The Quinta da Regaleira is an enchanting estate near Lisbon. Built by an eccentric Free Mason, it houses the mysterious Initiation Well and is filled with Pagan and occult symbols. I first learned of the estate while searching for fantasy world ideas on Pinterest. I was immediately captivated by photographs of this Gothic palace, rising out from the lush forest that surrounded it. At first, I thought they were scenes from a movie.
There were so many mysterious things about it. Why was there such an opulent palace hidden in a forest? Who would build a well you could walk into, and for what purpose? Why were there Greek gods and goddesses in a place with distinctly Christian architecture? These were questions that made the Quinta da Regaleira captivating to me.
But what drew me to the palace, most of all, was how it seemed to have been conjured up by magic from the stones of the mountain of Sintra itself. Its towers and bridges seemed not to be man made, but created by the sprits of nature. The Quinta da Regaleira is a place half in the real, and half in an imagined world. With clever architecture, tapping into a multitude of mystical beliefs throughout time and many different cultures, the palace has managed to conjure up an atmosphere of enchantment.
Who Built the Quinta da Regaleira?
Perhaps, when we consider the man who owned the estate, its otherworldly architecture might seem less inexplicable. The wealthy eccentric who bought the place, Carvalho Monteiro, was an etymologist with a great love for lyrical poetry. He had a true passion for the natural sciences and dedicated many years of his life studying the insects of Brazil and Europe. This combination of interests, mixed in with his spirituality as a Free Mason gave rise to the magical Quinta da Regaleira.
Its architect, the Italian Luigi Manini, was also a stage designer who created theatrical set pieces. Manini was a creative genius and well known for his Neo-Manueline style. The Quinta da Regaleira is possibly one of his most amazing works, combining mystical elements from various ages, and merging them into the beautiful forest of Sintra.
This genius is apparent throughout the site. There are many structures that seem perfectly natural, but are not. The waterfall lake and the labyrinthine grotto are two such structures. But really, the entire place feels as if it is carved out of the very rock it stands on.
The Initiation Well
The Initiation Well is, perhaps, one of the most famous attractions in all of Sintra. Its mysterious design, without any clear purpose, is a source of fascination. From photographs taken from the bottom of the well, looking out at the circular patch of sky above, it looks like a tower built into the ground. When I first saw photos of it, I thought it was built for defensive purposes. Perhaps the stairs curving around the tower led to rooms in an underground estate built to withstand siege.
In reality, this tower is more symbolic than utilitarian. Carvalho Monteiro, a notable Free Mason, had built it for spiritual reasons. This well, it is said, was designed to represent the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno. Although it is only six stories deep, the experience of walking down the well makes it feel like it extends further. This sensation is a testament to its evocative design.
Entering the Initiation Well
As I stepped into the well, the world outside seemed to leave me. Its sounds became muted and I could sense the cold actively coming from the ancient looking stones. I treaded silently, trying not to disrupt the serenity of the well with the sound of my footsteps. As its name suggests, the well was used for initiation rites. I imagined myself as one of those few converts who had walked down its stairs, in what must have been a very important moment in their lives.
At the very bottom of the well is a circular floor, simply decorated with coloured tiles in shades of ochre. Here, the tiles depict the cross of the Knights Templar, a symbol exclusive to Free Masons who believe in the Christian doctrine. Although I am an atheist, this place felt profoundly spiritual to me. Monteiro and Manini had taken an idea and turned it into a structural concept. The Initiation Well, and indeed, all of the Quinta da Regaleira, is artistic expression at its finest.
The Unfinished Well
At the bottom of the well are two main tunnels. The first of these leads to an exit underneath the Portal of the Guardians, the other splits into three separate tunnels. One of these sub-tunnels leads to a second well, the “Unfinished Well”. Its aspect is simple and unadorned, its wall looking much more like that of a regular well. Although it was easy for me to dismiss this well after the majesty of the Initiation Well, it likely had its own special purpose. I doubt there was anything in the Quinta da Regaleira that did not have meaning.
Exit from the Initiation Well
The main way out from the bottom of the Initiation Well is a truly magical path. Sunlight streams in through the rough arches cut into the walls of the tunnel. From the arches, you can see the Lake of the Waterfall, which separates the caverns of the wells from their exit. The lake is crossed by bridges that seem completely natural – as if nature had placed them over the water for the convenience of visitors to the park. I later found out that this was not true, they are wholly man made, although Manini had designed them to look as if they were completely nature’s work.
To get across to the exit, we had to walk on stepping stones placed in the water. This was a lot of fun as the stones were on the small side and we had to be careful while crossing them. It was exciting and made me feel like a child again. After the stepping stones, we were finally out, back to a lower portion of the park we had come from earlier.
Promenade of the Gods
Although the Quinta da Regaleira isn’t all that old itself, the themes that run through its architecture span all the way from the Ancient Greece to the time it was completed, at the turn of the century.
Lining one of the main paths into the estate is the Promenade of the Gods. Stone statues of Venus, Hermes, Dionysus, and many other Greek gods and goddesses, line this pathway. The Greek god Dionysus is featured throughout the estate, and is a powerful symbol connected with the cult of Free Masonry, which the owner of the Quinta da Regaleira was almost certainly a member of. Along with the cults of ancient Greece and Free Masonry, other symbols included the Knights Templar and the Rosicrucians.
I love the Chapel of the Quinta da Ragaleira. This beautiful, delicate building, decorated with Manuelian floral motifs is the most elegant place of worship I’ve seen. The design contrasts elaborate patterning with simple white washed walls. Inside, the alter selectively uses gold leaf such that it enhances the beauty of the chapel, instead of overwhelming it with its overuse. If the walls of the chapel seem golden at times, it is because they have been hit by sunlight.
This chapel is thoroughly fascinating. Although Christian in design, it shows how no religious belief is ever truly separate from all the others that have come before. Apart from the usual Catholic imagery and statues, the chapel also spotted pentagrams surrounding the Order of the Christ Cross and the symbol of the Free Masons on the ceiling of the doorway.
The Main Palace
Underneath the chapel is a “secret” tunnel that leads to the main palace. The tunnel exits on the kitchen level, where you will have to walk past a long corridor to get to the stairs leading to the front porch of the building. The main palace is perhaps the most famous sight of the Quinta da Regaleira. Its slender Manueline-Gothic spires dancing high into the sky, its stone walls half hidden by the surrounding greenery. It is an enchanted castle in an magical forest.
As I stepped into the building, I was transported back to the 19th Century. The interior and its furnishings are well preserved and restored, and it was easy to imagine myself as a visitor travelling back in time.
At the heart of the palace is a beautiful chestnut staircase that links its three main floors. Although it is simple in design, the wood is beautifully carved. It was a pleasure to walk up its stairs, my footsteps softened by the carpet underneath, the polished handrails smooth underneath my hands.
The Forest and the Age of Discovery
Monumental architecture during the late 18th Century in Portugal seeked to express a golden age of discovery. This extends beyond its buildings and into its parks. One of the things I love about the Quinta da Regaleira is how its gardens are a living collection. Here, there are species of trees from all over the world. There are sequoias from North America, Magnolias from South East Asia, Cycads from Central America and even the Norfolk Island Pine from New Zealand. It is not surprising that Monteiro, a biologist and an avid traveller, planted these trees to bring the world into his garden.
The Quinta da Regaleira is definitely a man-made wonder, hidden deep in plain sight in its own piece of nature. What’s impressive is that this tranquil, mystical place is not so far for the hustle and bustle of Lisbon. Despite this though, it was not overrun with tourists, and our visit was both eye-opening and enjoyable.
FAQs for Quinta da Regaleira
It was commissioned by the wealthy Portuguese eccentric Carvalho Monteiro, who was also a renowned etymologist. It was built by the Italian architect and stage designer, Luigi Manini. Read more…
The Initiation Well is not a real well. It is a subterranean tower in the Quinta da Regaleira built to represent the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno. Read more…
The owner, Carvalho Monteiro, bought it in 1892. Construction began in 1904 and was mostly completed by 1910. Monteiro died in 1920, so sadly, he didn’t have many years to enjoy his estate.
You can take a local train to Sintra. Tickets are only €2.25 and the journey is around 40 minutes. From the train station, you can walk to the Quinta da Regaleira or take bus N375.