Step into a Fairytale at the Mysterious Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra Portugal
Updated: Jan 17, 2020
Here's my guide to the mysterious Quinta da Regaleira Palace in Sintra Portugal. I think it's the best palace in UNESCO-rich Sintra, an easy 30 minute day trip from Lisbon. The palace is divine and bewitching, a misty building seeped in opulence and mysticism and set amid leafy palms and hot pink bougainvillea. Lord Byron once described Quinta as a "glorious eden."
This is just my personal opinion, of course. I am always a little skeptical of places that are so universally loved, like the nearby Pena Palace. I confess Pena is lovely and eye catching with its contrasting sparkly colors and schizophrenic architecture. It's very Disneyesque.
But the extravagant stony Quinta da Regaleira is the Sintra palace that utterly stole my heart. It seems half real, half imagined.
Quinta was originally a summer home that belonged to the Viscountess of Regaleira, who was from a wealthy Porto family. In 1892, she sold it to an eccentric and superstitious millionaire, Antonio Monteiro, a Brazilian coffee magnate.
Monteiro was born in 1848 in Rio de Janeiro. He studied law at Coimbra University and had a lifelong obsession with the natural sciences. He was rumored to be a Free Mason and was interested in Hermeticism, a philosophy that believes wisdom is attained through the contemplation of the mysteries of the universe.
Monteiro spent 20 years renovating and building Quinta, which was his spiritual retreat. He spared no expense. He was nicknamed "Moneybags Monteiro" and the fanciful estate he built was dubbed "The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire."
With Italian architect Luigi Manini, Monteiro gleefully decorated his buildings with symbols reflecting his mystic ideologies. He used enigmatic images devoted to alchemy, Masonry, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians. A common premise of these philosophies, like Hermeticism, is that a return to nature brings purity and realization of profound truths.
As a result of Monteiro's obsessions, Quinta is an eerie, romantic place. It has 10 acres of dense green gardens featuring a chapel, grottos, fountains, towers, and tunnels. It's part of Sintra's UNESCO designation. And it's a short 10 minute walk from the historic center of Sintra (and there are even sidewalks!) It was first on my list for the day.
The palace and its ensemble are a bit of an architectural curiosity. The buildings are adorned with a heady mix of Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish, Neo-Manueline, and Renaissance features. Naturally, there are gothic turrets and gargoyles.
One balcony caught my eye. It was filled with fantastical winged animals, including what looked like a rabbit and a lizard. There were many plant motifs in the stonework.
In the brochure you can get, Quinta is described as an "imaginary universe of symbolism and metaphor." It felt that way to me, a combination of Pans Labyrinth meets Dan Brown.
Start with the exuberant interior, which, though arresting, is not even the highlight of the place.
The palace contains five floors. You enter through a grand archway and wooden double doors.
On the first floor, there are formal rooms, such as the dining room, music room, etc. There are intricate inlaid mosaic floors, ornate fireplaces, and elaborate wooden ceilings. Although palace has five floors, but you can only explore the first floor.
I don't know if the rooms aren't restored or there is some other reason visitors can't see them. But, judging what I saw on the first floor, I bet there's some good stuff hidden away up there.
But Quinta's garden complex is its crown jewel. It's littered with playful and intriguing follies.
On one of the main paths into the estate is the Promenade of the Gods. Stone statues of Venus, Hermes, Dionysus, and many other Greek gods and goddesses line this pathway, some intertwined with plants. Dionysus is featured throughout the estate. He's a symbol of the mysteries of the Free Masons:
"The Dionysiac Architects constituted an ancient secret society, its principles and doctrines much like the modern Freemasonic Order. They were an organization of builders bound together by their secret knowledge of the relationship between the earthly and the divine sciences of architectonics. They were supposedly employed by King Solomon in the building of his Temple, although they were not Jews, nor did they worship the God of the Jews, being followers of Bacchus and Dionysos. The Dionysiac Architects erected many of the great monuments of antiquity. They possessed a secret language and a system of marking their stones. They had annual convocations and sacred feasts. The exact nature of their doctrines is unknown."
-- Manly P. Hall, Masonic, Hermetic, Quabbalistic & Rosicrucian Symbolical Philosophy
The garden's most visited spot is a surrealistic "initiation well." It may have been used for secret and mysterious Masonic rites, ceremonies, or convocations. It was certainly never used for water collection. You can walk 90 feet down the spiral (and somewhat slippery) staircase into the interior of the earth. It feels deeper.
The well contains nine platforms, which are said to be “reminiscent of the Divine Comedy by Dante and the nine circles of Hell, the nine sections of Purgatory and the nine skies which constitute Paradise.” There are 139 steps. Add up the digits, 1 + 3 + 9 = 13. 13 is a number that symbolizes death and rebirth. At the bottom of the well, there's a mosaic depicting a Rosicurian type cross over a compass.
The true purpose of the well is unknown. And no one knows exactly what transpired down there. But it certainly has the gestalt of a secret society hideaway. Masons sometimes describe themselves as "a society with secrets," "a peculiar system of morality, veiled in allegory and illustrated with symbols." Not very specific, is it? And so it remains a mystery.
Perhaps Monteiro intended it as a place of primitive purity, a symbolic connection between heaven and earth. For symbolism sake, my daughter and I winked and gave each other a secret handshake.
From the bottom of the well, a passageway, hidden from the top, leads to a maze-like web of tunnels beneath the garden. Some are lit up with light strips. Others remain dark and slightly haunted, but are perfectly safe. We could have used a small torch. Honestly, if you really want to explore, consider bringing a small flashlight.
There are multiple entrances and exits to the tunnels throughout the garden. One features stepping stones over a small lake to a waterfall. This is a seriously enchanting adult playground.
The lush garden itself is studded with moss covered fountains, grottos, and, benches. There are follies, or decorative structures, that seem to grow right out of the ground, so well integrated in nature are they. You can feel the primal natural beauty.
Quinta da Regaleira is romantic, like a theater backdrop. You can almost imagine a Shakespeare play being directed there. Just look at the photos below...
Isn't it dreamy? I could have spent many, many hours there. But I was only in Sintra for one day and had to will myself to move on eventually.
The garden is even outfitted with its own chapel. The Regaleira Chapel is a Roman Catholic chapel, and stands in front of the palace's main facade. Its architecture mirrors the palace's, with Gothic and Neo-Manueline elements.
The interior of the chapel is white and richly decorated with frescoes, stained glass windows, and lavish stuccoes. Despite its relatively diminutive size, the chapel has several floors. And it has a subterranean pathway leading to the main house. I guess that made it easy to worship in inclement weather.
Quinta was the #1 highlight of my time in Lisbon. It's an unmissable site in Sintra and perhaps in all of Portugal.
One word of caution though. Quinta used to be considered off the beaten path, a second day Sintra destination. And it's barely mentioned in some guide books. But it's been discovered by tourists and Instagrammers, particularly the initiation well. To enjoy it fully, you should arrive early in the day or perhaps go around 3:00 pm after some of the day trippers have left.
Practical Information and Tips for Visiting Quinta da Regaleira:
Address: Rua Barbosa do Bocage, Sintra
Hours: Open 7 days a week. April 1 to Sept 30 9:30 am to 8:00 pm, Oct. 1 to March 31 9:30 am to 6:00 pm
Entry: 6 euro adults, 9-18 years old 3 euros, under 9 free. There is no online ticket option.
Pro Tip: Quinta is less than a mile walk form the Sintra ration station
Getting there: Take trains from either Rossio Statoin or Oriente Station in Lisbon, approx 40 minute ride. If you're driving, it's straight shot. Just take the A37 and it's a 30 minute drive. There is no parking at Quinta except on side streets, which are typically taken. It's best to park outside the historic center and walk in.
Map of Quinta from the brochure: