Monserrate: a must-see palace in Sintra

Monserrate - ©mariarebelophotography.comSintra has many romantic palaces but each has something unique to offer. One of our favorites is Monserrate, a palace surrounded by luscious gardens built in 1856 by Francis Cook, a famous British art collector.

When the Portuguese government bought the estate in 1949, the palace was in disrepair. The costly restoration work started in 1999 and only finished recently. It was worth the wait. We now have the privilege of seeing how the palace looked when the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen visited it in 1866. Here’s what he wrote:

“Large white bell-flowers hang from one tree; pearl-shaped, rose-colored berries from another, juicy fruits and sun-filled colored flowers grew here. Down over the smooth velvet lawn rippled the clear spring water. Above this fresh green, the castle rose in Moorish style, a fit subject for the Arabian Nights or a romantic fairy picture. The sun sank into the sea, which became rose-colored; the brightness of the sea and sky was reflected magically upon the marble white walls and decorations, filling with light the large mirror-clear window panes. The air was so warm, so still, so penetrated with the perfume of flowers, that one felt carried away from reality.”

The Seteais palace

The Seteais Palace, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2014.

Seteais means seven sighs, a name inspired, according to legend, by the romance between a Portuguese noble and a Moorish princess.

The Seteais palace was built in Sintra in 1787 by the Dutch consul and later sold to the wealthy Marquis of Marialva.

In 1954, the palace was converted into a luxury hotel. Booking a room at Seteais guarantees you’ll have a memorable experience. If you don’t stay at the hotel, you can still experience its unique atmosphere by visiting the elegant bar for a glass of white port before dinner.

In 1802, the Marquis of Marialva invited the Prince Regent, John IV and his wife for a visit. To celebrate the occasion, the Marquis built an archway decorated with busts of the royals. A Latin inscription praises the prince for his wisdom and prudence. No one could guess that five years later the Portuguese royal family would flee to Brazil to escape Napoleon’s troops.

The echoes of these twists and turns of Portuguese history have long faded. What remains, is one of the most romantic places in the world.

 Click here to see the Seteais Palace website.

A famous beach house

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One of the most famous beach houses in Portugal is Casa Branca (white house) in the village of Azenhas do Mar. Architect Raul Lino designed it in 1920 to be his Summer home. Lino had to choose between building within the village perimeter to gain access to electricity and running water, or to forego these modern comforts and place the house on a cliff with an incredible ocean view. For him, the choice was obvious.

Raul Lino is famous for synthesizing the vernacular traditions that go back to Roman times to create the archetypal Portuguese house. The Casa Branca is based on this archetype, but Lino made two surprising choices. Instead of using the traditional green color for the windows, he chose bright orange. Then, he painted the orange roof tiles white, thus accentuating the orange of the windows.

Orange is the complementary of blue and so the windows of Casa Branca became the complement of the sea. It’s as if, to be beautiful, the sea needs someone admiring it from the window.

The place to ask

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On the steps of the stairs that lead to the lookout point at Azenhas do Mar, gently inscribed in white chalk, are the words: “eu vou casar contigo” (I’m going to marry you).

Was this promise well received? Did they exchange wedding vows and live happily ever after? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Azenhas do Mar is a perfect place for a marriage proposal.

A village by the sea

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The French use the expression “village perché” to describe a village on top of a hill, overlooking the surrounding landscape.  One of the prettiest village perchés in Portugal is Azenhas do Mar. Built on a cliff in the Colares region near Sintra, it has amazing views of the Atlantic ocean.

If you rent a house in Azenhas do Mar, you can spend the day listening to the waves and watching the sea try different shades of blue and green. It’s a very fine use of time.

A dream palace

The Pena Palace, Maria Rebelo, digital print image, 2012.
The Pena Palace, Maria Rebelo, digital print image, 2012.

The story of the Pena Palace begins in the 16th century. King Dom Manuel was hiking in Sintra when he sighted Vasco da Gama’s sailboats arriving in Cascais from their voyage to India. To celebrate da Gama’s feat, the king built a monastery on the top of the Sintra mountain. But, over time, the building fell into disrepair and was eventually abandoned.

When Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Queen Dona Maria II, visited Sintra, he saw the derelict monastery surrounded by a barren landscape. Ferdinand imagined a beautiful palace and an enchanted forest. He bought the property in 1838 and restored the old monastery to use as a Summer residence. Later, he built an adjacent palace with larger rooms to accommodate state functions. The monastery is pink and the new palace yellow, so they are easy to tell apart.

Around the palace, Ferdinand created artificial lakes and an irrigation system. He studied the soil and supervised the plantation of trees brought from all over the world.

In 1853, Dona Maria died and Pedro, the couple’s elder son, inherited the Portuguese throne. Ferdinand was offered the throne of Spain, but he loved living in Pena so much that he refused the offer. The Pena Palace is the dream of a German prince who fell in love with Portugal.

A novelist’s wine

Eça de Queiroz (pronounced essa de kaeroz) is a great 19th century writer whose novels cast a critical eye on Portuguese society.  Eça loved wine from the Colares region, and so do his characters. Here are the words of Teodoro, the protagonist of Eça’s novel, The Mandarin: “What a day! I dined in selfish solitude in a private room at Hotel Central with the table full of bottles of wine from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, and the Rhine, as well as liqueurs from every conceivable religious community, as if I were trying to quench a thirty-year-old thirst. But the only wine I drank, until I was satiated, was from Colares.”

Colares wine is made with a unique varietal called Ramisco. Farmers plant this vine on sand, digging a deep hole until they find a layer of clay to attach the roots. All this hard work paid off during the phylloxera epidemic because Ramisco was one of the few varietals to survive the disease.

If you’re in Sintra and you’re interested in wine, visit the nearby town of Colares to drink a glass of Ramisco at the local cooperative. It’s not everyday that you can taste a wine unscathed by both the phylloxera plague and the criticism of Eça de Queiros.

Adega Regional de Colares, Alameda Coronel Linhares de Lima, 32, Colares, tel. 219291210, email: geral@arcolares.com. Wine tastings by appointment. Click here for the Adega web site.