Escapade to Sintra
During my city trip to Lisbon I decided to dedicate a full-day to visit Sintra. I had already been there 3 years ago and saw some of the city, the Pena Castle and some gardens. This time, I really wanted to see Quinta da Regaleira and some noble palaces...
When I decided to go one more time to Sintra, I knew what I wanted to see but not how it would happen. I considered taking the train from Rossio station and do the 30 min journey from Lisbon but then, how to get to my final destination? I remembered that Sintra was a maze of small streets and that a lot of travelers were a bit lost, as such I opted for a tour. I have searched GetYourGuide for a few hours before finding what I was looking for!
Indeed, on GetYouGuide you will find a majority of excursions bringing you to Pena Castle, the historic center of Sintra, Cascais and Cabo da Roca. But I wasn't interested in seeing again Pena or in visiting the coast and Portuguese version of Knokke le Zout... I wanted to see something different and even more stunning: Quinta da Regaleira and its Freemason history, the Monserrate Palace and explore Sintra some more. Noble palaces are actually way more stunning and interesting than Pena which was a royal castle. Nobles had a lot more money to spend and extravagant tastes to share!
I found one excursion focusing on Quinta and Monserrate which also included a wine tour. It didn't have a lot of reviews but honestly, I didn't care because they were good and I wanted to go! So I booked it for 48€/pers, got my voucher and looked forward to this visit.
The evening before my tour, I received a WhatsApp message from the company telling me that my driver would be waiting in front of my hotel at 8:30 AM the following day. I liked the fact that the provider kept me informed and offered me a point of contact, it's very reassuring. The next day, I woke up early to go get a breakfast from a confeitaria and waited in the lobby. About 5 min after I sat down, my guide was walking in and greeted me: it would be a private visit in the end, no other traveler...I was so happy!
I had a guide and a minivan to myself for the day which meant that there was more freedom to speak, ask questions and maybe deviate a bit from the tour. We hit the road to Sintra, chatting about Portugal and getting to know one another. It took a bit less than 30 min to arrive in Sintra, right on time to enjoy the historic center before the tourist rush and to get a coffee and a doce from Casa Piriquita, a bakery founded in 1860 which makes the Queijadas and delicious Travesseiros. I walked down the sinuous streets of Sintra to the historic center to enjoy the view and wander around, nothing had changed a bit! I had about 30 minutes of free time before meeting-up with the guide at Casa Piriquita, it was plenty of time to explore and take pictures. I really liked not having any tourist around me, arriving early is really awesome!
An espresso and doce later, both the guide and myself were ready to jump back in the van and to drive to Quinta da Regaleira, the first real stop for the day. On the way I received an explanation on the history behind this palace, also known as The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire! That's saying something. So this palace was owned by António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro and designed by the Italian Luigi Manini and it runs over several hectares of land. This property is known for all the enigmas surrounding the buildings and their architectural composition. When you visit this palace you can expect to learn about Masonry, Alchemy, Templar Knights but also about 4 different architectural styles: Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Manuelian (from the name of the king Manuel who also influenced the style of the Monastery of Jerónimos).
With that said, we parked the car and entered through the wrought iron gate and bought a ticket. Even the ticket office looks nice... First you'll see the old stables but then...That's when the experience truly starts. In the property you'll see a lot of luxurious nature and trees you wouldn't expect to find in Portugal but you'll also admire buildings of a rare beauty. They are located here and there but all together it makes the perfect picture. I soon realized that the beauty wasn't just in front of me, it was also below the ground.
I was taking a picture of a lovely fountain when my guide informed me that this was actually a gate leading to the entrails of property and more specifically, to the masonic initiation well. We decided to stick a bit longer above ground to discuss a bit more the history of the place and walked paths leading us to the above the ground entrance of the well. This well has a 27m staircase leading you down, and a Templar cross at the bottom. It is designed after the 9 circles of Hell from Dante's Inferno which brings a meaning of death/rebirth...It is highly symbolic and climbing down there felt quite special to be honest.
You can only but wonder what it was like to be part of an initiation when the well was supposedly in use...Looking up I could see the skylight illuminating the spiral architecture of the well and I felt like I went back in time for a second. So far I hadn't seen many tourists besides a few Korean girls but I could hear them coming, it was the perfect moment to start moving into the tunnels leading in/out of the well. The tunnels (also known as "grottos"/caves) represent elements (air, water, fire, earth) and will lead you to different parts of the property. They look natural but they're actually men made, like a lot of things around Quinta da Regaleira. We took first the water tunnel which brought us to a pound with stone steps to "walk on water". It made for some lovely pictures and we then headed to the air tunnel that took us back to the surface.
By then it was time to head to the Fountain of Youth, a small fountain offering drinkable water that didn't make me any younger...at least I haven't seen a change! and then we walked to the Chapel, a little gem of architecture that was being repaired. From the outside, it looks like each tower has been woven in lace...I couldn't see much of the interior but it definitely was more beautiful than the outside, in the same style. It was a real pleasure to just admire every little detail that makes this monument special. Everything had been thought through.
A few dozen meters away I could see the palace itself and that was another architectural masterpiece. I passed in front of a stunning bench on my way to enter the palace and a few statues with esoteric symbols. You'll notice here and there details that, once you put them together, make a lot of sense. I kept seeing goat heads, turtles, toads and snail statues and heard afterwards that these were not randomly chosen images, they're all linked to the motto "Festina Lente" or "Make Haste Slowly" in English...Which is a concept I had heard of in watch-making but it was also the motto of several important figures through the history. Considering the heritage of this property, it is also possible that this motto is linked to Masonry and initiations as the quest for the knowledge of oneself and excellence is slow and in opposition to speed and recklessness. When you visit Quinta da Regaleira, make sure to pay attention to all these small details, they have a signification...
But let's go back to the palace itself. The entrance was even more impressive than anything I had seen in the property, even more detailed. Inside, we could only explore the ground floor but it gave us a taste of what the higher floors would be like: rich and exuberant.
It was almost lunch when we finished our tour of Quinta da Regaleira. In 2,5 hours we saw the essentials but you can really spend half a day to a full day exploring. Our next stop was the wine tasting which took place not too far from Sintra. I won't describe it too much since it is simply a wine discovery but it was interesting to try some of the local flavors.
We then headed to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. My guide had heard that it was a really good address and brought me there. It was a family owned restaurant, quite big actually but absolutely lovely. I was greeted by an old man (probably the owner) who took me to my table. The place was empty of customers and so I had the staff all to myself. I was given a basket of bread with butter and then it was time to decide on the food. The waiter asked me what I preferred, meat or fish and based on my answer (fish) he directed me to the polpo. I could have it 3-ways and I picked with rice because I had never tried it before... When my lunch arrived, it looked like a stew and I was intrigued. The first bite tasted so good that I emptied my bowl rather fast and forgot to take a picture ^^'
One bowl was enough to stuff me and I couldn't eat dessert after that! I asked for the bill, paid and hopped in the van. We were supposed to head to Monserrate Palace but we made a stop along the coast to see a lovely viewpoint. I found this spot actually nicer than Cabo da Roca and there is a village nearby that I would have liked to visit if I had had the time. The air was full of iodine and fresh, it felt nice to hang out for a little while after lunch. We then finally drove to Monserrate Palace.
We parked near the entrance of the property and walked to the ticket office. The entrance fee costs 8€ and allows you to visit the park as well as the palace. I was so impressed with the amount of tropical plants and trees in the gardens...Like a monkey tree or Mexican varieties! We walked for a good half an hour before arriving to the palace itself: a mansion full of character and history! When you first look at it, you'll immediately notice the Arabic, Gothic and Indian influences that Sir Francis Cook infuses the mansion with but this place is unique for more reasons. Monserrate Palace was actually designed as a summer house and was equipped with the latest technologies back in the 1860s (electricity switches, heating system and more). A photo exposition will tell you everything you want to know about how this palace was used, built and who its residents were. It's really a place that you need to visit if you go to Sintra.
After visiting the various rooms and the exposition at Monserrate, it was time to head back to Lisbon. I would have loved to stay some more but it would have required to have an accommodation in Sintra... On the way back, we had some traffic but nothing too bad fortunately!
I am really happy to have booked this tour, it allowed me to see precisely what I missed 3 years ago with a great guide! He knew everyone, had great recommendations and was quite knowledgeable. Plus I benefited from a private tour which was the icy on the cake!
If you would like to book the same tour, it is organized by Lisbon Natives and available on GetYourGuide.
If you have questions or want to share your experience in Sintra, drop a comment below ;)