Saturday, March 13, 2010


Stª Maria de Sintra

Sintra, Çintra, Cynthia, Mountain of the Moon, legendary haunt of Diana the Huntress…by some totally unexpected twist of fate I’ve ended up in this small Portuguese town, which also gives its name to a district, almost within sight of Lisbon but still largely a separate and enclosed world. I can spare a mundane description, because that’s available elsewhere
or for an even duller everyday ‘official’ account here
But that’s not what I’m interested in ...

Sintra is a very ancient place, which has seen great changes over the course of its long history, and of course is still seeing them – presently, in my opinion, not to its advantage, but then perhaps I could say that of the world in general. All the same, some of the past is still visible and accessible here in a way which is now rather rare. Contemplation of what has gone before, I believe, could if the lesson be learned provide material for the present, though that habit is all too rare too. While some of it remains, it’s worthy of observation. I’ve spent over twenty years exploring every nook and cranny of this place and conducting guided tours over it for friends and visitors, and now I think I can rest on my laurels and refer future arrivals to a text….

Although it has at periods been a destination for discriminating travelers, I’d never heard of Sintra until I came - rather warily, because I knew there’d been ‘revolution’ not long before - to Lisbon in 1978. I knew very little about Portugal, come to that, regarding it very vaguely and quite mistakenly as a sort of adjunct to Spain, a country at that stage with a fairly beastly reputation. But Lisbon was perfectly reassuring, I took to it immediately while not understanding a word of the language. Before long I’d made a Portuguese friend who soon became a very close one, and it was he, in the next year, who first brought me here. But it wasn’t until 1983 when I was becoming fed up for various reasons with living in London and had conceived the notion of abandoning my previous existence to start a new one in Portugal, that fate started to flap its wings and take a more direct hand in things. There’d been a promise – not kept as it turned out – of my writing a sort of travel piece for a fancy English magazine and Sintra seemed a promising subject. Byron romantizised for the well-bred what was already on the map for those who’d followed the course of the Peninsular campaigns, and during the nineteenth century after travel became possible again it was to an extent taken over by the British; Wellington himself had had to be politely evicted from one of the more desirable residences. From the 1840’s the construction on the top of the mountain of a vast Walt Disney palace by the German husband of the Queen of Portugal occasioned another wave of fashion and re-building which ousted them to a certain extent, although without quite eradicating the feeling amongst those who remained that Sintra was ‘theirs’, being as Byron put it too good for the Portuguese and “wasted” on them. The course of events throughout the subsequent century, the declaration of a Republic in 1911, the Salazar years and then the Revolution of 1974, reduced the former glory while enhancing the romance. In the early ‘eighties it was almost a ghost town huddling around another extraordinary and much more ancient regal residence, its origins
Arabic and its many rambling rooms the scenes of Portuguese history and legend. In the twisting lanes all around lay dozens of other minor palaces and mansions from the 1500’s to the 1920’s, most of them falling into ruin if not abandoned altogether. A semi-tropical luxuriance of vegetation covered everything, rippling streams ascaded down heaps of colossal boulders, and above loomed the walls of the fortress that the Arabs had commanded until they were overcome by native wiliness in the twelfth century. When I had been to Sintra for the day a couple of years before I had been too confused by the topography and the richness of architecture to take it in properly; the town is small, but the surrounding area is not, and the roads and tracks twist and turn until one has no sense of where one is or has come from, even while tantalizing glimpses of new fascinations are visible in every direction. This time I wanted to get my bearings more accurately.

I don’t have to venture into the treacherous maze of memory to recollect the details of this turn of events, because most of my life I’ve been keeping a journal which has been edited into an ‘autobiography’, so I can quote directly from that: -

It being first on the road to Lisbon, we started off at Ramalhão. No-one seems quite to know the beginnings of this place, but presumably when William Beckford rented it in the 1790’s it already had more or less its present form, that of a very extensive low-lying palace in fairly severe Portuguese classical style set in terraced gardens and ornamented discreetly with baroque arches and gateways. The richest man in England, and well accustomed to luxury, it is unlikely that Beckford would have been content with anything less than the most splendid, though of that not a lot remained. The palace had for years been a girls’ school, an ‘exclusive’ one of course, but the pupils were evidently not too pampered from what could be seen of their surroundings. Although we wandered around the gardens, or what were left of them, without attracting notice, nuns were guarding the interior. There was nothing to see, one said, the Catholic church had no money to spare on frivolous decorations; that is not true, and what she meant I suppose was that if she and her cronies and their charges were obliged to inhabit the former rooms of a degenerate foreigner they were going to make sure that all unhealthy influences were well and truly obliterated, as subsequent visits to Ramalhão proved that they were. This is not so with Seteais, a later and much more elegant building to which according to Beckford he used to walk in the evening accompanied by his own orchestra of “warblers” all dressed up in violet and nut-brown costumes. If this is correct they must all have been fairly athletic, because the two palaces are about three miles distant and separated by what must have been then a very rough track over several steep and thickly-wooded valleys. Seteais sits on the brow of a hill with the sea six or eight miles beyond and at a certain time as the sun sets behind it looks like a stage scene created by a latter-day Claude. The stage effect is not merely an illusion: one of the pair of symmetrical wings is literally a ‘flat’. On this first occasion, although it was already a very smart hotel with all the early eighteenth-century decoration and furnishings intact, it was possible also to wander around without interruption. The outside, though beautiful, was shabby, and behind the imposing ceremonial arch linking the two wings there were piles of rubbish and overgrown parterres, apparently untended for years. Somewhere between these two places was a village called São Pedro, a sort of miniature suburb of Sintra as it were, and even sleepier. At the gate of an imposingly ugly house in a sort of sub-Tyrolean style a woman was waiting - as it might have appeared prophetically for us, though in fact for her own visitors - with the information that it was for sale. How much? I can’t remember exactly, but since it had three floors, included all the furniture, had a pine forest as well as the gardens, and a private spring up the mountain, it was a bargain price, even if not one I could possibly afford. It struck me that the owner might be a lunatic, she said there was something “funny” with her head, “not mad, to do with the blood”, a fine distinction I thought, but all the same, if something like that was going for whatever it was, what might be available further down the scale? On the way to or from this house we had passed by a sort of belvedere with a view to another tiny village on the side of the mountain which looked enchanting and somehow promising, but we couldn’t find out how to get there and left it for next time.

We had a day on the beach, and then returned to Sintra. This time I went to the local library which was housed in a former palace right in the town. It was claimed that it contained every book or article that had ever been written about Sintra, and no doubt that was true as far as Portuguese writing went – for there was a large collection – but there were things in English that I had already seen that were not. On the other hand, there were some things in English which I am sure are unknown in England, perhaps just as well: as, for example, a large epic-type poem by some anonymous dotty Englishwoman which described the activities of a tribe of fairies, resident in Sintra, who on fine nights took themselves northwards to disport in English meadows, for reasons I hadn’t the patience to find out. However, an obliging librarian took great trouble to fish out works she thought might interest me and supplied me with various bits of local information as well. When I mentioned, very casually and in passing, that Sintra might be “a nice place to live”, she drew me to a window and pointed out a house, just below, that was for sale. Although it was as dauntingly large as it was decrepit, I forsook the books and went straight down. A very gracious lady opened the door. Inside, it was rather worse than out, though there were remnants of grandeur. It had been raining in some of the rooms for some time, and some she didn’t show me. We settled into a conversation about everything except the matter in hand, but that was Portuguese civility. My hostess was pretty battered around by time and weather herself, perhaps also by some torments of her own soul, but so charming and ladylike that I could have stayed there all night just listening to her. Eventually we got around to the house question. Well, it wasn’t hers exactly. Moreover, she would ask, if it was sold by whoever it belonged to, that she might stay in a shack in the garden. The garden was an extensive area of land in a gloomy ravine planted with orange and lemon groves but descending down into unknown depths. The prospect looked less and less inviting, and anyway it was clear that it was as much beyond reach of my pocket as the one the day before in São Pedro had been. Quite undeterred by my hesitations, she suggested that I might like to speak to some relative of hers, a man she gave me to understand dealt between owners and buyers, not of course as a ‘businessman’ but as one interested in the preservation of the Portuguese heritage. House agents in those days were more or less unheard of in Portugal except at a very high level; otherwise it was regarded, quite rightly, as a very vulgar occupation. When eventually I managed to tear myself away I went back to Lisbon in high spirits and early next morning we contacted her useful relative.

He could show us, he said, a seventeenth-century farmhouse with its own vineyard a little further up the coast. It turned out to be a pile of stones, only some lintels remaining upright. That was rather dismaying, particularly since the price was not exactly low. The place was beautiful, and the vineyard was there, along with a good area of land, but I seemed to remember someone telling me that viniculture was not as easy as it
sounded and anyway the difficulties of restructuring the stones seemed quite beyond me. Moreover, it was a good way from anywhere except a small coastal village, and I was far from certain that as a foreigner I would be able to endure being so cut off from even the outposts of civilization, and so I had to decline. But if it were mine, I was asked, what colour would I paint the stripe on the outside wall around the door? I looked blankly at Jorge. “Blue”, he mouthed. “Azul”, I said. It was the right answer. Well, the gentleman had another house which might interest me more. It was, unbelievably, in the tiny village on which we had already gazed from the São Pedro belvedere without being able to work out how to get there. From the street, or rather narrow cobbled lane, it presented a low blank wall with a single door that gave no hint as to what was behind – a trio of tiny paved terraces tumbling down the mountain lane but opened inside over a sheer drop to a view of a corresponding steep slope on the other side. Somewhere at the bottom, reached by a spiral staircase, there was a pocket-handkerchief garden and above another even smaller one tucked into the bare rocks. It was overshadowed by trees of various sorts, some rising from below, others soaring from heights above and ivy and wisteria dripped everywhere. The highest building had three rooms and a kitchen and a bathroom suspended right on the edge of a miniature precipice. The other one had one room at an intermediate level, and two more with a bathroom a story below and raised above the garden. All the rooms were small and as simple as could be, and there were some rather unpleasant-looking black marks on some of the walls. I knew nothing at all about what to look for in houses, but common-sense would have warned that there might be difficulties here. I put those aside. Really nothing more than a rudimentary cottage, I could never have imagined anything so unique and delightful to be within my range. The price was very modest at a time when a single room in Notting Hill Gate was selling for £80,000, and I knew that if I looked for twenty years I wouldn’t find better. It took about ten minutes, I think, for me to decide that I would have it We had to go to a Dickensian suite of rooms to find a solicitor to write a document authorizing Jorge to act on my behalf and he dictated a series of incomprehensible documents with stern warnings not to make any mistakes or I would have to start all over again. Having stepped up to my neck in it, I went back to London to try and come to terms with my own folly.

The next slightly agonizing months are of no interest in this account; suffice to say that by the beginning of 1984 I found myself in possession of a house I’d seen for only a few minutes in a place I hardly knew waiting for a vanload of what objects I’d retained to be dragged across Europe to be ‘checked’ by the Portuguese authorities in Faro in the Algarve. That was sufficient cause for apprehension for the time being, and more potentially serious ones, notably that I had no means of support, I put out of my mind. I’d brought with me from London an old friend whose function was supposed to be to provide moral support, though he wasn’t altogether doing a very good job in that respect, warning me repeatedly of how reckless I was being. The three of us arrived in Sintra in what seemed like the middle of the night.

The house key was meant to have been left at a neighbour’s, but it had not been, and we were all tired and cranky. Jorge rang up the former owners, who were living somewhere back towards Lisbon, and returned with the message that Dona Luisa had the key but “couldn’t receive as she was already in her robe de chambre” “For heaven’s sake”, yelled Franc, not familiar with the rules of national propriety, “who wants to be received, tell the silly bitch to throw it out the window”. So back we trooped, caught the key as it descended from an upper floor, and let ourselves in. It was only the second time I had seen what I had gone to such trouble to procure, and on the first occasion six months before I hadn’t looked very carefully. Now that I was the owner it looked rather less romantic and delightful than it had in my imagination. Franc’s face fell somewhat, though he agreed it was “very original”. It wasn’t very warm and a light rain was falling and that the lower parts had to be entered independently from outside suddenly seemed a less than satisfactory arrangement. We passed a fairly bleak nigh with a couple of blankets as well as we could.

By daylight, the magic was more or less restored and even Franc was won over when we ambled down a twisting road between crumbling walls and a fantastic luxuriance of exotic vegetation to have a breakfast in the town. Jorge had to go back to Lisbon and Franc and I went by bus to Estoril, eight miles or so away, to meet the movers and direct them. They weren’t there, of course. The next day they arrived at the house with hangovers from the binge that had caused their absence the day before and not too pleased to discover that they had to leave their vast vehicle blocking a narrow road and hoist all the stuff up a flight of steps and a cobbled lane and then distribute it up and down more stairs. I’d rather misled them on that account, thinking that if I told the truth they might have refused to take it on, and so the best I could do was to lend a hand. The five of us worked like demons for an hour or two and got it all in. There was a terrible confusion of furniture and packing cases, a good many of which contained only books. Dragging some of them up, one of the men asked if I’d “read all these”. Franc said he supposed I had. “Why’s he bringing them here then?” They must have cursed me even more over the harpsichord and the washing machine and an eight-foot high bookcase with glass doors. When they’d gone we re-arranged everything until it fitted just about as exactly as I had planned. It was a bit cramped, but alright…

There was another trip back to London to settle things there before I finally braced myself for the psychological re-adjustment

If, as Franc said when he got irritated with me, my making a mess of my own existence had rendered me jaundiced and cynical, all the same I escaped back to Sintra with a passage by Denton Welch as a text for a new attempt: “… it is best for me to be alone most of the time – near people who wish me well and like to see me, but alone; for in loneliness everything seems to grow into its proper place and there is hardly any waste of spirit, what little there is does not offend, it is one’s own fault, one lets it pass.” Certainly I had come to the right place to practice that sort of philosophy. As a foreigner in a little enclosed dwelling in a tiny village halfway up a mountain that was often shrouded in mist and in bad weather assailed by flying branches , I had well and truly managed to cut myself off and to have gone almost as far as I could go from Hampstead or Kensington. Santa Maria de Sintra, as the village was called from the church of the same name around which it huddled, was a collection of once grand villas now largely empty or falling down. There might have been up to a hundred inhabitants, apart from the few pre-revolutionary relics who continued to come for weekends or holidays trailing their memories of better days behind them. I had the smallest and humblest house in the place, even if some of my immediate neighbours, all getting on and poor, lived as tenants only in one or two rooms of substantial and crumbling premises. Here and there, and especially further up, there were houses and even a veritable palace where life was evidently lived at a fairly high level behind the discreet doors and shuttered windows and high moss-covered walls, but exactly how it was only possible to speculate. I knew no-one else at all. There was no shop of any sort, not even a café, closer than Sintra itself, half a mile away, or São Pedro, about the same distance further up. The new town, or ‘commercial centre’ as it was known, was a mile down a winding road, and there there were some very old-fashioned shops and essential services and a toy railway station from which left and arrived every twenty minutes the train to Lisbon, forty-five minutes away.

Sintra, these days, is no more than a suburb of Lisbon, and the intervening space was already then being filled in with hideous new apartment blocks, but its complicated topography, its unique micro-climate and its atmosphere of mystery and legend gave the impression, when one was there, of its being a different and isolated world. The geographically insignificant Serra de Sintra, at one end of which lay Sintra itself, ranged in a series of volcanic plugs and tors over the twelve or so miles to Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point of Europe, where it plunges precipitously into the Atlantic. However sceptical one might normally be of cruel Diana with her arrows, alone, in the middle of its dense forest, almost any mythological fantasy seemed plausible. The classical deities and their attendant sprites remained unmolested until the arrival of the followers of Mohamed somewhere at the end of the eighth century. The Arabs must have established a substantial settlement in Santa Maria, for evidence of it still remains – not just the restored fortress on the top of the mountain rising immediately behind, but judging by the disproportionate quantity of Christian edifices still standing. In what must have been a remote and isolated spot, there were at least two major churches (one collapsed in the earthquake of 1755) and a large monastery, because after the re- conquest the Christians immediately rebuilt all Arab religious structures in their own image. Presumably Santa Maria then flourished as a nest of medieval religious recluses or maniacs until such time as it became a fashionable romantic retreat. It is difficult to be sure about when this happened, because although the majority of the present houses date from the middle years of the nineteenth century, in most cases they probably replaced something else. There are a couple of carefully engraved prints from 1832 or thereabouts which show that it was well-developed then, but hardly any of the buildings are recognizable. My own house was first registered in 1826, but some of the walls looked to be much older than that. A house immediately below is marked 1801. In Sintra itself, which was always significantly more palatial and grand, there are still private houses dating from the late sixteenth century, when some sort of ‘romantic’ movement seems already to have been flourishing. Portuguese history does not on the whole run to domestic details of this sort, unfortunately. It goes without saying that there was more than enough in my new surroundings that was strange and engrossing to compensate for any personal or social deprivations that might otherwise have been inconvenient or even insupportable.

I was in a fever, first of all, to explore my new surroundings. Starting only a couple of hundred metres outside my own front door, a foot track ascended steeply up the mountain to the remains of the Moorish castle, and from there to the extensive and overgrown gardens of Pena, full of ruined follies and grottoes and remnants of former magnificence. In those days nothing had been touched for years and there was rarely another soul to be seen. Even in Pena Palace itself, one could just wander into and around rooms and rooms of astounding workmanship still stuffed with the hideous furnishings left behind by the Braganzas in 1911. The labour that had constructed all this frivolous decoration over acres and acres of crags and ravines was unimaginable. Further afield, vague tracks through the forest sometimes ended up amongst classical statuary and ornamental ponds, once or twice almost on the door step of buried country houses, from which life seemed to have departed a hundred years before leaving nature to take over. It was like ambling through an endless Sleeping Beauty stage set. I quickly had to get rid of the illusion I had had that Portugal was a dry warm country. Even in May it poured in torrents and the wind was freezing, but up on the heights the sky and the immense landscape stretching out below was tumultuous and passionate and in the forest the ghostly mists and dripping vegetation only added to the enchantment. If I got too cold I could huddle in one of the cave-like premises in São Pedro along with other local drunks and idlers all wrapped up in greasy old coats with filthy fox-fur collars sticking it out stoically with the assistance of the anonymous liquors dispensed from barrels half submerged in the earth and a few scraps of sausage and bread. As it got warmer I set out on the bike for longer forays. It was not exactly easy going, because even away from the serra the land was very hilly and cut across by deep gullies, so that it could take hours to proceed a few miles, but it was all so beautiful and surprising that it didn’t matter if I got back half dead from the effort. Within no more than twenty or thirty miles from Lisbon there were areas which had remained almost medieval, where small fields were still worked with patient inefficiency by hand or donkey, and where grubby little villages huddled in clefts. By contrast, towards the coastal end of the range, eighteenth-century country houses with cascading terraces of vines and orange trees offered vistas of an earthly paradise glowing golden in the late afternoon sun. The coast here became dramatically rugged, with precipitous cliffs and slabs of rock sticking out of the sea. The popular beaches stretching in a line towards the north were mostly dull, but death-defying clambers down rock faces discovered tiny coves where no-one else ever went...

I stayed for twelve years in Stª Maria, and on the whole very happily, at first alternating for three months at a time between there and London where I had to return to try and some cash, until eventually in 1997 the constant battle of keeping the house intact against the weather and the vegetation as well as other personal reasons drove me down to Estefânia, the ‘commercial’ zone near the railway station. Here, in a house rather more commodious but only slightly less demanding, the circumstances are more convenient but lacking the silence and peacefulness of the other. However, this account is not intended as a biography, but as reflection on the place in which day-to-day affairs are conducted; so let’s start at the beginning ……

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