Nestled in the lush green hills surrounding Sintra is the extraordinary Quinta da Regaleira, a stately home quite unlike any other. This marvellous home and its unusual gardens were designed at the turn of the 20th century by the Italian architect Luigi Manini.
The estate was built as a summer residence for António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, a Brazilian-born philanthropist and collector, and his family. Some of Portugal’s most renowned artists contributed to the project and Manini himself spent 14 years working on it. The resulting estate is a remarkable feat – a unique piece of architecture and landscaping.
Quinta da Regaleira is on the outskirts of Sintra, about a 20-minute walk from the old town. You can also catch a bus to the residence, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been open to the public since June 1998.
When I arrived at the estate, I was given a map and it was only then I realised how big the place is. The extensive gardens stretch all the way up the hillside and are filled with fantastic follies, water features, and hidden caves and passageways.
I started my visit with a short stroll around the lower part of the gardens. Following the map, I made my way towards Leda’s Grotto, then carried on to the Regaleira Tower, following the path (above left) up to the tennis courts, before making my way back down the hill via a couple of fountains (including the Fountain of Regaleira, above right), a grotto and a little lake.
I then walked back towards the entrance via the Promenade of the Gods, a tree-lined avenue featuring statues of Greek and Roman gods such as Ceres, Hermes and Pan. Walking around I was amazed at the many elaborate features in the gardens, and I couldn’t help but admire the imaginative minds behind it and the huge amount of work that must have gone into making it a reality. If I was mega-rich and could build my own estate, this is the sort of place I’d build.
Having got my bearings and familiarised myself with the gardens, I decided to explore the mansion. The house, which is built in a neo-Manueline style across multiple floors, is spectacular. The elaborate grey stone house features all manner of turrets, spires and balconies, along with lots of ornate carvings.
You can wander around the house by yourself or join a guided tour – I decided to look around by myself. The inside of the house isn’t as magical as the outside (but given how ornate the exterior is, it would have to be truly magnificent to top it). Inside it’s a fairly typical Edwardian stately home with attractive wooden ceilings and great views from the upper floors.
By the time I’d finished looking around the house it was lunchtime, so I headed to the cafeteria for a quick lunch. I then made my way to the nearby chapel (above). The chapel, like the house, is very ornate with intricate carvings on the outside. The inside doesn’t disappoint either with elaborate decorative features and frescoes on the walls.
By now I’d only seen around a third of the estate, so I headed back up the hill past Leda’s Grotto to further explore the gardens. I soon found myself by an exotic-looking water feature, the Lake of the Waterfall (above left), with stone bridges, stepping stones, a waterfall and a grotto. I slipped inside the grotto (above right) and found myself at the entrance to a tunnel, so I decided to follow it.
When I came out, I continued walking until I reached the Cistern, a stone terrace with a bizarre castle-like turret (above right). I climbed to the top of the turret, then made my way to the stone facade opposite (above left). Like everything else in the estate, the facade was elaborate and ornate, and featured a number of towers and doorways.
I passed through one of the doorways into another tunnel and followed it, emerging the other end by the Initiatic Well. I strolled around the upper paths of the gardens, clambering up shortcuts off the main pathways before turning around and going back to the well. The Initiatic Well is a 27m-deep subterranean tower surrounded by a spiral staircase. I followed the staircase down to the bottom of the well, marvelling at the dramatic sight above me.
I then slipped through another doorway, rejoining the network of subterranean tunnels, following the passageway, which was wet underfoot in parts, for quite a while, before eventually emerging at the Grotto of the East. The underground tunnels were a little spooky, especially when there wasn’t anyone else around, but great fun to explore as I didn’t have a clue where I was going or where I was going to come out.
I loved Quinta da Regaleira. It’s one of the most extraordinary, unusual and enjoyable stately homes I’ve visited – and I’ve visited quite a few! I turned back into a child during my visit, happily stepping inside every grotto I came across, climbing the many towers and turrets, and exploring all the secret passageways. You need to set aside at least a couple of hours to see everything, but it’s worth it. A must-see if you ever visit Sintra.