On the road to Colares, just 2 km west of the historic village of Sintra and a short drive from Lisbon, lies the delightful Palace of Monserrate, one of the most impressive examples of Romantic architecture in Portugal.
Featuring a tangerine roof flanked by striking circular towers, this exotic, neo-oriental summer palace was built by London textile merchant Sir Francis Cook in the style of Brighton Pavilion in the south of England.
Its name derives from the church dedicated to Our Lady of Montserrat in Catalonia, north-east Spain, although the estate’s history goes back much further to the time of the Moors and Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques.
Since then, the estate has changed hands several times and had many interesting visitors over the years, including William Beckford (author of the Gothic novel Vathek) and Lord Bryon, who wrote part of his famous poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage here.
The building’s key features are the dome modelled on Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence and the rich ensemble of arches, Gothic windows, long horizontal galleries and bulbous cupolas that afford the palace its unique ambience.
The artistically-minded Portuguese king, Fernando II (creator of the nearby Pena Palace in Sintra), was so impressed by the Englishman’s work on the estate that he awarded Cook the title Viscount of Monserrate.
For many, the true beauty of Monserrate (indicated on the Google map below) lies in its beautiful gardens which were laid out a time when travel was arduous and the transportation of flora was problematic, but by the 1920s a thousand different species were flourishing in the verdant Monserrate landscape.
Set around a large sweeping lawn, its wooded hillsides encompass pools, lakes, waterfalls and even some Etruscan tombs. Reminiscent of a semi-tropical rain forest, its steep slopes are strewn with jungly plants set in a natural environment bristling with exotic foliage.
Today this great, cool, shady and intricately-landscaped forest park thrives in Sintra’s damp, cloudy micro-climate with a wild profusion of hundreds of magnificent plants and trees from all over the world, including a large number from Australasia and Mexico.
Botanists and flower-lovers from all over the world flock to Sintra to marvel at Monserrate’s fine botanical collection of Chinese weeping cypresses, dragon trees, cedars from Lebanon, African palms, mahoganies from Brazil, huge conifers, Himalayan rhododendrons, magnolias, native arbutus, giant daturas, strawberry trees, bamboos and many other rare species.
And the ongoing restoration and upkeep of this splendid 30-hectare estate is now in the hands of the Portuguese state, whose intention is to keep the building and its surrounding gardens in prime condition and open to visitors.
Just 2 km down the road, the UNESCO-classified village of Sintra needs little introduction, its picture-book setting has been lauded by the poets for centuries. A regular summer retreat for the Portuguese royal family, it has many prominent attractions, most notably the Paço Real and a Moorish castle.
Skirting the mountain, the road west from Monserrate winds a leafy passage through thick green vegetation before zigzagging down to the valley of Colares, a pretty wine town in close proximity to many fine sandy beaches.
16 km due west of Sintra lies Cabo da Roca, mainland Europe’s most westerly point. Besides admiring its impressive lighthouse inaugurated in 1772, visitors can stand at the spot ‘where the land ends and the sea begins’, as described by Luís de Camões, Portugal’s most famous poet.