glimpse of the towers of the palace.  To the left is what is called 'a tank', filled with small goldfish and an enormous one, which led rise to various silly comments about its provenance.  Along the retaining wall of this piece of water was an insert small water run, which if I remember what I learnt at the Alhambra in Granada correctly, was called 'a rill', something the Moors ran through their gardens which gives off a soothing, trickling sound.

Walking up to the entrance of the palace you notice that a large majority of the plants in the flower beds either side of the steps leading to the palace terrace, are what would normally be termed 'house plants' in the UK.  Very odd to see them neatly spreading in a flower bed.

The palace is incredible to see and its history is even more fascinating.  I won't go into too much detail here because if you would like to know more about it and see photos, please go to http://www.parquesdesintra.pt/, but briefly it started life as an estate which supported a hospital in Lisbon.  Then, in 1540 a chapel was built on the site and in 1601 the whole estate was sold to a wealthy portuguese who had been the Viceroy to India and who sadly died there and never actually lived on the site.  It was then leased in 1790 to Gerard de Visme, a rich English merchant, and he started work on a new house but two years later, he returned to England after subletting the place to William Beckford, at that time the wealthiest man in England - he apparently inherited £1 million at the age of 10 which brought him a rumoured £20,000 a year income - nice work if you can get it in those days. 

Beckford has a rather murky history in England but he was responsible for building Fonthill Abbey (the design supposedly based on sketches he had taken of the abbey at Alcobaca in Portugal) and had lessons as a child from Mozart.  In 1808 he gave up the lease which is thought to be because of the dangers threatened by the French under Napoleon - he was quite correct because at some point the estate was occupied by French troops.  The area was left to its own devices and nature until 1841 when another Englishman, Francis Cook acquired it.  He again was incredibly wealthy - the family were the third richest in the country at the time - and he decided to make it a summer residence - in modern parlance, a holiday house!!  He would occupy it with friends and family for two months in every year.  He also purchased 13 other properties in the area for friends to stay in when they were in residence.  The mind boggles at the numbers of carriages and horses that would have been belting up and down the mountain roads in those days.

The family lost their fortune in the Wall Street Crash and slowly were forced to sell off the 13 properties for friends and then Monserrate had to go.  It was initially offered to the Portuguese State in 1946 but was actually bought by a Saul Saragga who - I could shoot him for it - auctioned off the contents of the palace.  In 1949 the Portuguese State acquired it and does not appear to have done much with it until it was designated part of the Cultural Lanscape of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

The restoration work is on-going and slow but so, so worthwhile.  As you enter the building there is a staircase running up and round to the left, a tiny chapel to the right and then in the centre, a large fountain.  Walk past the fountain and look left or right and you see the most amazing corridors of marble - so reminiscent of the inside of the Alhambra.

The restoration is in its third phase at present and there are very detailed displays around the ground floor showing before and after and how they have been using laser technology.  In one of rooms off the corridor, I believe the old Billiards Room, there is a TV with a slide show that gives a timeline of the history of Monserrate along with amazing photographs of how the interior looked before it fell into disrepair and nature well and truly took over again.  Each of the rooms has incredible views out over the gardens - it has the first ever lawn laid in Portugal - and before the trees grew so tall and before the villas on the hills were built, they must have had an uninterrupted view out to the Atlantic and the incredible Mafra Palace.  We did try to see if we could see our place but although we like to say Monserrate is our neighbour, we appear to be out of view to Monserrate.

The library has been restored fully and must have been an amazing room when it was filled with books - there was a photograph of it and the desk in the middle was practically the length of the room.  All the shelves are edged in leather with gold detail. Wouldn't I have loved to have spent hours in here with the fire lit and books to read.

My one niggle about the rooms you could view in their various stages of repair and dereliction was the use of cheap Ikea centre lights - did not quite fit with the incredible ceilings.

If you have the chance, come and see it for yourselves.  It is literally too difficult to describe in detail but it has a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere and as you walk around the ground floor -there is no access to the other floors - you are literally blown away by the beauty, the architecture and the fact it was a holiday home for only two months of the year.

The gardens are a joy to wander round, with lakes and ruins, an educational workshop and an amazing 'Boulder House' which used to be home to the carpenter on the top floor and the oxen on the ground floor.  The different shades of green are a wonder as well as all the glimpses of the distant Atlantic Ocean.  It does not have a 'creepy' atmosphere like so many wooded places but a peaceful, contemplative one.  I shall be going back again.

1 comment:

  1. I went there 2 years ago and actually preferred the beautiful gardens to the building (because it lacked furniture and they were remodeling). This year I revisited Palácio da Pena which also has beautiful gardens and is definitely worth a visit. Have you been to Quinta da Regaleira?