The discovery of Sintra was the most pleasant surprise in Portugal! The tiny city full of steep slopes and tight corners is absolutely charming, the air is fresh and dewy, people are welcoming and talkative. Our stay ended in apotheosis with a place that I will never forget: The mysterious Quinta da Regaleira, an estate classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO within the “Cultural Landscape of Sintra”. A stone’s throw from the center of the city, this palace (Quinta in Portuguese) is however forgotten by the visitors who cross the area, who usually stop at the National Palace and Palazzo da Pena. This intricate construction extends over 4 hectares and is a mix of several architectonic styles and the pure, unleashed imagination of the entomologist Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, its first owner.
The Quinta da Regaleira has several nicknames, including Palácio do Monteiro dos Milhões (Palace of the Monteiro of the Millions), a nickname given by the press of the time, referring to the name of its owner and the important amount of money that he invested in the construction of the enigmatic place. This fascinating man was as complex as his creation: he was metaphorically described as the human embodiment of his famous Leroy 01, “the most complicated clock in the world.”
I can only thank my best friend Carolina for this invitation. As I live in France now, and she lives in our homeland, Brazil, we meet somewhere in the world from time to time. We were finally together after months away, and she handed me an envelope. Inside, the photo of the Poço Iniciático (Initiation Well or Inverted Tower), the most known construction in the Quinta da Regaleira. “You’re going to love this place”, she said. I became obsessed since the visit, actually.
Due to the complexity of the constructions, so dense in symbolism as a grimoire, the only possible way to understand anything is to visit with a guide. Here’s why.
The palace and the garden are the work of Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro and Luigi Manini, the Italian architect, painter, screenwriter and scenographer to whom Augusto has appealed. It took them 4 years to complete this massive project, completed in 1910. The art of Manini, who has brought to life Monteiro’s brainchild, can be fully perceived when we visit the place. The Quinta is pure visual storytelling; everything was thought to mean something.
From the first meters, the knowledgeable guide pours loads of information about the statues that adorn the garden. Nothing is left to chance. Amidst so many icons it’s possible, however, to identify the main symbology: Alchemy, Freemasonry, The Order of the Knights Templar, The Divine Comedy of Dante. The dualism seems to be the cornerstone (the pun was intentional) of the place. Every representation has its counterpart, as a means to revindicate the primordial balance.
This garden is thus much more than a succession of intriguing places: it’s a coherent narrative invisible to unskilled eyes. Both the orientation of each allegory in the garden and the progression among them have a meaning: that of the initiatory quest.
One of the theories about this garden is that it served as a place of initiation for future Knights Templar, ultimately representing the infinite cycle of death and rebirth, the Samsara.
Unable to tell you all the symbols and mysteries that abound in Quinta da Regaleira, I will share my favorites. Two places particularly marked me: the lion guarding the garden and, naturally, the Poço Iniciático.
After a row of mythological statues, we arrive at a junction guarded by a lion. With a proud look, he represents the guardian of the underworld in Dante’s Divine Comedy as we leave this world to the next.
The four elements
Without the guide it’s hard to notice that, facing the lion, the lampposts on the wall are not equal: each of them has a base, and on each base, different animals: a turtle, a snake (or a salamander), a toad and a snail. They represent the 4 elements: water, fire, earth, and air. The turtle for water, the snake for fire, the toad for the earth and the snail for air. Do snails fly? The guide explained that “Everything is attached to the shell of the snail. The spiral represents the infinite progression to the heavens.”
Below, the turtle, the snake (or salamander), the toad and the snail. Unfortunately, they’re withered and badly eroded.
These 4 animals are slow and resourceful. They reflect the famous Latin expression “Festina Lente” which means “Make Haste Slowly”: “Better a safe commander than a bold”, one of the favorite quotes of Emperor Augustus. This expression means that as part of an initiatory quest, in the journey for a better knowledge of oneself (typical of the romantic context of the time), slowness is necessary to progress in a fair way. It means the praise of slowness and the struggle for excellence, and the rejection of speed, recklessness, and ignorance. Our guide teaches us, with a mischievous look, that this motto is also attached to the Freemasonry.
The snail was also chosen for its great symbolic value: the spiral represents the infinite, the Fibonacci numbers, the cosmic order of growth and decay, fertility and barrenness (the dualism mentioned above). The spiral is also an important Judeo-Christian symbol, illustrating the breath of life. Thus, the snail also represents the initiatory journey, with an idea of a spiraling labyrinth and progression ultimately represented by the Poço Iniciático.
Towards the bowels of the Earth
This is the mesmerizing spiral, the emblematic place that made me want to discover Quinta da Regaleira: The Poço Iniciático, the mysterious staircase in the shape of Dante’s Inverted Funnel described by Dante’s Hell: the Malebolge.
This underground tower takes us 27 meters down, into the depths of the earth. Both symbolically and physically. This well and its adjacent labyrinths lead the initiate from the darkness to the light. It is a true rebirth that is thus offered to him/her, the earth symbolizing both the maternal uterus and the last resting place.
The progression through this spiral staircase is marked by the levels, the nine circles of Hell of the Divine Comedy of Dante, and also the Paradise and the Purgatory. We go down the damp steps, and little by little we disappear in the shadows whilst a disturbing otherworldly feeling and an intense moss smell overcome the senses.
Once in the heart of the well, I admire the center of the sphere, decorated with a wind rose, coated with a thin layer of water. This one also has several levels of symbolic reading and it’s hidden within the cross of the Knights Templar.
We follow our guide and enter the labyrinthine tunnel network. It represents both the inner quest and the paths of life: life is intricated and little actions we take today may develop in unknown ways: the butterfly effect. The good choices make it possible to leave the labyrinth, whereas the bad ones mislead unlucky initiates.
Our guide leads us in this quest and we quickly walk the path in the cave to a waterfall that marks the exit. A passage of stones makes it possible to cross a small basin that leads to the “external world”. We are reborn! And speaking of mazes, I couldn’t avoid remembering the “Bog of Eternal Stench” from the movie “Labyrinth”, with my immortal beloved David Bowie and the gorgeous Jennifer Connely. If you’ve seen it, the stones in the photo below will look familiar. The comparison seems inappropriate and even disrespectful, but it was just a Pavlovian reflex… 🙂
Symbols and mysteries: they are everywhere!
Outside these two spaces, there is a multitude of other interesting places to discover, symbols and mysteries to solve. Here are two examples:
An eclectic chapel
Beside Christian representations, Manini hid in the chapel a whole series of pagan symbols, and also those belonging to other cultures and religions, as well as to Freemasonry. By deference, the symbols of Freemasonry (pentacle, triangle, snail) are all found in the entrance of the chapel:
Through the ages and its different owners, this building has undergone many transformations. But we still find the mark of Manini, his attention to detail and his taste for storytelling. The upper floors provide a measure of the immensity of the architect’s work, with line drawings illustrating different parts of the estate, and you can climb and access towers and pathways to see the estate from a plethora of angles:
Solve all the riddles of Quinta da Regaleira is a herculean task… But we can always try!
Sintra is just 30 minutes from Lisbon, you can take the train at the Rossio Railway Station
Opening hours: 10am to 8pm from April to September (and until 5.30pm / 6.30pm the rest of the year)
Guided tours 8 times per day in high season
Price: 6 € (4 € reduced rate)
Trip: 10 minutes on foot from the center of Sintra
Official Website: click here