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But what is this beauty??? A former neo-Gothic romantic-botanical and Mudejar hospital, more English than Lisbon…
Going through it is a real change of scenery: pastel-colored walls, corridors of arcades divinely carved in stucco lace, a central atrium under a dome of finely chiseled wood, tiling subtly decorated with volutes, all ordered according to a circular plan … everything participates to create an intimate and mysterious atmosphere. We find ourselves far from the pomp or the rustic, from Versailles and its grandiloquence or from the old country house. No, this palace has its own look, and its own aire, that of a getaway in the 19th century as romantic as oriental!
A few kilometers from Lisbon, there is a very small town in the green mountains: Sintra. For a long time, it played a role of pleasure identical to that of Bath for the healthy people from London, or Honfleur for the Parisian bourgeoisie, namely: a peaceful place close to the capital where the rich came to go green and show themselves to richer people.
In addition to the calm of a Sunday in an old town inhabited by ancients, who reign there, the place is sublime. From its center, more or less touristy buses depart – depending on your appetite and your taste for walking – and will drop you in the heights, let you discover four palaces of great splendor!
I’m not used of being so dithyrambic, these place are incredible of beauty, charm and history, to say the least!
The Moors Castle (a mix between a fortified castle and the Great Wall of China), the very famous and very colorful Pena National Palace (secondary residence of the royal family for ages), the extravagant madness of the Quinta da Regaleira, and finally, the least known and yet the most interesting in my opinion: the Palace of Monserrate.
So what’s the story of this palace? It began in 1540 with Brother Gaspar Preto who took over the place to dedicate it to Our Lady of Monserrate (Nossa Senhora de Monserrate), after a Catalan chapel dedicated to “the Virgin of Monserrate”, which he particularly appreciated.
We are still a long way from the current palace, since Preto’s idea was to make it into a hospital (Todos os Santos Hospital), of which he was rector, and to feed his patients with agricultural products grown in the park.
In the 18th century, everything was passed down to the viceroy of India, no less! However, the terrible earthquake of 1755 did not spare the place… Back to square one!
Or almost, because while the French were revolting, the rich Englishman Gérard de Visme, acquired the place and built a nice little house in neo-Gothic style. In 1793, the also very English William Beckford, art critic, writer and politician, perpetuated the history of the place by enlarging the hilly park and giving it more English airs, wilder, more in tune with the times, more romantic!
However he was not too attached to it since in 1809, when the young Lord Byron visited the place, and wrote the poem « Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage« , it was rather a question of desolate ruins than of « palace » properly said.
This did not prevent the tourists of the English elite from adoring the place set up as an obligatory stage of the Portuguese trip, romanticism being more than ever in vogue in the minds of the North.
For neophytes, I am not talking about romanticism as in beautiful love stories and cliché silliness, but dark, contemplative and introspective romanticism which transformed a whole generation of artists of the 19th century into rebel teens, disturbed about themselves, but sumptuously creative. If there is a love story, it is populated by ghosts and ends badly, in short!
Let us return to our Lisbon palacito. The history of the place continues in 1846, again with another wealthy Englishman: the famous industrialist and art collector, Francis Cook (1817-1901).
Francis bought the property and, with architect James Knowles, initiated a whimsical but harmonious update of what was left of the Visme house.
When Cook was later honored with the title of Viscount, he took the name of the place and thus became Viscount of Monserrate.
The restoration embellished structural neo-Gothicism with oriental forms inspired by India and Arab “Mudejar” architecture. “Mudéjar” designates Moorish architecture passed through a Christian filter, notably that of Spain. The Andalusian cities of Granada (and its magnificent Alhambra Palace) and Seville (and its just-a-little-less-sumptuous Alcazar Palace) provide prime examples!
The Cooks only lived there during the summer, the place being very dark in the winter.
As for the park, Cook made it one of the most famous botanical gardens in Portugal. Almost 1,000 rare and precious species were sent to him from all over the world. Today the park has 3,000 endogenous and exogenous species. Areas were therefore built that reconstruct the floral universe of the countries of origin of each set of plants. At Monserrate Palace, you can go from Mexico to Japan in a few minutes.
Today this exoticism dialogues very nicely with the initial romantic design of the park, largely reinforced by Cook who placed waterfalls, real false ruins, or false real virgin forest …
Another interesting aesthetic is the continuity between the architecture covered with forms evoking flora and plants, and the very nature that surrounds the building. Without turning the palace into a cabin in the woods, nor playing on the rustic, Knowles managed to naturalize and make perfect its integration into the environment. What do you think?
The park returned to the government of Portugal in 1949. Then in 1995, the UNESCO World Heritage Site included the entire Sintra Mountains in its safeguard lists, under the title of “Landscapes of Cultural Interest of the City of Sintra ».
Finally, between 2000 and 2010, the palace and its park were authorized to receive the public. It was chosen to restore them to the splendor they had at the time of Francis Cook.
To this end and as a well-deserved highlight, the relief of the Madonna and Child, dating from the Renaissance, attributed to the Italian Gregorio di Lorenzo and which belonged to Sir Francis Cook, returned to the palace in 2017. Since then, the management team of the place tries to recreate as well as possible, and without kitsch, the environment such as the Cook family had created it.
An express tour?
The entrance leads you to a small octagonal hall: the heart of the palace. It functions as an atrium, and a Carrara marble fountain occupies its center. A dome wonderfully carved in stucco and wood crowns it.
From this « heart » start three corridors surmounted by a row of small columns and arcades finely carved with arabesques. Relatively dark, the effect has some dramatic and intimate airs.
These corridors serve bright rooms with pastel, pink or pale blue walls. Although loaded, the whole thing remains elegant, right?
One of these rooms, the music room, is circular in plan and consists of a huge bay window overlooking the park. Its ceiling is made of stucco carved in fine rosettes and busts of women (antique muses and graces) mark out its junction with the wall. Imagine yourself, alone in this room, playing an instrument while contemplating the immense park, its hills and its trees…
Art tree at the palace. Since 2013, the Monserrate complex has had a totem: a sculpture carved from the trunk of a 7.5-meter-high eucalyptus tree! The tree, condemned to death by a fungus, became a work of art under the blows of the chainsaw of the Welsh artist Nansi Hemming. The artist brought out various animals (viper, dog, eagle, owl, tarantula, salamander…).
Ecological on top of all that. To top it off and award it the title of best tourist spot of the year 2020, Monserrate Park and its farm run exclusively on renewable energy. Water, sun and wind are harvested just like turnips and yucca, to supply the farm with electricity.
In short, why is it interesting?
- Together with the Pena Palace, located on the neighboring hill, it is one of the major examples of romantic architecture in Portugal.
- By its owners (and their contractors): the place is as much a part of Portuguese as English history and thus shows that culture makes borders.
- It shows a good example of the continuity of a building over time despite practical uses, an earthquake, successive abandonments, uncontrolled tourism…
- The place is so interesting that in 2013, the complex was awarded the “European Garden Prize”, in the “best development of a historic park / garden” category. »
- Combining influences and romantic taste for Orientalism, the Palace of Monserrate offers a nice summary of the 18th century art.
Nb. Do not stress if it rains « on THE day » of your visit! On the contrary, it’s even better because it’s more romantic, more Gothic and even more majestic!