As writers we often have to do a lot of world building. Some of us go to even bigger lengths and build maps and pictures to go with the world your mind and creative juices created. When I was in Portugal in July I got to experience the work of someone who not only created a fantastic world in his mind but actually built. Early in the 20th century a man with a lot of money and an obviously creative mind was able to hire someone equally creative (Luigi Manini who was among other things a set-designer for La Scala of Milan and many other theaters and opera houses around Europe) to make the musings of his fantasy world come to life. This was a 14 year long endeavor that, thanks to an ambitious restoration done by a local foundation (Cultursintra Foundation) is now open to the public.
Sintra, a little town built on a lonely mountain just a few miles north of Lisbon, has always been one of my favorite places in the world. With its own micro-climate and wealth of historical lore, Sintra is a magical place that shares its geography with lush forests and equally luxuriant architecture. It was once the place of choice as a summer residence of the Portuguese royal families who took refuge here from the hot summers in Lisbon. Poets like Lord Byron also favored this location and I can well understand why. You cannot visit Sintra without feeling inspired to write. For me, Sintra is a portal to live poetry and magic.
On the very top of the mountain, The Moorish Castle- often shrouded in clouds and mist – gives the visitor the illusion of stepping back in time. As you drive or walk through town you can’t miss the overwhelming feel of history. The architecture, the steep, narrow roads and streets, the palaces and the villas, even the humble homes remind you of another place, another time.
This time I had a mission. I had, since moving to the US too many years ago, found out about this mysterious place called Quinta da Regaleira. Pictures of its wrongly-named Inverted Well are everywhere in the internet. I pride myself of knowing my own country very well. I studied tourism and history and I have visited places no-one even knows about. However, this place had been a private property until after I left for the US and as such it had never been publicized. It was finally opened to the public in 1996 and it has become the fodder for many stories and fantasies. It is said (I couldn’t confirm it) that the Masons and the Rosicrucian still hold their secret meetings and rituals onsite.
This magical place is housed halfway up the Serra (mountain) and other than the turrets of the main house you cannot see it from the road. Like most properties in the area, Quinta da Regaleira is protected by tall stone walls. The main palace is amazing. I was drooling over the intricate wood-sculptured ceilings of the house (there aren’t two with the same design), the neo-manueline style of its architecture, the many towers, even a small lab reminiscent of classic literature. However, you quickly forget the house once you start your walk through the massive forested property.
I can almost guarantee that this is where all the fauns, fairies and other magical creatures came to live in as progress made them homeless around the country. The whole garden –a totally inadequate word for it – rises upwards. If you don’t like to walk and/or climb do not visit this place. You can’t avoid it. There are very few flat surfaces in the property. It would take me pages to describe the whole place because it is loaded with buildings and features that bespeak of wondrous things. There are lakes galore, caves, wells, towers and turrets, fountains and some statuary. I made friends with a few gods from mythology along the way.
Of course, the queen of the ball is the famous Inverted Well. This is actually a misnomer. There is indeed an inverted well but because of its much humbler characteristics it hasn’t made its way to Internet fame as yet. The so called Inverted Well of cyber-fame is actually called the Initiates’ Well (Poço Iniciático), a subterranean tower that sinks almost 100 feet into the earth. A spiral staircase winds down and around it and its walls are punctured here and there with empty niches (ritual altars?) to the bottom, a beautiful mosaic floor that opens up into a dark (and I mean dark) maze of tunnels, one of which ends on a small lake. Here you have the rare opportunity of walking on water (not really. It just looks that way). When you stand on the bottom of the well and look up, you know you just left reality and entered some other realm.
I spent the whole day at the Quinta and I still didn’t see all I wanted to explore. I wanted to sit on a rock under the shade of the beautiful forest and write. I thought maybe I could buy a tent and just live on the grounds but I was told I wouldn’t be allowed. Too bad. Everyone should be able to experience the enchantment at least once in a lifetime. For now, I carry the magic with me, like a little pocket muse until such time that I can return.