The Sintra region in Portugal is known for its enchanting allure. Unsurprisingly so, since the cultural landscape is speckled with historic castles, gothic mansions, and extravagant palaces. Although most visitors flock to the Pena Palace, the Monserrate Palace is just as intriguing. The 17th-century Moorish villa is surrounded by multiple monumental gardens, creating the illusion of stepping right into a real-life fairy tale.
Monserrate is considered to be one of the most beautiful heritage sites from the romantic era, inspiring travellers, writers, and poets all around Europe. The palace’s history, however, has always been turbulent; not everything in the garden has always been rosy. That is why, today, I’m going to tell you about the story behind the Monserrate Palace.
A Medieval Chapel in The Mountains of the Moon
The story of Monserrate all began in 1540, with an old chapel for Our Lady of Monserrate. The late-medieval chapel used to stand on the same spot where the palace is today, looking out over the Sintra Mountains. These mountains played an important role as the Lunae Mons (Mountains of the Moon) in the ancient world: the area symbolised the mythological hiding place of Diana the Huntress. In Roman times, the goddess of the hunt, nature, and the moon carried the name Cynthia, a name that transformed into present-day “Sintra.”
Sintra symbolised the mythological hiding place of Diana, ancient goddess of the hunt, the moon, and nature.
The First Palace and The Devastating Lisbon Earthquake
Monserrate eventually transitioned into a quinta (country estate) in 1601, when the wealthy Mello e Castro family leased the property. Then, in 1755, the Great Lisbon earthquake left the residence uninhabitable. The earthquake caused fires and a tsunami, nearly destroying the entire city and severely affecting nearby areas, including Sintra. Many years later, Gerard de Visme decided to rent the estate in 1790 and constructed the very first palace of Monserrate, along with a landscaped garden.
Scandalous Romance in the Literary World
After the first palace was buit, Monserrate began turning heads in the literary world. In 1793, William Beckford subleased the property from Gerard de Visme and added new features to the gardens. He was a British aristocrat, novellist, and travel writer who enjoyed exploring southern Europe. His reasons for moving to Portugal, however, were not quite ideal. Beckford had married a Lady in 1783, but his affair with young William Courtenay became a great scandal in 1784. His sexuality was frowned upon in British society, which led Beckford to move abroad and go into self-exile.
Beckford’s reasons for moving to Portugal, however, were not quite ideal. He had married a Lady in 1783, but his affair with young William Courtenay became a great scandal.
Eternalised in Classic British Poetry
Gerard de Visme passed away in 1797 and Beckford continued living at Monserrate until 1808, after which the estate became abandoned. A year later, Lord Byron visited Monserrate and became fascinated with its desolate, yet romantic character. The young writer recognised the estate’s former opulence and wrote about Monserrate in what became a classic work of poetry: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.
Millionaire Sir Francis Cook Rescues the Abandoned Palace
The Monserrate estate continued to deteriorate for many years, until Sir Francis Cook decided to buy the quinta in 1863. The millionaire owned the hugely successful Cook, Son & Co. textile company, which allowed him to invest in the renovation of both the palace and the gardens: a truly enormous project. He hired James T. Knowles as his architect and collected exotic plants from all over the world, adding fantastical features, like an artificial waterfall and a false ruin. To this day, following the paths will make you feel like a video game character, completely immersed in a historical adventure.
Sir Francis Cook added fantastical elements to the massive gardens, including an artificial waterfall and false ruin. Following the paths will make you feel like a video game character, completely immersed in a historical adventure.
Two World Wars and a Financial Crisis
Cook’s renovation undoubtedly made Monserrate into the stunning estate it is today, but the palace’s hardships were far from over. After enduring two World Wars, as well as the financial crisis of 1929, the Cook family lost a lot of their fortune. This ultimately forced Francis Ferdinand Cook, Sir Francis’ great grandson, to sell the estate in 1947. The Portuguese state then became responsible for the estate, but extensive repairs delayed the heritage site’s triumphant reopening until 2010.
How to get to the Monserrate Palace
Although the renovation process continues to this day, Monserrate is practically back to its full former glory. For the first time, the palace and gardens are now accessible to the public. Entry tickets are around €8 for adult visitors, while teenagers and seniors pay slightly less. The easiest way to get to the estate is to take bus 435 from Sintra central station. The bus runs every day, stopping right across the entrance of the Monserrate park. Are you travelling from Lisbon? Sintra is easily accessible from the Rossio train station. The trip from Lisbon to Sintra central station should take you about 40 minutes.