Saturday, March 27, 2010


Following the political fashion set by Russia and culminating the struggle that had been taking place since the beginning of the nineteenth century,  D Carlos of Portugal and the Crown Prince were assassinated in the streets of Lisbon in 1910. In the next year a Republic was proclaimed to take their place and the Queen and the eighteen-year-old Manuel II sent off to the Thames Valley to live the rest of their lives in dowdier surroundings they possibly preferred. The Sintra Council celebrated the change by demolishing the ancient walls and ‘annexes’ in front of the Palácio Nacional (as depicted in another of Burnett’s etchings) and thus opening the present square to the new spirit of what it called ‘democracy’. The death throes of European monarchies and aristocracies were enacted to the background of the First Great World War, and so Regaleira, which had attempted to attach itself to an idea of pomp and glory, was already something like a dinosaur lurching beyond its natural and temporal limits; after 1914 no more houses like that were, or could ever be, built again. I’m not sure whether this is a matter for regret or not. The appalling and totally unnecessary carnage of the War removed the last vestige of any respect for the values that had initiated it and introduced others equally unreliable, a lesson that the Napoleonic Wars of a little more than a century before should already have taught. Still, it’s one of the first lessons of history that it always repeats itself, or anyway goes around in diminishing spirals, and so again for a short while it was back to a new version of simple lines and simple manners. This time it was principally the New World that was the model, not the Old. The ideas of the Bauhaus group and Le Corbusier and others might have originated in the nursery of European protest and disillusionment, but their natural soil was across the Atlantic and that’s where most of them soon escaped to spread their influence with the aid of that new popular phenomenon, the cinema. The more stringent modernist architectural emphasis on institutional and corporate buildings and public housing schemes did not, mercifully, penetrate to this corner of the world, but some functional element via the sinuous writhings of the so-called art nouveau style did. In fact, the period just before and immediately after the First War was one of considerable creative and cultural activity.

The Casa dos Penedos (House of Stones) from 1921 is one of the most interesting buildings in Sintra, because although it also is very large, costly and striking, it attempts a different style and manner, less cluttered, less derivative and in a way more honest. The compromise between old ostentation and new ‘functionality’ within a traditional framework is most skillfully managed by the architect Raul Lino who was born in 1879 and lived to be almost a hundred. Studying in Germany and England he returned to Portugal with a truly cosmopolitan and highly original style incorporating a wealth of endearing and understated decorative details which resulted in many works throughout the country.Here is the Casa dos Penedos as it is in its wintry up-dated Sleeping-Beauty aspect, carrying over something of the English arts-and crafts movement to a completely different setting.

This splendid dwelling rises almost alarmingly from its steep slope, the lower levels being supported on arches with a seemingly casual disregard for another earthquake and must present, surely, a variety of daunting maintenance difficulties though it’s wearing very well. It’s said to be inhabited by one elderly lady and a number of attendants. Lino had already (1912) built a masterly house for himself in São Pedro, the Casa do Cipreste, a startlingly innovative building for its time, and set into chiseled rocks studded with giant cacti somehow summoning to mind a very classy immigrant from Sunset Boulevard or a Spanish Mission.

Actually, Lino’s houses, cleverly straddling epochs, are entirely European; but if it comes to a spurious Californian association, I recollect that the first time I saw in the outskirts of Lisbon from a taxi in the middle of the night an avenue lined with tall palms it made me wonder for a moment if I hadn’t mistakenly arrived in Los Angeles. On the other hand, in San Francisco I seem to remember streets borrowed from some cinematic fantasy of Lusitania. These were good years for architectural innovation; there are a couple of other houses in old Sintra even more reminiscent of the early cinema or cocktail age The aptly-named Casal de Stª Margarida (1921) in the town itself makes happy use of a neo-rococo flattened whip-lash curve in its subtly-upturned eaves ornamentally emphasized by a ‘chinese’ spur and in its pagoda-like structures raised above the roof.

On a slightly more modest scale, and less frivolously, the Quinta do Stº António da Serra, from the same year, is an attractive family house ingeniously backed into the rocky side of the mountain way up the Pena Road.

To trace the development away from the showiness of the nineteenth century to the relative austerity of the twentieth it’s necessary to regress three decades or so to the laying of the railway line from Lisbon. This facility was first bruited in 1871, inaugurated in 1873, but not finally completed until 1887. The reasons that the line took so long to construct over only fifteen miles or so are worth examining. In the first place it was greatly disapproved of and resisted by many Sintrenses who feared – quite correctly as it turned out – that it would deposit in their exclusive playground yet more of the ‘day-trippers’ and other undesirables who were already in evidence in 1859 when – expecting some natural paradise - Tennyson complained of Sintra being full of people wandering aimlessly around much like Malvern or the Bois de Boulogne. It was not an uncommon complaint: some disgruntled visitors went further and said that Byron had made it all up and that Sintra was only comparatively attractive because the surrounding landscape was so horrible. I dare say there are people arriving on the train this minute saying much the same, after traversing the hideous suburbs and battling with the crowds and being robbed in the bad restaurants or eating places that have sprung up in the town for their benefit. That’s the cost, I’m afraid, of mass tourism, when most ‘tourists’ really would do better to stay at home and look at the television. For the dedicated traveller  Sintra offers many pleasures, but nor can he expect, without some interested effort of his own, that doors will be opened to him, and that’s the same everywhere.

The business of the railway line, however, is more curious for quite a different reason, that it involved several major engineering difficulties. Rossio station in Lisbon was the first one, being constructed on the side of one of the steep hills that had to be pierced with a very long tunnel right underneath the city. Then, in Sintra, the topography is not convenient either. Two steep and narrow natural courses carry the water-shed from the mountain on either side of the town itself and the promontory supporting the Palaçio Nacional, the so-called Chão da Oliva. A third one, a little further south, joins them further down, and it was this that was chosen, failing anything else, as the site for the railway station, which meant laying – or at least adapting, I can’t be sure what foundations already existed but probably not many - a long horizontal plane across Fox Valley and tunnelling through another rocky bluff. The construction of a new public library two or three years ago at the end of the street where I live involved the relatively shallow excavation of say a mere fifty or so square metres and it took several months even with the aid of formidable machines that gouged into the rock and others that scooped it up to be taken somewhere else. I can’t imagine how long that would take with pick and shovel, yet the whole town is raised on tiers and terraces that have been laboriously built up over the centuries by the endless ant-like activity of thousands of unknown labourers. Anyway, two major causeways, if that’s the word, were somehow raised above and across the valley. The first and much larger, with the station itself, joins up with a new road constructed for the purpose, the Volta do Duche, running in a dramatic loop to the town and along which the train travelers have to walk unless they summon a taxi or one of the (very expensive) horse-drawn calèches that once were the usual means of conveyance and which still lie in wait for the lazy or pretentious. The second, at right angles to it, is known as the Jardim da Correnteza, no-one quite knows why, and is a sort of public promenade with a good view through which runs a road coming from lower regions and former villages further down and formerly a donkey track for the use of small farmers to bring their wares up to the town. In the middle of the nineteenth century this area must have been all, or mostly, rough and vacant land. The railway development turned it into a new district named Estefânea after the otherwise unremembered daughter-in-law of Maria I. Within the space of a few years it was filled with a good many new buildings, almost all of them solid and often rich bourgeois residences.

As in the old town of Sintra itself, and for the same reason, some of them have the extraordinary effect of presenting a sort of cliff-face at the back rising out of the vegetation and a perfectly ‘normal’ street appearance. The styles, too, are eclectic, but almost all belonging to a circumscribed period, between the 1870’s and 1910 or thereabouts. There are also a couple of new real quintas, the last-comers, making use of what suitable land there was when the best had already been taken, and another quite grand frenchified ‘belle-époque’ house which was recently restored just in the nick of time as the nucleus of the new Municipal Library. To provide for these new residents, what is now known as the ‘commercial zone’ appeared, originally a single street equipped with shops, cafés, restaurants, and even (1924) a grandiose and flamboyant Riviera-type gambling casino; none of which were available for the more aristocratic inhabitants of Sintra itself, who had no need or desire to ‘shop’ for their daily supplies or to amuse themselves in public places, though a municipal market was built right under and behind the Palaçio Nacional for the benefit of their maids and serviteurs.

I’m especially interested in the Correnteza because I live overlooking it. A quite remarkable thing in this day and age and in a place like this is that it rises above a valley descending towards the sea pleasingly visible in the distance and is completely untouched except for a few agricultural plots. It's full of birds, including the pigeons for whom housing has been thoughtfully provided in the embanking walls. A flock of sheep with bells used to keep the grass down, but they’ve disappeared along with the broken lavatory fittings, bottles and so on that irresponsible people used to throw over the parapet. That it once belonged to a working quinta is evidenced by the system of irrigation channels and crumbling accommodation for animals, but the present owner is said to be an old man who in spite of sitting on a potential fortune declines to be tempted by offers from car park or supermarket developers. Long may he live, because if that goes we may as well all leave.

We have little idea at all of what Estefânea was like before it was developed. The track leading up to the Correnteza certainly existed, because although it’s now a road it’s bounded by very old walls with eighteenth century decoration, on one side enclosing the furthest – and I think un-entered for decades if not more – extents of the Quinta do São Sebsatião. Apart from the Casal da Roçada – what I assume to be an ancient quinta adorned with an incongruous-looking tower in the early years of the twentieth century, tucked away in a little valley about half a kilometre away and now depressingly hemmed in by a state school and ‘condominiums’ - one might have supposed the district to be just a sort of wilderness except for the information (Chap VI) that this house was erected in 1815. If that were so, the Correnteza must already have been built up. That’s rather puzzling, too, because although it’s now part of a terrace of ten essentially-identical houses added later, so it’s said, to accommodate the railways engineers, standing by itself it would have looked fairly odd, so presumably the area was partly settled. According to José Azevedo (Bairros de Sintra, various editions) it was bought at some stage by a certain Francisco Gomes de Amorim, an amateur litterateur born in 1827, whose son persuaded the Council early in the twentieth century to re-name in his honour the small street parallel to the Correnteza onto which it backs. Villa Eugénia, just down the street, a grand house of the 1880’s, was acquired from the owner of some sort of existing estate then, as possibly were the other contemporary quintas next to it. There’s no-one alive any more who can remember anything, and if records are available, as they surely must be, no-one else is particularly interested either. The best that can be done is an illustrated postcard of about 1900 which clearly shows the Correnteza in the distance but with much less surrounding development than might have been expected by that date, with only newly-planted trees and the railway station discreetly concealed

However, the postcard is a fairly-rough drawing and by no means a topographically-accurate one at that, judging by the distorted positioning of the houses, by others in the same series and by a photograph of a decade or so later when everything was recognizable as it is now, except that the Correnteza had to wait until the 1940’s until it was widened with a deeper drop and the pleasant addition of ornamental pergolas, that the Casa Mantero at the end just before Villa Eugénia’s ‘chinese pavilion’ was flourishing, the end house nearest the camera was still intact and this one, the second, next to it, hadn’t yet undergone the transformation that it did in the ‘twenties. That brings me back to the stage at which I started this chapter, because Estefânea became something of a show place for ‘modernism’ between the Wars.

First, an electrified tram, winding along the foot of the serra, connected with Praia das Macãs, about seven miles away, then Sintra’s fashionable little beach and sea-side resort. Amongst the ‘listed’ buildings there is a pair of classic ‘Deco’ houses near the Casino now used as the premises of the Electricity Board and a Chinese restaurant respectively. A very Hollywoodish ‘picture theatre’ went up behind the casino, as did and above the tram line in a fairly unknown street a succession of distinctly cinematically-eclectic villas, one known as the Lotus House and adorned with a fairly silly ‘Egyptian’ mosaic. They face across a wooded gulf perhaps the most eccentric house in Sintra, the last one at the end of the road before the fields take over and the last one before a new era.

Amongst the objections to monarchical rule was that it had been irresolute and wasteful, but a Republican government did not show itself to be superior in efficiency or competence; moreover it was from the start riddled with party dissensions and disagreements so that by 1925 even a benevolent view could not but deny that it “had become the butt of ridicule and cynicism” and that “those dissatisfied with the republic viewed the authoritarian governments established in Italy and Spain as attractive alternatives”. The First Republic was dissolved, a military regime took control and in 1928 António de Oliveira Salazar, a professor of political economy at the University of Coimbra, was appointed as Minister of Finance. So successful was Salazar’s management of what had become politically-speaking a very sorry state of affairs that the way was open to his becoming virtual dictator of Portugal until his incapacitation by a stroke in 1968. It is to Salazar’s credit that thanks to his wily diplomacy Portugal was not embroiled in the Second War and that Lisbon almost uniquely amongst European cities escaped damage; indeed during those years it flourished as a half-disreputable half-glamorous centre of espionage, seedy black-marketeering, human trafficking and general intrigue as suggested in that cinematic legend Casablanca. At the same time, neutrality emphasized the ‘backwardness’ and isolation from the rest of the world that was also part of Salazar’s deliberate policy. Before I’d ever been to Lisbon I’d read a decription of it, not reassuring but also quite enticing, as ‘leprous’, with ruined palaces stained black with neglect, mould and the air of corruption and wickedness. The English of course delighted in condemning the iniquities of ‘fascist’ regimes while overlooking or supporting the same elements at home, and gross exaggerations have been perpetrated here too for propaganda purposes, but all the same Salazarian Portugal was undoubtedly inequable and increasingly unsatisfactory in spite of the economic and colonial advantages. Its shifty and ambiguous uneasiness is perhaps represented – since we’re on the subject – by a minor Hollywood production of the late ‘fifties called, if I remember, simply Lisbon, in which an awfully nice American girl in swirling taffeta skirts has a perfectly respectable adventure in Seteais with a handsomely oily and totally unreliable wop (if I’m making that up it was nonetheless the predictable scenario of the period), while off-stage and invisible to the viewers and in ‘real life’ secret police are lurking in the gardens of suspect quintas and gluing their sinister ears to the doors of middle-class apartments in search of ‘communists’. With all that we’re already into recent history with all its controversies, and into which I’m not entering here; sufficient to say that under his firm efficient grasp or oppressive iron hand, as one wishes, the social and cultural evolution of Portugal did not advance very noticeably – as perhaps it didn’t anywhere else come to that - and as far as Sintra is concerned and to its advantage – except for the terrible mistake of the Tivoli Hotel next to the palaçio and a certain amount of far worse vandalization in Estefânea and beyond (I won’t even mention the hideous ‘dormitory extension’ of Portela!) in the 1950’s – nothing much happened at all. When in 1935 Christopher Isherwood, himself in exile from authoritarian governments and on the eve of the War getting ready to migrate to California, recorded a brief stay in São Pedro he had little to say except that it was like an enormous over-grown “rock-garden” harbouring forgotten denizens of various degrees of dottiness and other-worldliness. That could almost have been as I found it in the early nineteen eighties.

Friday, March 26, 2010


It was largely the construction of Pena that set the vogue for that architectural eclecticism and whimsicality that is the hall-mark of Sintra, for actually the greater part of the present-day town derives only from the second half of the 19th century – politically a relatively stable period here as elsewhere without overt revolutions and wars and during which the bourgeoisie flourished - and most people who pass through here never see much else. What makes it charming and not merely grotesque, like Pena, is that although it indulges every eccentricity and fancy, and sometimes makes graceful reference to all sorts of former or even exotic styles when its not inventing completely new ones, with one or two exceptions it doesn’t pretend – or at the worst not so blatantly and badly - to be something else or mix things up so randomly and purposelessly. Pena is not very intelligent but Sintra mostly is, and so it’s like very good company: it’s genuinely inventive with the intention of being surprising and pleasing, and hours, or days, can be spent just wandering around aimlessly taking it all in, there’s something new around every corner and although it’s not a large town, it’s not as small either as it looks and straggles up and down in unexpected places amongst its bosky slopes. Santa Maria is well worth a detour in its own right as a collection of highly individual houses, no two alike and each as if competing to be the most striking while co-mingling perfectly with its neighbours; in São Pedro, a step or two further on and a real ‘working’ village, quintas and villas cohabit equally comfortably with an artisan population. Even the couple of exceptional instances that spring to mind, both actually early twentieth century and of course I’m excluding the more recent catastrophes, are still slightly ambiguous, one can’t be quite sure whether they’re exactly as stupid as they might seem or just carrying a good joke a shade too far. The Paços do Concelho, or Town Hall, looms up first as the traveller approaches, and always draws a gasp of admiration from anyone reared on Walt Disney although it’s only been there since the first years of the twentieth century. The ‘manuelism’ is pretty crude and phony, but the spire adds a nice line to the horizon and it’s a long sight better than the modern box of cement and plate glass (fortunately more out of sight elsewhere) that accommodates the overspill of functionaries as their official duties ramify. (Incidentally, at the same time as the Town Hall, not far from it and on the site of a the former cemetery of St Sebastian, an odd little octagonal ‘castle’ went up which still bemuses some arrivals by train. Either then or later, it served for a while as the town jail, and was apparently a jovial enough place, the convicts loudly and successfully soliciting alms from out of the embrasures.)

Something that looks from a kilometre or so away like another Moorish castelo atop another lesser peak turns out on closer inspection to be a complete fake constructed entirely from cement (I’m afraid this is not a candidate as a ‘listed’ building!), with silly watchtowers and battlements, but it’s too far away to cause offence, it’s all of a piece and I dare say, in that position with an eagle-eye’s view over a now-blighted Estramaduran panorama and where there’s never a daylight hour when the sun is not striking at least one side of it, a very pleasant place to inhabit. Politely called the Quinta do Monte Sereno, it’s nothing of the sort, just a large and ugly if comfortable villa built by a maker of the local confection that gives it its popular appellation, the cheesecake fortress; an awful lot of queijadas must have been consumed!

Although it’s possibly true that Sintra contains a higher proportion of once-luxurious and prosperous dwellings than any other town in the world, there’s nothing excessively rarified or artificial about it, and the palaces and mansions jostle happily enough with lesser houses of various degrees of significance, either self-contained or as apartments, and with urban cottages. It has (had, that’s diminishing) the feel of a genuinely ‘democratic’ community and in fact passed through the post-Revolutionary years after 1974 with less disruption than many other Portuguese towns. Many people have lived here all their lives, and that’s always a good recipe for social harmony and mutual understanding. Sintrenses of all classes are very ‘patriotic’ about their beautiful setting, they’ve resisted innovations and developments even when these are encroaching all around and its nomination as a World Heritage Site in 1995 although not necessarily an unmixed blessing, has probably helped to ensure its survival for at least a little longer.

A characteristic feature of a good many nineteenth century buildings is what might appear to be an element reminiscent of a Switzerland or Bavaria, with steep-pitched roofs and projecting eaves supported by fretwork wooden ornamentation, either with deference to the hilly terrain or to the influence of the imported Condessa mentioned in the last chapter. But I think there’s another influence too. The only place that has ever reminded me of Sintra is Goa, in India, the utterly different climate and landscape notwithstanding. There’s a former Portuguese ‘top-brass’ resort called Lanolim inland somewhere from Magdaon and almost forgotten – it took ages to find anyone who’d heard of it let alone take me there on the back of a motor-scooter – but where in spite of the dust and the scrubby jungle the same sort of ‘tone’ was faintly audible. Amazingly for India, there was hardly anyone to be seen, except some listless servants in the gardens of a few elegant houses, recognizably Portuguese with Indian trimmings. Elsewhere, in a stretch of coastal jungle north of Benalim, there was half-buried a whole succession of houses outdoing, for sheer fantasy and variety, anything I’ve ever seen here, and many of them with the same sort of frilly wooden decorations. By no stretch of the imagination could it be supposed that they’d been affected by memories of the Tyrol. Portugal only lost its Indian possessions in 1961, and as Goa anyway had evidently been a pretty rich one up until then and for four hundred years or so before, it’s probably reasonable to conjecture that an untraced – I’ve never heard it mentioned - architectural influence came back along with the spices and the silk. The neglected example in the photograph above, with a vaguely Indian doorway, is distinctly cosmopolitan in any case; sometimes additionally the walls are painted in alternating stripes of ochre and pink, like pajamas worn horizontally.

The town generally tends to be put in the shade, or overpowered, by a few buildings with perhaps slightly dubious credentials to which the random eye – and most eyes are pretty random at first arrival - is incredulously drawn. Not all of these is literally from the nineteenth century, but we might say that each partakes of the opulent and upholstered spirit which ended forever with the First War. The Palaçio das Valenças is the first most striking one, and also by far the most restrained. As appeared to be fashionable at the time, its architect was Italian, and that may account for the ‘foreign’ look. It was finished in 1870 on what, surprisingly, is said to be the site of a slaughterhouse, in which case early nineteenth century Sintra was a good deal less precious than it later became. As with many local buildings it had to be artfully arranged on steeply sloping land, here at almost a 45 degree angle, so that one from side, back or front is unclear, it’s five stories high supported on arches while on the other - street – side it presents a spaciously extended horizontal aspect of two floors; which means that a large part of it is in a sense underground. At a mundane domestic level, that is the source of a variety of common difficulties, interior damp primarily amongst them, but we Sintrenses try to rise above those trivialities. The Valenças seemed to have faded gracefully away allowing the local Council to acquire the house as a Municipal Library and the grounds as a very attractive Municipal Park. Too attractive, perhaps, because largely regardless of the weather, these gardens used to, and still to some extent, provide a setting for the astonishingly bold courting activities, to put it as politely as I can, of Portuguese adolescents – or to be more precise, for the public wiles of barely post-pubertal females. It being social death for a woman to remain single, pursuit starts as early as possible and with a praying-mantis-like determination and rapacity aimed at the first and nearest remotely accessible target. The boys, brought up as decorative dolls by mothers who have already been through the mill, strut around prettily enough but offer little resistance and are the passive partners. Fortunately, the misery and monotony entailed in premature and thoughtless marriages is mitigated by many opportunities for ritualized adultery and other variations on the connubial theme later managed more discreetly.

I mentioned already (Chap VI) the melancholy fate of Beckford’s folly at Monserrate, which lay in romantic ruination for decades. Various ‘foreigners’, amongst them D Fernando himself, had tried unsuccessfully to get hold of it until the owning family returned from India in the middle 1850’s and finally made it over to Francis Cooke, an English Department Store proprietor who had been living, for reasons unknown, in another nearby quinta. An architect called James Knowles was commissioned to allegedly re-model what was left of the existing structure and a landscape gardener (James Burt) to go to work on the grounds, their labours being completed by 1863 and crowned by a Portuguese Viscountship for the former Mr. Cooke. The success of this ambitious scheme – which continued with additions and re-modellings until his death in 1901 - was always somewhat debatable; for a start, a certain aura of the parvenu hung around the new Visconde, in spite of his inheriting a baronetcy as well later on; and his second wife, an American, was described by those who didn’t like her as a ‘missionary’, worrying about the morals of the local population, introducing them to the protestant Bible and generally attempting to put them into respectable skirts. Although the family only used the place for three months or so in the year, if the Visconde saw a new rustic building appearing within his horizons – which were very wide from that viewpoint – he ordered it to be pulled down. Moreover, he apparently managed to somehow acquire all the adjoining quintas and fill them with his friends and relations, as a myriad of forgotten forest tracks still leading in all directions from Monserrate to other secluded neighbouring houses would seem to testify. Altogether, he was inclined to be high-handed and too much the lord of the manor, and so failing other obvious sins accusations of bad taste were inevitable. Although the gardens initiated by Beckford were botanically most impressive, it was observed that they’d been scattered, rather like a magpie’s nest, with incongruous bits and pieces – including an Indian arch – picked up by Cooke in the course of various voyages, and that artificial cascades and manufactured ‘ruins’ were over-doing it completely. As for the ‘house’ itself, described by one later critic as “constructed in a Moorish delirium”, it would seem now, completely empty of any contents, not one thing nor the other, neither palace nor quinta nor really a satisfactory residence of any sort. Pavilion would be the best description. The entire ground floor – which has never been opened to my knowledge and has to be appraised by looking through windows - is nothing more than a continuous long hall divided into widening spaces, and what is above no-one that I’ve heard of has ever seen. Seeing it as it is now it would be difficult to imagine anyone, for instance, having a meal more than a picnic in it – perhaps that was the point of stocking the nearby houses with the friends and relations. As a ‘pleasure-dome’ in the oriental fashion, which was what was probably in the designer’s mind, it’s admittedly very fetching, but then it’s difficult too to imagine the Cookes as devoted pleasure-seekers or sybarites on that scale. However, I’ve found a rather gushy and reverential account of it written by an anonymous American in 1891
which gives a completely different impression, the ground floor richly furnished and piled with works of art and very substantially being lived in. As the author – who has much that is interesting to say about Portugal generally – can’t be faulted on accuracy otherwise, I suppose what he recounts here has to be believed. All I can say is that I don’t think, if I had them, that I’d want to leave the thousands of volumes of books and the tapestries and all the rest which the American mentions in a draughty and exposed building like that during a Sintra winter, but perhaps if one is rich enough those common household details don’t matter. My judgment is that is it was largely a very great deal of money showing off, a smaller version of Pena in other words, although again, as with that, the craftsmanship – square metre after square metre of meticulously chiseled stone - is such as can now hardly be conceived of being done by human hands let alone being drawn out in the first place; and besides Monserrate works as an architectural unity far more successfully, like it or not.

Sir Frederick Cooke inherited Monserrate after the death of his father, making more improvements and opening it to the public gaze in return for purchase of a ticket; and his son in turn employed Walter Oates to do further landscaping until in 1928 there were rumours that it was up for sale. The Council had to intervene to ensure that a new owner would not close public access, but in fact no buyers were forthcoming for the palace itself even though the adjoining quintas were sold off “for a low price”. The price of Monserrate and its extensive grounds was not, evidently, low at all, and it remained unsold until 1949 when a Portuguese financier bought it and eventually “delivered” it – whatever that means – to the State in 1968. The gardens remained open to anyone who wanted a look for the price of ten escudos or so – very good value for money, since there was hardly anyone else ever there and it was certainly all very delicious and gorgeous in its forgotten magnificence and with some trees and shrubs that someone once told me had become extinct everywhere else in the world – until 1994, when it was closed and major works were obviously about to take place. They took place for the next seven years or so, and now the Cooke folly is displayed again in pristine condition but of course at the cost of a serious diminution in atmosphere. Visitors are directed where to go by helpful signs and unecessary little wooden fences, and they can read, if they wish, descriptions of the trees and plants and decorative adjuncts: few bother, they wander around aimlessly and get back on the pantomime conveyance provided by the Council for the purpose. An occasional more dedicated traveler can be seen slogging on foot along the three kilometers between there and the town. The professional combination of alegria da casa and brincos-de-princesa which surrounds the ‘pavilion’ has set the fashion for the next couple of years for amateur home gardeners throughout the town.

The Chalé Biester rises a shade pompously and quite disproportionately from the forest above the town. It upsets the scale, so that everything else, if viewed objectively, seems to be diminished by it, for Biester is a very large house. It might be called a palace, did not propriety forbid, for its reputation was as low as its pinnacles were high. There were people who pretended not to know it was there, even some who had a good deal to conceal themselves, because – exaggerating in the manner of small town gossip – it was regarded as little better than a bordello in best Belle-Époque style; and possibly worse, it had been put there by foreign individuals of unacceptable origin. It quite obviously cost an enormous amount of money in 1904, money it was suspected had been gained in ways which were altogether too blatantly shameless. It was shockingly nouveau-riche even for the period, and so the accusations of immorality were as good as fore-destined even if the owners, as far as one can make out, were fairly mild or timid by nature. Four kings had dined there, it was reported in whispers, but no queens; the monarchs were accompanied by their respective mistresses, and no respectable woman, obviously, after that, could set foot in it. Moreover, with its French-gothic pretensions, hypocritically Christian chapel and extravagantly-painted salons, it was not only an eye-sore but an affront to every standard of rectitude.

Quite apart from all that, I have to say I always found Biester irresistible, and for a while I was there a lot, when it was owned by an American who’d bought it on a whim and lived to regret it. Even Robert’s millions were scarcely adequate for the colossal and continuous drain it represented on his checkbook. The original owners, who typically only lived there in the summer, had died childless and the story was had left it all to a ‘maid’. Up until the late ‘eighties, it was deserted and there were said to be trees growing through into the main salão. The Americans did a wonderful restoration job, for which they received little praise because, actually, their reputation around the town was not all that high either, and like the original inhabitants they tended to be ignored except as a subject for interesting gossip. When they’d had enough, after only three or four years, it was terribly difficult to sell even at a relatively bargain price. Kings, presidents and others passed through sceptically and turned it down in favour of more commodious and manageable residences until finally a gentleman in the car-rental business took the bait, but possibly he´s lived to regret it too. The source of the aversion was summed up, I think, by another passing American who’d been allowed to stay there for a week or two in the owner’s absence. It was all right during daylight hours, but otherwise he couldn’t bear to be there alone. I scoffed until one evening I was persuaded to go back with him. At midnight, pitch dark, buried in a thick forest, very insecurely protected from any intruder, with fifty-one empty rooms and raised over cavernous semi-underground chambers, I had to agree it was not cheerful. Richard wouldn’t go to bed until we’d checked every room, like over-excited schoolboys looking under each bed and in all the floor-to-ceiling cupboards, and then he locked himself in with a length of rope in order to make a hasty escape out a window if necessary and which aperture he also used to pee out of rather than dare the corridor to the distant bathroom (there were only two in the entire house). Apart from that, there was no heating and it was distinctly chilly. I stumbled out as best I could and ran all the way home, leaving him to it. Normally, if there were enough people in it, it was a different matter altogether.

Biester was entered by a large carved door opening into a baronial hall with marble columns from which drooped the perfect blooms of many pots of orchids that were wheeled in every night from a special greenhouse used only for their cultivation. On one side of that there opened a vestibule with the walls painted in neo-classical ‘Pompeian’ motives and containing a life-sized marble nymph archly drooping also; and leading to a circular ‘chapel’ garishly but dramatically decorated in primary colours with scarlet-velvet-upholstered prie-dieux. On the other side there was a ‘gothic’ staircase ascending a semi-cylindrical stairwell of faux-marbre. Ahead were the three reception rooms that otherwise comprised all of the first floor. The drawing-room extended the length of a long garden terrace, itself already raised to a height which afforded a splendid view of the sunset and all the way to the sea. The dining room comfortably seated twenty six, and with subdued lighting even then the walls disappeared into the gloom. Both had riotously and in a way beautifully painted ceilings of canvas set into carved ‘gothic’ tracery, but everything was exceeded, I thought, by the music room, in grass green with white and gold plaster tracery and with acoustics which emphasized every rumble of the black Steinway concert piano. It only lacked a gilded harp, but those were more difficult to come by and anyway no-one knew how to play one. All the painting was the work of the highly-accomplished Italian stage designer Luigi Manini, much in demand during his stay in Portugal between the 1880’s and 1913. The splendours declined a little on the first floor, where apart from a ‘boudoir’ in tartan and masculine leather and the ‘master-bedroom’, really outrageously got up with pink-bottomed cherubs floating above the bed, there was a long corridor opening onto goodness knows how many other bedrooms rather less flamboyantly adorned and graded to the importance of guests; those of no importance, like poor Richard, were relegated up to the next level where they tended to get lost, there were so many rooms and cubicles and spaces that were never entered; and above the lot there was a ‘loft’ under the roof that could have accommodated a whole family. To furnish and equip a house like that no more than adequately would have cost at least as much as to buy it, and in this case not much attempt had been made. As I said, it was supported over a lot of other spaces used for domestic purposes, and a very large and immensely enviable kitchen with multiple marble sinks and every traditional practical facility. The workmanship was everywhere of the highest quality, even down to the last details of door locks and shutter hinges. Twenty hectares of gardens contained the usual grove of camellia trees (said to thrive in Sintra like nowhere else) and a miniature swan lake with cascade, as well as flower beds and orchards and vegetable plots and more greenhouses and ‘rustic walks’, and all that was bounded by a couple of miles of stone wall. It couldn’t possibly be maintained properly without about fifty servants, and that’s principally where Robert had bitten off a good deal more than he could chew. It took two fit and energetic elderly women alone endlessly on hands and knees to keep the intricate parquet floors polished and shove the piano about, and an elderly gardener struggled manfully with an assistant only to deal with the orchids and the floral displays – the rest was left to nature. Disasters were always happening: one whole floor gave way to bottomless depths; the upper parts caught on fire because no-one had warned that the single ornate fireplace was not meant to be used; the complicated system of pipes feeding the lake as well as the house blocked up and no-one had the faintest idea how that connected with an underground stream taking the overflow from the roof; no-one could be persuaded for any amount of money onto the roof to look at the slates and the finials; and so on and so forth. It was entertaining to observe these antics from a distance, but it was also a source of deep gratitude for being poor enough never to be tempted into the agonies of trying to represent oneself in possessions, however beautiful..

One of the treats in Biester was to hop ever the wall into the adjoining Quinta da Regaleira, by comparison making the former seem quite chaste and restrained. Regaleira has become an institutionalized museum and an obligatory stop on the busy tourist itinerary and therefore as dull as dishwater, but it wasn’t that before: tended, allegedly, by only a pair of intoxicated housekeepers, the grounds were both voluptuously gorgeous and disturbing. A tower inverted into the ground instead of towards the sky had as its bottom a sacrificial floor – a human sacrifice? In artificially constructed grottos, somewhat in the manner of those of Ludwig of Bavaria after Lohengrin etc, the last remaining of a pair of guardian swans still held sway; this savage and frustrated creature bided its time in the shadows until the unwary intruder stepped onto a causeway of stones in the ‘lake’ and then skimmed, hissing, across the water to attack. The ethereal birds beloved of balletomanes are capable of breaking a man’s leg if they set their minds to it, as Tchaikovsky hinted. Shortly after that a Japanese ‘businessman’ got hold of Regaleira and for a while hordes of his countrymen could be seen prowling around in it, each with a camera stuck permanently to his face. I dare say they made short work of the swan, or if not the local Council certainly did when it twisted the place off the Nips and turned it into another tidy fairy palace for the purposes of extracting loot from the gullible. The Council made short work of the sacrificial stone too, we don’t want that sort of thing upsetting anyone.

The former Quinta da Regaleira, with gardens already elaborately adorned with towers and fountains and ‘shell’ grottos, was acquired in the 1890’s by a ‘Brazilian’ – a designation not necessarily literally correct - still remembered locally as something like “Mr. Money Bags”. It was not intended as a flattering appellation, and indeed when finally his dream palace was more or less complete around about 1918 there were some people who would have preferred not to see it if it were it not even more difficult than Biester to ignore. In fact, it’s quite impossible to ignore, Luigi Manini again saw to that by creating en plein air and on a prime site one of the most sensational theatrical settings ever devised in modern times and with such extravagant flair that grudging criticisms dry up and wither away. I think this borrowed and skillfully manipulated photograph begins to do it justice.

Regaleira undoubtedly has all the usual nineteenth century faults of ‘insincerity’ and opulent shallowness, and judged by the same severe principles I applied to Pena if falls far short as well. What’s the difference? Let’s say that effective theatre doesn’t necessarily have to be good literature, that there’s a great gulf between childishness and mature fanciful sophistication, and that if we have to speak in terms of Sintra’s ‘fairy-tale palaces’ Manini was an aerial winged sprite with a magic touch beside von Eschwige’s heavy-handed gnome. The Italian’s is a great success in its genre because the ‘gothic’ nonsense notwithstanding it’s an imitation, really, of nothing except itself and a totally self-assured advertisement of the advantages of a large amount of hard cash used intelligently; if anything, it re-invents manuelismo, from which it ostensibly and very cleverly borrows, by adding – as an Australian friend pointed out – even what looks like a kangaroo amongst the menagerie of beasts and gargoyles clustering on the spires. Above all, perhaps, it’s not just a ‘house’ but a composed theatre piece in which the distant rocks of the castelo are integrated with natural forest and the exuberant lesser follies, temples, towers, chimeras and goddesses of the gardens; it’s like walking into some fabulous painting and strolling around in it, whereas Pena, as I noted, can only satisfactorily be viewed, and then preferably not very clearly, from a distance and as if most decidedly stuck two-dimensionally on a wall. As a comfortable residence Regaleira too leaves quite a lot to be desired, but in this case that’s not the point, it’s there just for its own sake and Sr. Monteiro was perfectly able to go anywhere else if he wanted domesticity. That he sounds a bit of a fool or worse, dabbling in ‘cults’ or even ‘black magic’ as it has to be supposed, can be overlooked under the circumstances; it’s quite enough that he had the sense to find a genius to personify what he might have wished to be and it’s sad that he barely outlived what took such a colossal effort to construct. It stayed with the Monteiros - a heavy responsibility, surely, as a legacy - until 1949 when someone else bought it and by all accounts vandalized some of the interior; as I said, before it become briefly and unworthily a Japanese ‘investment’ it was slipping into decay like so much else. There can hardly be any private individual in the world with both the desire and the means to maintain it, so its present degraded but well-care-for situation is the best that can be done. Descriptive words rather fail me as regards Regaleira, but it’s fully extolled pictorially here for anyone whose curiosity is aroused

Another genuine nineteenth century ‘folly’, the Quinta do Relógio, faces Regaleira across the road, like a little girl in oriental fancy dress she hasn’t quite the self-confidence to wear looking at a full-blown supremely confident Empress in full regalia; the feeling is that she might have done better to have stayed at home and not made quite such a mistakenly quaint exhibition of herself even though she was there first. This quinta, in spite of having achieved a sentimental fame as the honeymoon resort of D Carlos and Dona Amélia in 1886, really is nothing more than an inelegant pavilion surrounded by exceptionally well stocked and beautiful gardens originally dating from an earlier period and visible for once to anyone over a low parapet.

Regalheira was the last but one of the great Sintra showpieces, but the other is best mentioned in another context.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I'm not sure what an ‘identity crisis’ is, but perhaps if it could be represented in stone the Palaçio da Pena would serve as an illustration; or perhaps not, worse, it’s reached a stage of advanced psychological and spiritual dissociation and gone mad in a genteel way, like a lunatic swaggering about in tinsel and brass under the delusion that he’s Napoleon or Julius Caesar. Good architecture is solidly related to the earth on which it stands, it derives from the same material, it’s form follows from its utilitarian function while it also strives to be beautiful within those limits, it allows itself the minimal necessary amount of ornamentation, which means that it follows the fundamental rule of all art, to be harmonious, proportionate and achieve the maximum effect with the greatest economy of means.. It’s a tangible analogy of a good life. Aesthetically speaking, Pena is therefore very bad architecture because it’s not sincere, it’s a lot of showy fuss over nothing much or something else, we may as well be clear about that from the start. At the same time, it’s a formidable feat of construction, ingenuity, craftsmanship and even possibly of imagination; and it’s in that discrepancy that the ‘dissociation’ exists.

Byron might have behaved ‘romantically’, but he kept his well-shod feet firmly on the ground and left his imaginary landscapes unpopulated except by himself or others he knew well. Walter Scott, on the other hand and for instance, as widely read or more at about the same time, was not himself a romantic figure but his novels are stuffed with fictitious characters safely restored from the Middle Ages and elsewhere going on as if they were. Victor Hugo’s essay in the ‘medieval’ genre was more convincing because Hugo was a better writer, but the hundreds of imitators taking up the theme of chaste knights and faithful, or occasionally dangerous, damsels had soon taken all leave of common sense. Similarly in painting: David Friedrich’s empty vistas of sublime Nature observed cautiously and thoughtfully by a solitary watcher diminished into views through arched windows from groined chambers inhabited by the same listless maidens, often not wearing a stitch, and their armor-clad admirers, sometimes with an angel or two to chaperon them and make sure they behaved themselves, as exemplified later by Burne-Jones. Or in music: Beethoven’s equivalent of the heroic open space progressed via the more delicate interior introspections of Chopin and the phantasmagoria of Schumann to the personal dramas of excitable individuals gleaned haphazardly from Donizetti’s very unclear comprehension of the past. The differences are less of technical talent than of the material, the tangible but elusive subject matter of art, and the unconscious psychology of the artist, himself the product of his time, which draws him to direct his skill accordingly. I’m not going to start a dissertation on that immensely complicated and controversial aspect of art or general history, merely to mention again that the only way to obtain a ‘feel’ of our ancestors and their activities is to look at what they made and produced.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge went one further. Assisted by what would now be called narcotics, he came up with this:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Etc (published 1816)

Quite a few architects, if encouraged by their patrons, were inspired to have a go at their own version of Xanadu, the details of which were left conveniently imprecise by the poet; it’s tempting to think that Baron von Eschwege, a wandering Prussian, was one of them, an eminently suitable site having being pointed out to him. Whether that was exactly true or not, he could never be accused of failing to throw in as many unrelated ingredients as he could find: the stately dome was casually borrowed from Michelangelo’s Rome; there’s quite a bit, as is only appropriate, from Manueline Portugal; an appalling Triton with obscenely spread but somehow decently-obscured legs or pair of scaly tails, does service for those Baroque monsters who provided admittance through open jaws; there’s a lot of perfectly unnecessary ramparts and battlements with ‘medieval’ decorations and gargoyles and even a mock draw-bridge; a sort of bat-wing tower and a spire or two stand in for the fairy-tale Gothicism later exploited more successfully by Walt Disney; and for exoticism à l’Arabe little golden cupolas crop up here and there like mushrooms along with an arcade of Moorish arches. The proportions of the structure are all wrong anyway, the dome is more like a lid on a drum than a noble crown, a sort of cliff-face is stuck in front of it and the tower – with clock, of all things – is just plain ugly and really bears no relation to anything. The whole conglomeration was painted dark pink and yellow in accordance with the original design, or at least so said the authorities when they re-did it in those colours, shockingly, in the 1990’s. That’s not to mention the interior, which I don’t think I have the fortitude ever to enter again, what with the giant blackamoors holding up electrical globes and the vases of pampas grass dyed emerald green and scarlet, and ….. I won’t go on, it may not have been as bad as that to start with, though certainly the later Braganzas were distressingly bourgeois. So as not to be left out, the architectural Baron caused to be placed on a distant mound facing his ghastly creation a larger-than-life effigy of himself in the guise of that inevitable cliché of the time, a knight in shining armour, except that the shine, if such there ever was, has worn off and the effect, apart from being ludicrous, is unpleasantly like those cut-out silhouettes of the advertising bulls that used to lour threateningly on the horizons of the Spanish landscape.

Let’s take a look at Pena as it undeniably is (I choose a damaged photograph for reasons that will become clear in a minute; a much more professional and very well done set can be found here )

As a building Pena has no real function at all. At least five other very substantial and indeed magnificent royal palaces already existed within a short radius, and this one, with its rather poky rooms and acres of wasted space, is only there for display, and so that is how it has to be judged. Admittedly, as a spectacle and in spite of the colours, like this it’s quite a fine one, because there’s always something appealing about the works of man raised on God’s pinnacles, but it’s finer the more its dissolved in the clouds and mists that often envelop it and so blur the crude angles and accoutrements and downright forgeries that jar on closer inspection.

Now lets take at look at it as it seemed to its contemporaries, and about equally distant in both cases. The illustration is from a reproduction on an old post card, artist and date unknown but obviously during the period of construction because the dome has not yet been erected It’s a very nice picture that could serve as a splendid backdrop to Wagner’s Ring had that masterpiece been staged let alone written when the etching was done. This is art following art, with nature not having much to do with it, because its largely a fib. The absence of trees is a little puzzling, in view of the dense forests that now surround it. I think, from other sources also, that the serra at this stage, or in that part of it, was a good deal barer either because of fires or because the forestation that was undertaken as part of beautification of Pena still lay in the future, but nonetheless I’m sure also that the artist exploited the bareness for his own purposes, if only to leave the greater part of the frame unfilled and so emphasize the lofty and isolated aspect of the palace. Be that as it may, there is no place that I’ve ever been able to discover that affords this view, and even if there were the peak on the right – which appears to support here a Greek temple rather than the ruins of the castelo - does not rise to that height and does not bear the same topographical relation. I’m not too sure either about that triumphal drive up to the portals: there is one, now totally obscured, but I doubt it goes in such an artistically-useful direction. And while the form and details of the building are immediately recognizable, they’ve all been both tightened up and stretched here and there in order to make not just the composition more pleasing but the building itself. The lighting, as always, is completely impossible according to the laws of physics, but that’s another matter.

Can we effect by means of other artistic deceits a midway stance here by trying to be accurate while infusing with paint something of the romantic aura; or jiggle around even more outrageously with a Claudean sunset and with the (genuine but elsewhere) oriental pavilion and the swan lake?

Well no, not exactly, the castle remains essentially unsightly, the trees in fact are an artistic nuisance and distraction and anyway that’s much more difficult to do than it seems when the romantically transforming glass is no long available; but the point is that Pena will ‘work’ as a spectacle or an idea – a romantic picture in short, which is about the best I can say of it and conceivably partly the intention - if at all only as a sort of manipulated distant vision preferably wreathed in a dreamlike vapour induced by the weather or the right sort of mental preparation or hallucinogenics of some sort or other. It’s not entirely incidental that the nineteenth century was almost universally addicted to opium, not only metaphorically but literally in the form of laudanum in patent medicines. It removed what is now called ‘stress’, the anxiety of upholding an artificial existence and system of materialistic ethics that was its own invention. But vision of what - a mythical Valhalla inhabited by gods, a projection of an obscure Platonic aspiration, a primitive picture-making instinct, or nothing so high-falutin’? Pena is said, rightly or wrongly, to have been at least partly the inspiration for the – I think slightly superior, or less terrible – follies of Ludwig of Bavaria, one of the first victims of psychiatry and certainly a man for whom the word ‘practical’ would have meant nothing. Whether he was a deranged and irresponsible madman or a sort of innocent dreamer and eccentric for whom without his playthings life’s burdens were otherwise intolerable, or both, is a moot point, but it hardly matters because nothing short of incarceration stopped him any more than it would have his more fortunate Teutonic relative in Portugal.

Maria da Glória was made Rainha Maria II of Portugal when she was barely more than a child tossed about between South America and all over Europe. It had been intended, as a pawn, that she should marry her uncle, her father’s troublesome brother, to settle the succession question. He being removed from candidature, she was married at fifteen to another uncle, this time her mother’s brother, the step-grandson of Napoleon himself. He didn’t last for more than two months, and the poor girl then found herself a year later saddled with Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg, a scion of an extended family extremely adept at promoting itself (another one got Victoria of England) and also with a mania for commemorating itself in extravagant memorials. Dona Maria expired after an apparently selfless life in 1853, worn out with pregnancies; the more sentimentally simple-minded of her subjects christened her “the good mother”, meaning that she was uncomplainingly put upon in one way or another by everyone else. D. Fernando, made of more durable material, in the meantime had fixed his eye on the ruins of the Monastery of Our Lady of Pena, or Penha (the first means grief, the second, in old Portuguese, something like a cliff, and therefore much more plausible), dramatically astride a rocky peak facing across a chasm to the ruins of the Arab fortress. There had, in fact, been a chapel there from earliest recorded times, and then a monastery enlarged over the centuries ever since, according to legend, D Manuel had seen from this lookout Vasco da Gama’s boats returning from India. It must have been a well-off establishment, there is mention even in 1514 of sixty-four thousand azulejos, and if the original renaissance alabaster altar-piece enclosed within the later palace – the only beautiful thing in it - is anything to go by. The monastery with its ‘tower’ was struck by lightening in 1743, but there were still forty residents or inmates until 1755 when it was struck much more disastrously by the earthquake and "profoundly ruined". In 1828 there were only two inhabitants, who were removed six years later with the dissolution of the monastic orders, leaving D Fernando with a free hand. Incorporating what remained of the monastery, including the chapel and a refectory (which became a dining room), construction went on from 1840 to 1868, though even then not completely. With the Consort’s death in 1885, the whole lot went to his former mistress, from whom the State subsequently acquired it for the benefit of the last Queen of Portugal, Dona Amélia; her days in it were short-lived for in 1911 she too was packed off, after which after only fifty years or so of semi-use it was as good as uninhabited. The labour involved is almost unthinkable. Pena literally perches on almost perpendicular rocks, and although evidently making use of what foundations were there would have involved considerable earth-moving and death-defying feats without the aid of any modern machinery, apart from there having to hauled up and then crafted the building and decorative materials, including apparently some of the Convento de Penha Longe and from as far away as Nuremburg. As well as all that an extensive park was levelled and built up and planted all around it, and the lot enclosed by high walls of many miles. The cost must have been enormous, and so the figure quoted, 400 contos, in present-day terms 2,000 euros, indicates nothing more than the extent of the devaluation and inflation of the national currency in the meantime – unless D Fernando was lying. If Alfred of England was typical, the Saxe-Coburgs didn’t have a penny of their own, but they made good use of everybody else’s. That Pena was paid for ‘privately’ is clear from the State buying it later, for 310 contos. But then again, if Dona Maria was the purse, where did she, as the daughter of little more than royal adventurers, get it from? Unfortunately most of these more interesting technical details have evaded history’s attentions, but we can gain some small idea of the beginnings from a popular print of the time.

This is a really wonderful picture, tumultuous and exciting in the very best tradition of early nineteenth century romanticism. Again, it comes from an old postcard, and I don’t know who did it; not Burnett, I don’t think, because he kept closer to what he saw than this artist surely did. Apart from the sensational but largely contrived mountain wilderness, which can’t be accommodated to that represented in the above and later depiction, this is most certainly not an edifice that fell into ruins during an earthquake before its portrayer was born and it bears no relation to the impoverished eyrie suggested by Byron twenty years or so before. And although the pre-earthquake monastery, as I said, was a rich and not insignificant one, there is no indication that it was ever so princely as to occupy all the space that presently supports a very large palace, and with at least five floors. Its architectural merits would have been, of course, much higher than those of its replacement because it had a very definite purpose, at once commemorative and domestic, and there is little doubt that it would have satisfied all the requirements of ‘romance’. All the same, and in other words, no such thing ever quite existed, but perhaps it’s not surprising, with an illustration like this, that D. Fernando’s ambitions were aroused .to try and make one. The pity is that he, or his architect(s), did it, or over-did it, so badly, by introducing so much bombast and Teutonic swagger without having any proper idea of the sources from which it was so casually borrowed and being so uncertain, evidently, as to why it was being done at all; what it boils down to is that Pena is architecturally and aesthetically illiterate but making a great performance as if it were not.

If I’m making a lot of noise here – too much, probably – over Pena, it’s as a reaction against the way in which something which is an astonishing achievement of human industry and ingenuity but also a staggering example of tastelessness, vulgarity, extravagance and sheer foolishness is promoted as if it were a ‘cultural’ monument of the highest order to which uneducated indiscriminate obeisance has to be made for form’s sake; I’m protesting against its being exploited as another item in the money-making tourist industry when the characteristic reaction to it is “my five-year old loved it”; I’m protesting, if it comes to that, against the notion of ‘culture’ as a sort of pap to be fed to the masses as a special treat when very few of the hundreds that are herded through every day have the faintest idea of what they are looking at, or why, except that everyone else is and that possibly there’s something there that will rub off if they’re respectful enough. There’s a certain amount of selfishness involved here. In the old days, I used to spend whole afternoons in the gardens and environs of Pena, seeing the hideous thing from so many angles and under so many different conditions that I became quite fond of it. All that came to an end when Brussels decreed that we had to pay our way by wringing it out of tourists, and so the broken walls were all cemented up, a ticket office installed at the only entrance, ridiculous transports introduced to cart to the palace itself those – the objects as usual of my particular irritation – who won’t make the slightest physical effort to go to a ‘site’ but litter it up anyway, and jeeps drive up and down the once moss-covered paths to check that no-one is there who hasn’t paid for the privilege. I confess also to an aversion to D Fernando, whose blustering whiskered effigy in bronze suggests a social-climbing bully, and to which the quite fortuitously same-named café in São Pedro contributes nothing to help: this seedily pretentious establishment, with it’s malevolently-gossiping habitués, faces its rival, the ‘Moorish Girl’, across the street, and if gossipers congregate there too they generally carry on their intrigues with a more light-hearted and Lusitanian benevolence and interested curiosity. I’m allowing, of course, my own ‘romances’, or prejudices, to take over absurdly.

I couldn’t, however, carp about the Parque da Pena, which is at once extremely beautiful and interesting while offering every opportunity for the wildest imagination to take flight. The crags and deep valleys suggested in the last illustration are all there, on a miniature scale, but covered – smothered almost – in a profusion of plants and trees of all sorts which must have taken almost as much labour as the palace to grow and rear and by now have become a jungle. Apart from the formal gardens, there’s an overgrown forest of camellia trees, for example, elsewhere another of giant New Zealand tree ferns and further on a some fine specimens of Californian sequoias, interspersed with the gnarled branches of native oaks and topped by every species of palm. Lower down there’s a series of ‘swan lakes’ with a crenellated toy castle in the water for the birds to live in. Dotted here and there are follies, grottos, pavilions and what would appear to be rustic rendezvous for escapees from palace decorum. Not all of these, strictly speaking, are any less sham than the palace itself, but being mere garden ornaments and in that setting it doesn’t matter, the effect is delightful. Not sham at all are – or were – the extensive and professional greenhouses used for propagating plants and supplying the palace with flowers. As late as 1985 or so there were still forgotten pots of gorgeous begonias there, and one or two elderly gardeners tending them, although most of the hundreds of other pots were lying around broken and a lot of the glass had already been smashed; before much longer, the gardeners I think having withdrawn or died, there was nothing much at all except a heap of debris fast being reclaimed by the vegetation. The Park spreads over an area of more than two hundred hectares and includes the highest point in the serra, Cruz Alta; it’s traversed by numberless tracks, some fairly rough and probably natural, as well as by many paths or even semi-avenues all paved with millions of Portuguese cobble-stones and bordered by inset decorative rocks. The latter lead to the several entrances to the Park, each with its own lodge, but these have fallen down and the gates are now all barred by unpleasant metal contrivances; the principal entrance is a car park and just as strongly barred by officious attendants. Fortunately few of the ordinary tourists wander far off the beaten track if they leave the palace precincts at all, so large tracts of the Park have remained more or less what they were, sanctuaries of cultivated nature, and actually there are still one or two places where it’s possible to sneak in.

The so-called Chalé da Condessa was a secret, or semi-secret, hideaway within the Park, a fair step from the Palace. It housed the Royal Mistress, a certain German actress and adventuress called Elisa Hensler who had already been elevated to the nobility for services rendered to another Saxe-Coburg princeling before she turned up in Portugal. She stayed where she was even after the death of her protector, and when she’d inherited the whole of Pena. but that may not have been just for reasons of modesty or discretion: she was greatly disapproved of by the Portuguese and most of all, perhaps naturally enough, by D Fernando’s son and heir. Nothing whatever was improved by his meeting a premature death and the scandals of poisoning that floated about thereafter. All the same, the dubious Condessa d’Edla didn’t do too badly. The Chalé is almost too ridiculous to be true, perhaps in keeping with the whole story, but in its secluded forest setting, surrounded by flowering shrubs, its undeniably an attractive retreat. I say ridiculous because although it’s a four-square and dumpy construction made from solid cement with a very flimsy vaguely-Tyrolean balcony all around the first floor level, the exterior walls have been contrived to resemble wooden planks and at the sides covered with tree-trunks and branches of inset cork, which material also surrounds the ‘gothic’ windows. Built in the 1860’s, it long ago was already in a fairly bad condition, but enough remained so that one hardly knew whether to burst out laughing or stare in amazement. Although boarded up, access was no great difficulty and worth the trouble, because it contains something I’ve never been able to work out. The main bedroom was preposterously but meticulously decorated in painted white lace over blue exactly following the description of his ‘heroine’s’ love-nest in Zola’s Nana. Now that novel only appeared in 1880, and it would be unlikely, surely, that a woman getting on and with every reason to uphold whatever respectability she could muster would deliberately imitate the decorations of the most blatant and vulgar tart in all literature, assuming she read at all. Could that mean that her fame, or infamy as the case may be, had spread to Paris? Or just, perhaps, that it was a vogue of the time, which Zola’s relative inexperience in the fashionable world represented to him as daring and original. The Countess hung onto her romantic chalet as a summer residence until 1911 in spite of everything. Later on, and up to the nineteen forties, it was inhabited by the then President of Portugal. I’m not sure what’s happened to it these days, if there’s much left to worry about.

Presumably because in those days most of what is now the Parque Nacional de Sintra-Cascais belonged to no-one in particular, the grounds of Pena evidently extend beyond the walls. Near the Condessa’s chalet, for instance, there was a sort of underground pass leading to what could have been agricultural land and a delicious little slate-roofed Hansel and Gretel house that I would have loved myself but which no-one paid the slightest attention to and so now its no longer there. Much more mysteriously, and also nearby, there’s a collection of five or six substantial and ornate houses in another walled estate only visible from the heights of Cruz Alta or just partly from an almost unknown track. They were all in good condition and the immediate area was well tended, but there appeared not to be a soul in them. The whole area was rather difficult to get into, but when I managed I had no desire at all to hang around. I had the impression that the blank windows were concealing watching eyes, and moreover I’d already heard, or imagined I’d heard, some blood-curdling shrieks from somewhere in the distance. That jagged ends of broken bottles had recently been set into the top of some of the wall was not very reassuring either. The place is supposed to be the property of some botanical or horticultural society, but it’s too eerie and ostentatiously silent to be quite convincing. I’ve never spoken to anyone else in Sintra who’s ever heard of it, so what its original purpose was I have no idea – some other secluded hideaway for individuals not welcome at the palace? I see that Vale Flor, as it’s called, is receiving some official attention lately as another potentially listed site, but with no historical information made available. Having already announced myself as sceptical of ghosts, all the same that side of the serra has some unpleasant spots, where the hair on the back of the neck tends to rise as if in awareness that lives have departed with such agony and reluctance as to leave a permanent crease in the air.

Monday, March 22, 2010


Never satisfied for long with anything, Beckford was back in Sintra in 1793, having meandered around Europe in between. He was thirty-three by then, older but not wiser and even more extravagant. Things had changed in the meantime. Republicanism was in the air, the queen had quite lost what wits she had upon hearing of the fate of her French ‘cousin’ and when he finally obtained the long-desired audience with her she was of no interest to him, his former friends had clipped their wings accordingly and the ecclesiastics were nervous. Revolutionary France was a nuisance as far as Beckford was concerned, it limited travel and conduced to drabness, but he overcame that by arriving this time with a train of eighty-seven servants and functionaries, all “indispensable”: he’d gone a shade off his head too, it would be very interesting if some of their observations had been recorded. He plunged back into Roman ceremonial as an ironical diversion: the “fine stage-effects, glittering crosses … processions, perfumes, clothes and music, from the deep tones of the organ to the delightful squeakings of the Pope’s eunuchs…” Of this second occasion, though, there are no journals, just an extremely entertaining account of his travels published many years later and probably not by any means always sticking to the strict truth. His acquisition of Monserrate therefore remains obscured in a certain amount of mystery.

The Quinta de Monserrate, as it was then, occupies an especially favourable site along the ‘high’ road between Sintra and Colares. The name is said to derive from a votive chapel put up to the Virgin of Monserrat by a sixteenth century friar on returning from a pilgrimage to the great Benedictine monastery of that name in Catalonia (and around which all sorts of legends to do with the Holy Grail and so on have always circulated). Subsequently the lease of the property was acquired by the Mello e Castro family, resident in Goa as administrators and managed by and sub-let to others in their absence for agricultural purposes. What houses or buildings stood there were so damaged in the earthquake that they were abandoned. In1790 the whole lot was leased to a certain Gerard de Visme, an English merchant and businessman dealing in valuable brazil-wood and who for reasons of health and pleasure wanted somewhere that reminded him of his native soil – pushing it slightly surely, as there’s nothing very English about it. Here the plot thickens. Beckford had envied Monserrate the first time, but only on the second visit did he manage to rent it. It’s not exactly clear what house was there, but according to those unreliable recollections Beckford published later Mr de Visme had pulled down the original one, whether built by himself or someone else, and put up another in “barbarous gothic” There are reasons to suppose that it was Beckford himself who was responsible for the ‘barbarity’ and then, embarrassed about a lapse of taste, disowned it and tried to blame someone else. While he was there however he enjoyed himself very much, throwing himself with great energy into landscaping and gardening, having exotic trees and plants brought from every corner of the globe and establishing the magnificent gardens that still exist. “I have been too much engaged with the Royalty of Nature, with climbing roses and corktrees, with tracing rills and runnels to their source, and examining every recess of these lovely environs, to think of lesser royalties”, he wrote in 1795; “not once have I left this enchanted Circle … which is as dry, as gloriously cheerful as the most classical spots in Arcadia”. These diversions were fairly short-lived. He was there on and off for a couple of years, also building or acquiring other houses in Lisbon, but by 1798 he had got bored with “this silly moonish country” and took himself back to Wiltshire where he started on his most ambitious project so far, Fonthill Abbey. This grotesque and fantastic pseudo-gothic edifice fell down not all that long after it was put up, because the owner – by then safely somewhere else - was too impatient to have it done properly. So, as a matter of fact, or to a certain extent, did Monserrate, probably for the same reasons, which is why it is tempting to see the latter as an experimental precursor of the former. The local Wiltshire yokels levelled every stone of fallen Fonthill to the ground in disgust – so much for unacceptable genius. The Portuguese version fared a little better. What of it remained changed hands again several times and was the subject of several fairly bad paintings and drawings until 1858, when it disappeared altogether to be replaced by the “barbarous orientalism … constructed in a Moorish delirium”, as Rose Macaulay rather unfairly says, of the present building. But that belongs to a subsequent epoch.

Beckford was a characteristically eighteenth century figure, yet at the same time there was nothing remotely ‘classical’ about him, and if that word as contrasted with ‘romantic’ means anything other than a convenient label to designate historical styles, he would have to called an arch-romantic in the sense that he valued and exercised his own individuality, will and imagination at the expense of any social considerations or recognition of an ordained orders of things. Beethoven and Napoleon, at the same time expanding the same convictions in music and action, were the great heroes of the moment. Another one, soon to become famous or notorious for the same reasons, turned up in Sintra too.

George Gordon Byron, having inherited a baronetcy which strictly speaking only entitled him to a very minor milordship, made provision for a regulation grand tour vaguely in the direction of Albania and Constantinople by having had tailored to his own specifications two preposterous ‘oriental’ costumes at enormous expense and which most admirably suited and flattered his handsome face and figure. Thus equipped, he took a boat to Lisbon in the summer of 1809, proposing to travel overland from there. He was enchanted by “the little village of Cintra … the most beautiful, perhaps, in the world”, though he was only twenty one and had never been anywhere else. He visited what was left of Montserrate and walked or rode to the Pena Convent – a much more interesting excursion than it is now, right up into the crags, and his youthful imagination quite got the better of him, supposing the monks to subsist entirely on oranges and that the stone crosses on the way marked the graves of wayfarers who’d been assassinated on the ascent. But something else went terribly wrong. He conceived a violent hatred for the Portuguese and never abated it. Three years later, when his poetic account of his travels appeared and made him into a literary lion overnight, several Portuguese historians and writers were so outraged they invented a story that he’d been involved in, and lost, some contretemps over a lady’s honour; but there was no evidence for that or any other indication of what had upset him. It was not, evidently, even allowing for the author’s passionate temperament and outspokenness, any ordinary aversion that might arise from some incidental travel accident. Certain lines from the first Canto in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage are widely quoted in every tourist brochure and in most of the accommodations in the town:

Lo! Cintra's glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah, me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen,
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlock'd Elysium's gates?
The horrid crags, by toppling convent crown'd,
The cork-trees hoar that clothe the shaggy steep,
The mountain-moss by scorching skies imbrown'd,
The sunken glen, whose sunless shrubs must weep,
The tender azure of the unruffled deep,
The orange tints that gild the greenest bough,
The torrents that from cliff to valley leap,
The vine on high, the willow branch below,
Mix'd in one mighty scene, with varied beauty glow ….
And so on (stanzas XVIII and XIX)

Others are not; for example:

But whoso entereth within this town,
That, sheening far, celestial seems to be,
Disconsolate will wander up and down,
'Mid many things unsightly to strange ee;
For hut and palace show like filthily:
The dingy denizens are rear'd in dirt;
No personage of high or mean degree
Doth care for cleaness of surtout or shirt;
Though shent with Egypt's plague, unkempt, unwash'd, unhurt.
Poor, paltry slaves! yet born 'midst noblest scenes --
Why, Nature, waste thy wonders on such men?
(Stanzas XVII and XVIII)

And there’s quite a lot more in the same vein, which perhaps don´t bear too much scrutiny. As Rose Macaulay rather tartly observed, the word Eden tends to be used too casually by those who have never seen the deserts of Mesopotamia, and indeed if I see the words “Sintra’s glorious Eden” once more I’ll be sick. For all its ingenuities and wordsmanship, Childe Harold is very much the work of an exceptionally precocious and conceited young man, which is exactly what Byron was (a “scribbler”, as he said, he was too good to ever have any false pretensions as to his self-importance in that respect, and later in Don Juan he redeemed himself triumphantly by tempering an indolent sarcasm with a fine observation and a great generosity of spirit based on experience). All the English complained as a matter of course about the ‘dirt’ everywhere else (as tend to do people who themselves have something dirtier to conceal), but the fact was that he arrived in Portugal at a particularly unfortunate time, when Anglo-Portuguese relations were strained to say the least and when British soldiers on the rampage, and perhaps others, were being attacked or murdered – attacks they were all too prone to provoke - in the streets of Lisbon. Very possibly Byron’s dignity was offended in some such way and affected his impetuous judgment. To make a long story very short, Napoleon’s imperial ambitions had been set on bringing England to her knees by closing all continental ports to her trade. He issued an ultimatum to the Portuguese, prohibit English vessels from Lisbon or he’d invade – there were some devious negotiations going on in Spain at the same time to frighten them further. The English counter-attacked, and deeming the Regent (João, the second son of poor Maria, to whom had been passed over the reigns during her final dementia) too powerless and vacillating to resist they proposed to have him removed to Brazil and take charge of the Portuguese army themselves. Very much on the horns of a dilemma and with much hand-wringing, Joâo disgracefully if not altogether unreasonably was persuaded onto a British boat and abandoned his kingdom, followed by those of the alarmed nobility who saw themselves as candidates for the guillotine. In November 1807 Junot’s troops marched and occupied Lisbon for five days, the population resisting and quickly ejecting them. William Beresford took over-all control of the Anglo-Portuguese and Napoleon’s army was routed, but it was Portugal who was the loser again, because according to the Treaty of Cintra signed by the foreign combatants – and which to be fair to him also roused Byron’s honourable indignation - the French were allowed to help themselves to what they could pick up if they retreated. In the course of the Peninsular wars their armies laid waste to all of Iberia, dragging after them a lengthy baggage train of loot. Mme Junot, self-styled Duchesse de Abrantés, made off with the famous Portuguese Apricot, a large pink diamond. It was last seen around her neck at the Paris Opéra, and then never again. Two more offensives against Portugal were launched and thwarted under the over-all command of the Duke of Wellington, one just before Byron arrived and the next in the year after he’d left. The Portuguese remained wondering if they wouldn’t have done better after all under the French and were ready deeply to resent the British for high-handed interference. Wellington, as the ostensible victor, was himself in no hurry to depart, even with the heap of crafted silver the Portuguese had given him as a bribe to go and which, never used, still decorates Apsley House in London. Nor were the officers and gentleman and their good ladies who surrounded him. For a while the Portuguese were obliged to look through the windows of their Sintra houses as the English comported themselves within, as usual disparaging the natives and suffering agreeably from the disadvantages of being abroad. In any case, Byron didn’t stay more than a few days, nothing like enough to understand anything very clearly. He proceeded across Spain, which he thought much more sympathetic because he got a lot more attention there, and eventually found his own poignant destiny in the mystic east, in which region of the imagination he and Beckford, though they never met, had something in common.

Like all passing English travellers with no better invitations, Byron put up at Lawrence’s Hotel, a hostelry which had been doing a good trade for the last half century. Under the original Mrs Lawrence (or Lawrence Oram, exactly how or when she arrived here is not known) it seems to have been a jolly and well-run establishment, and it continued to be so under her descendents throughout the nineteenth century even when newer and larger local accommodations appeared. In 1949 the leasehold was acquired, surprisingly, according to the Inventário, by a Czechoslovakian who re-named it and, presumably, adorned it with the decoration announcing, more or less, that “Lord Byron stayed here”. It was permanently closed in 1961 and was about to fall down until 1999, when it was re-built and re-opened as Lawrence’s Hotel again. The commemorative sign remains as a draw, but His Lordship would have had an apoplexy if he could see to what purposes his name has been taken in vain. From the outside it’s very nice, thanks to the work of an architect I suppose appointed as befitted a listed monument, but the interior arrangements are a stern warning as to how fatal a woman’s hand can be when it ventures out of a domestic into a decorative sphere and when applied to sly economy obscured by cant. The restaurant says it all: minimal incongruous ingredients messed about with and unnecessarily advertised by fulsome descriptions – “garnished with a shrimp and half a sliced strawberry in a luscious yoghurt sauce with powdered ginger and sprinkled with ….” and so on. Ughh!

After that irritable little digression ….. No sooner had the French been removed than Portugal was involved in internal warring troubles of its own, another instance of chickens coming home to roost. A number of liberal exiles who had picked up abroad certain of the revolutionary ideas along with Free Masonry returned to Portugal and began to agitate for a constitutional monarchy, and were eventually to be more or less successful owing mostly to what the internet History discreetly calls “a crisis of royal leadership”. João VI, comfortably installed in Brazil, left things to William Beresford, who as the imposed commander of the Portuguese army summarily executed twelve of the liberal ring-leaders. He then (1820) went to Brazil himself, to try unsuccessfully to get the king back. In his absence there were army revolts and he wasn’t allowed to return. A civil war broke out in Portugal between Monarchists and Constitutionalists, at the same time as Brazil was demanding independence; things were in a complete mess and only temporarily resolved by an unsatisfactory compromise which left one of João’s sons, Pedro, Emperor of Brazil and intended to restore the younger, Miguel, as constitutional King of Portugal with powers limited by an elected Chamber of Deputies. That might have worked had Miguel, who was a loud-mouthed and arrogant youth, had any intention of accepting a constitution and if Beresford and the English Tories hadn’t interfered again, having no intention themselves of accepting one in a country they wished to dominate, or rather only of accepting one which they could manipulate to ensure that no ‘Jacobinism’ was any part of it .They supported and encouraged Miguel, who appears to have been a very bad egg altogether, so that when João VI died in 1826 the succession question split public opinion into two irreconcilable groups and initiated what is known as the War of the Two Brothers, a drawn-out and very disturbing affair into which various ‘liberal’ British interests, to spite their own government, entered as well. I won’t go on with these political details, which get rather complicated and tedious, except to point out that until the early 1840’s the country was torn apart first by the struggle between those who favoured a return to absolute monarchy and those who wanted a progression to a constitutional one and then by the upheavals caused by savage disagreements between moderates and radicals that followed an apparent liberal victory. In the meantime, the wretched Miguel having been banished for ever (and incidentally, the Emperor of Brazil, in spite of the preposterous title, turns up in several biographies as an extremely amiable and pleasant fellow, in complete contrast to his brother),. Pedro’s easy-going daughter, Maria da Glória, had been installed (1834) as Queen of Portugal, on a throne at times she only precariously maintained by enlisting foreign aid. During the same years similar revolutions and protracted periods of internal strife were going on all over Continental Europe as the old order very reluctantly gave way to the new; in a sense, Portugal could be said to have done not so badly in the end, relatively speaking, managing to keep a monarchy while admitting most of the reforms – at least for the time being. As history was to show, the seeds of discord, far from being eradicated, had merely been buried to lie dormant until the time was ripe again; dogged and stoical determination is a national quality, or defect, as one wishes to see it.

Few of the numerous English in Sintra would have heard of Byron when he was here, except possibly as the subject of distasteful rumours, though most of them would have agreed entirely with his sentiments regarding the place they had requisitioned. Later, after Waterloo, when travel was safe again, hordes of English tourists started to descend en masse, Childe Harold clutched to thrilled bosoms. Lord Byron was very wicked, “mad, bad and dangerous to know”, but his interesting affliction, his looks and above all his rapturous sensibility and exciting adventures amorous and otherwise put him into the role, in these fevered imaginings, of fallen angel rather than demon. Where his steps had taken him, thousands of others followed, in hopeful expectation of similar if respectably-diluted ecstasies.

By and large, they formed a series of cliques depending on social ranking but all of them enclosed within an isolating barrier to prevent contamination – they abhorred papish ‘superstition’ while being secretly terrified of it and went on instead about the deplorable habits and morals of the Portuguese. Robert Southey, an over-zealous and priggish ‘scribbler’ ridiculed by Byron, complained bitterly of the philistinism of his country-men and came to Çintra - “the most blessed spot in the habitable globe” he called it, though his knowledge of the globe was non-existent - to cut himself off in some unidentified cottage belonging to his uncle, the British chaplain, where he continued to complain that no-one took any notice of him; he was equally a dismal bore to the hearties and beneath the notice of the smart set, and it never occurred to him to make friends locally even while pursuing an interminable, unfinished and unreadable History of Portugal. The English, in their patronising way and when it suited them, liked to remind themselves that Henry the Navigator was half English, that Catherine of Braganza had been unwillingly espoused to Charles II by bringing with her Tangier and Bombay, and that Portugal was their “oldest ally”, but all that meant was that they wanted an open harbour, the port wine and a few other commodities for as cheaply as possible and an accessible place with a better climate than their own where they could rule the roost. They’d more or less forced the Methuen Treaty of 1703, allowing them commercial privileges and monopolies, onto their disadvantaged partner, and were extremely indignant later on at ‘ingratitude’ when Pombal tried to counter it. They meddled throughout the nineteenth century and would still, if they could, as anyone who’s ventured into one of two cafés in the vicinity of the British Institute can gather. I once met, or rather was obliged to speak to, a very ordinary pair who had the idea that they could supplement the cash they had already dishonestly acquired on their home ground by taking over an ex-Nazi estalagem here; they were terribly put out when they found that the local people they’d graciously employed to do the work they were too lazy or incompetent to do themselves expected to be modestly paid for it. Let them go back, as Ramalhão Ortigão said, to their own "fog-bound and indigestible island which only disgust prevents the sea from swallowing”. Well, he had made himself very cross for reasons of his own, but he had a point.

It is to an Englishman, however, that we owe the only really graphic impression of what Sintra was like at this period. The Portuguese, though extolling its beauties and so on in rather vague poetic terms, were imprecise or careless or just not interested in providing any sort of factual details; it’s a pity, for instance, that so few records are available, or were ever made, of social rather than political or courtly history, records over which the English have always been diligent (though I should be careful in saying that, because almost everything before the earthquake disappeared in it). It’s a pity, too, that landscape or architectural painting has never been a Portuguese forte. William Burnett, in his time a minor but if he’d lived now a major topographical painter, accompanied a friend to mainland Portugal via the Azores and in the early 1830’s and did a series of representations of Sintra which in reproduced lithographical form used to be seen adorning every local café and were available in mass-produced post-cards in every tourist shop. Apart from their being ‘pretty’, barely anyone ever looked at them, yet as masterly depictions of early nineteenth Sintra they’re by far the best records we have. However attractive in reality, the place does not ‘compose’ easily within a frame, and so Burnett’s illustrations, which compose very well, warrant close attention. . Unfortunately they’re rather hard to find now, or at least the one I want - from the Lisbon road in Stª Maria - is, and the best I can do is a rather poor photocopy taken from an original in the British Museum. None seems to be available in any museum in this country, by some strange oversight or other.

Almost the exact spot is identifiable, and the town palace would be visible more or less where it’s shown had not subsequent buildings hidden it. On the other hand, not one depicted local building is identifiably still there except the towers of Stª Maria and S Miguel, the latter of which was supposed to have fallen down in 1755 but of course is very useful as a ‘focus’ for the picture. Another view ‘taken’ in the town itself is architecturally plausible because it includes, rather surprisingly, a somewhat overpowering and ugly building, presumably an apartment block, still there but which one would have imagined of several decades later The mountain, as always, apart from being quite inaccurately drawn, is far too dramatically rocky and bare; that could perhaps be explained by the occasional fires that ravage it, yet Burnett undoubtedly exaggerated the rocks, very randomly sketched in, for artistic effect, as other more amateur painters did also. If he did that he almost certainly invented other details. In other words, it’s partly an example of nature following art, though none the worse for that; he made the image of Sintra that generations of eyes gazed only half-aware upon. What I can’t discover is the source of these prints, if such there ever was. A lot of Turner’s (contemporary) watercolours were done for the purpose of making what would now be coffee-table books of reproduced ‘views’. Someone told me that Burnett’s original artworks are in a museum in Funchal in Madeira, but when was I was there the place in question was closed so I haven’t been able to find out, and anyway it was an unlikely story to start with. Never mind, the images, once engraved, stand in their own right, that’s what icons are about and that’s why art is important. It was largely pictures, of which Burnett’s are the most influential, that made Sintra ‘romantic’ by determining the way that less observant people saw it while providing the ‘ground’ on which to project their own dreams There’s another very nice painting, labelled “English school anonymous”, in the local museum, where ‘regulations’ prevent its being photographed. It’s a little later, perhaps early 1840’s, but I think it’s very accurate, with minimal jugglings of perspective. It represents Sintra as a small country town beautifully positioned in a rich and strange landscape, the luxurious quintas decently obscured in folds and forest groves where they belong, and which is the way I prefer to think of it myself.

In spite of the Revolutionary Wars and succeeding upheavals, the first two or three decades of the nineteenth century, before the rot set in irretrievably, have always been particularly attractive to me. The world, in a way, was fresh again, it was “bliss to be alive” as Woodsworth said, and for a little while it seemed that the poor human race might at last have found the freedom – from tyranny, oppression, poverty, ignorance and most of all its own feeble consciousness - that it always protests that it wants. Alas no, it was on its way to far greater servitude, but in the meantime to the ravishing music of Beethoven and Schubert, to the soul-stirring heroics of Hugo and the ethereal visions of Turner, the individual will, the delusion that all could be attained with courage and cooperation, seemed almost a reality; the New World, from virgin forests to endless plains to sublime mountains, all untouched by the grubby fingers of civilization and waiting to be harmonized by kindly hands, personified it. Yet had something been lost in the passage? To revert to that English obsession with Latin dirt: the over-elaborate costumes of costly fabrics of the ancien régime were certainly filthy with ingrained sweat or worse, at least one guillotined head revealed a nest of mice flourishing within piles of hair thick with accretions of flour but once sprinkled with diamonds, in the veritable city that was Versailles there was not one lavatory and the courtiers performed their natural functions over the grand staircase, the kitchens that produced the endless dinners on gold plates and bejewelled vessels were unspeakable, and so on, and then we have to ask, why didn’t that seem to matter to them and why amidst that titillated squalor were they able to make or command or appreciate some of the greatest artefacts of civilization the world has ever seen? Romanticism, along with rejecting the ‘autocracy’ of the past, started to tidy things up: elementary high-waisted muslin gowns and the elegant severity of form-fitting black and white; seductive glossy curls; airy and sparsely ornamented retreats in imitation of Greek temples, the worship of Nature, became the vogue; as did, or was starting to be, machinery, science and the new religion of progress towards a planned utopia, disguised for the moment under a prettification that was even shoddier, as it turned out, than Marie-Antoinette’s, and escaping – this what it boils down to I think - into even further reaches of wishful thinking increasingly-insecurely connected to the mundane world of birth, death and animal survival. The eighteenth century, whatever else can be said against it, was at least firmly grounded on the facts of life with no sentimentality about them.

Study of the passing fashions of decorative style is usually regarded as a rather superficial and frivolous one, but since we are largely what we do and make in everyday life I think it can be much more informative than academic history, which is always an intellectual fiction grafted onto incidental dates and events. That’s why I like to look at architecture and other such products of ordinary existence, because there the evidence is right in front of one’s eyes. As I said, I like very much the artefacts and ‘style’ of the period I’m talking about, but I’d like them more perhaps without the knowledge of what they turned into, because that reveals an inner hollowness and dishonesty within what seemed a very brave attempt: when the frills and fuss came back they were just as superfluous and vain as they were before, only not anywhere near so well done. I’ll continue on that theme in the following chapters. We’ll have a look at Sintra between the end of the Peninsular wars and the start of its ‘decadence’ first.

Portugal’s troubles during this period ensured that not much evidence of the spirit of the times penetrated this peculiar region, at least not in forms that are very noticeable. However, the Count, later Duke, of Saldanha started building himself a country house in Sintra during the early 1830’s, not all that dissimilar - Portuguese taste being generally very conservative – in layout from eighteenth century quintas but making more exaggerated and ‘picturesque’ use of a fashionable gothicism: the windows vaguely emulate those of a cathedral and appropriate ornaments and follies, somewhat haphazardly mixed up with other references, decorate the grounds. The house rises very pleasingly above the town, it’s the highest one there, but it always looked rather neglected amidst the encroaching forest; the Duke had died in 1876, and it wasn’t until 1897, apparently, that it acquired a new owner, the Patriarchal Cardinal (I’m not quite sure how to say that in English, but never mind). This gentleman started rebuilding works, but he too died in the next year, perhaps just as well before any harm was done.

Adjoining this house, and bearing some complicated relation to it, is the more elegantly-beautiful so-called Casa Italiania, or Dowager’s House as its known locally, which true to its name has nothing very Portuguese about it. This belonged to the Duke’s mother, herself Pombal’s daughter, and although it looks newer it pre-dated the main building by perhaps a decade or more, being erected over the ruins of something else. It’s reminiscent of that sort of Northern Italian Napoleonic style, pared down and vaguely military while making use of the classical orders and painted a glorious ochre – I like it very much. And there’s nothing in the least bit abandoned and falling down here, it’s very much alive and kicking, with the most lavish extensions going on around it, though not all of them I think entirely agreeable to some of the town’s more conservative members.

The Duque de Saldanha was a very eminent personage of the time, and very much involved in the tumultuous events that were going on. As a young man he’d fought with dash and valour against the French not only in Portugal but throughout Iberia; tater, as a ‘Pedroist’ he was at the same time soldier, diplomatist and aristocrat; he popped up everywhere, a great patriot (as all the ‘romantics were), and in the square of his name in Lisbon he’s represented in bronze holding out a stern arm to repel invaders and quell trouble-makers. He lived a long and exciting life and died crowned with laurels. It used to be said, again according to local and usually inaccurate lore, that his quinta was a gift from a grateful nation; more likely, I should think, seeing that his mother was already there and in view of his genealogy, that it came by more straight-forward means. One hopes that in between everything else, he had some time to enjoy his patrimony.

Another very elegantly plain house of the same period, lesser than these and sombrely fronted but not so modest either, can be seen in that very posh part of the town leading to Seteais; I don’t know anything about it. The effect depends to some extent on the discreet attention paid to it in a riotously-exuberant profusion of nature.

A genuinely ‘romantic’ house exists, or existed, in Santa Maria, with the date, 1801, engraved on it. At that time it must have been rather an anomaly in that place, perhaps even ‘flash’, though it’s not pretentious. I had an affection for this house because of its occupant, a tiny and very old lady known locally as the Condessa, and she was loved by everyone around, most of them also old and not well off, for the kind deeds she’d been doing close to home – the best place to do kind deeds - all her life. At first she was still entirely independent, proceeding at snail’s pace either up or down the hill to get what she wanted. We once helped her with some small thing, and she asked us in to a number of rooms that hadn’t been changed for what could have been a century or more. She couldn’t remember how old she was, she said, but her father had bought the house when she was a child because she was consumptive and the ‘air’ was supposed to be good, and she hadn’t left it thereafter: evidently the air had worked. She really was a countess, but, she emphasized, not from ambition, because she had happened to fall in love with a count who had lived there too after they married. She couldn’t remember either how long ago that was. She was like a Belle-au-Bois Dormant who had forgotten to go to sleep; neither had the bois, it had gone completely wild so that giant camellia trees topped the house and boa-constrictors of rambling roses were supporting the little balcony. Sad to relate, as she got more infirm she took in a pair of housekeepers who were revolting slovenly and sinister, and it was always my suspicion that they’d disposed of her. They were themselves disposed of later, and in the last couple of years the house also has been as good as disposed of – I mean, it underwent a costly transformation, was fitted up with completely wrong ‘classical’ balustrading and so on, and the gardens were hygienically cleared, or just cut down, so that everyone could gaze in envy at the new swimming pool and the nasty little ‘Tahitian’ umbrella things around it. That’s not the sort of adornment we want here, but I suppose I shouldn’t be too sour, another hundred years will wear it all in.

At a lower level, there was a certain amount of unexpected expansion going on elsewhere. The house I had in Santa Maria was completely beneath any architectural notice, but the deeds recorded its origins in 1826. That might have indicated nothing more than the date at which deeds were ‘officialised’, but in any case half of it had been at some stage a carpenter’s workshop, so some sort of ordinary life had presumably gone on in that neighbourhood even while during the 1850’s or thereabouts it was becoming a full-blown ‘romantic’ enclave for jaded sophisticates. The walls, of solid stone almost a metre thick, seemed like a precaution against another earthquake. The house I presently inhabit, according to the deeds, was registered in 1863, so I was very surprised, and at first incredulous, when an unknown and not altogether reliable-looking woman appeared, wanting to be let in to have a look and saying that it was built in 1815. Her grandparents had owned it, she said, and she’d partly been brought up in it, so I suppose she knew and I couldn’t argue with her because she described completely accurately certain details of the top floor. The date 1815 put a rather different perspective on my view of this part of the town, which belongs to a subsequent chapter, and it also increased my admiration for its builders. Most of the woodwork - floors, ceiling joists and quite a few windows - is therefore nearly two hundred years old, and although to some extent suffering from woodworm, damp, and all the rest of it, still has a while to go if one isn’t too fussy or nervous. Properly matured good wood is the secret, that’s something else that’s disappeared.