In my continuing series of photographs from my three week trip to Portugal back in December 2022 – January 2023 (and yes, I know we’re in May), we stay in Sintra for a look at its most visually striking building, the Palácio de Monserrate (scroll down to view the other posts in this series).
It was our last attraction in Sintra after visiting the remarkable National Palace of Pena, the medieval Castelo dos Mouros, and the magical Quinta da Regaleira. We were beat from walking the Quinta da Regaleira (I’ll say it again – Portugal is not a place for people with bad backs and weak knees) so we hailed a car service outside to take us to the Palácio (about a 6 minute drive). For what is actually a pretty small, sleepy town, Sintra has got some of Portugal’s most visited (and stunning) attractions.
The history of Monserrate starts out in 1540, the point in time when Friar Gaspar Preto ordered the construction of a hermitage here dedicated to Our Lady of Monserrate, following a journey across the Iberian Peninsula when he marveled at the Montserrat monastery in Catalonia near Barcelona.
The estate was then owned by Hospital Real de Todos os Santos as a source of revenue. By the 17th century the land was owned by the wealthy Mello e Castro family with connections to Portuguese territories in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) during the Age of Discoveries. However, after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake the farmhouse became unlivable.
An English merchant named Gerard de Visme rented the farm in 1789 and built a neo-Gothic house over the ruins of the chapel. In 1793-1794 the estate was subleased by English novelist William Thomas Beckford who started to design a landscaped garden. The property was still in ruins when one the greatest English poets visited in 1809, Lord Byron. Its magnificent appearance inspired the poet, who mentioned of the beauty of Monserrate in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, which describes the travels and reflections of a world-weary young man. After that, the property attracted many foreign travelers.
One such traveler was Francis Cook, a rich, 19th century British industrialist and a great art collector. Cook was fascinated by the property and subleased the estate in 1856 before purchasing the property in 1863. From this passion emerged a masterpiece of Romanticism: the Park and Palace of Monserrate.
Cook put his dream into practice in transforming Monserrate into what we know today, combining Gothic and Mudéjar Moorish Revival architecture with neo-Gothic elements. With its exuberant gardens and a palace that represents a true ode to romantic architecture, Monserrate stands as a monument to the refined taste of Francis Cook and the combined genius of its architect James Knowles Jr., landscape designer William Stockdale, botanist William Neville and master gardener James Burt.
The Portuguese government acquired the property and the palace in 1949 before, a few years later, the Park and Palace of Monserrate were classified as a Property in the Public Interest. They form a key part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra ranked by UNESCO as World Heritage in 1995.
In 2000, the management was handed over to Parques de Sintra, which embarked on a thorough intervention that included the rehabilitation of all the roofing and facades and the installation of new infrastructural networks that enabled the reopening of the palace in 2010. The restoration of the interiors took place on full display to the visitors in the period through to 2016. Currently, the palace has been totally restored and recovered the splendor of its former times.
Looking up to the main hall dome from the octagonal central atrium of the palace…
Looking down from the main hall dome to the octagonal central atrium which features a Carrara marble fountain at its center.
The spectacular domed music room features a ceiling made of stucco carved in fine rosettes and busts of women (antique muses and graces)
The library served Francis Cook and his descendants as a working office…
After our visit, we walked back up to the entrance of the Palacio and called an Uber to take us back to our hotel, the lovely Sintra Boutique Hotel right in the heart of Sintra’s historic district. It would be our last night in Sintra before heading out the next morning to our next destination; another UNESCO World Heritage Site – the Palácio de Mafra. So SUBSCRIBE HERE to not miss a future post (you won’t be sorry!).