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.


Jan in Sweden said...

Interesting. I remember travelling that road along the Marcas in the late nineties and being fascinated with the crumbling mansions sitting alone and apparantely unused facing the ocean. Are the still there? Still unused? Who owns them?

stephen brody said...

Pretty much still crumbling I think, those houses are really unmanageable these days and no-one wants them