The Exotic Palácio de Monserrate

Unique architecture, fine materials, and elaborate plaster-work…

Located in Sintra, the palace of Monserrate is really beautiful. It expertly weaves Gothic, Indian, and Moorish architecture and influences into a striking visual. It was, by far, one of the most unusual palaces we have been to in Portugal. The award-winning, lush, and sumptuous grounds add to the awe-inspiring experience. Another feast for the eyes!

Monserrate has a fascinating history dating back to 1093 when legend has it that Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, dedicated a chapel to the Virgin Mary on the property. On its ruins another chapel was constructed in 1540 and dedicated to Our Lady of Monserrate. The property then passed through multiple hands over the centuries until Gerard de Visme, a wealthy and cultured English merchant who had made his fortune from the diamond trade, rented the farm in 1789 and built a neo-Gothic house over the ruins of the chapel. In 1793 a garden landscape was started by William Thomas Beckford, an English novelist, who had subleased the property. Though it was still in ruins when Lord Byron visited in 1809, its magnificent appearance inspired the poet, who mentioned the beauty of Monserrate in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. After Lord Byron wrote about the property, it attracted the attention of foreign travelers. One of them was Francis Cook, another wealthy English merchant who subleased the estate in 1856 and was graced with the title of Viscount of Monserrate by King Luís. Cook purchased the property outright in 1863.

Francis Cook worked with architect James Knowles on the remains of the house built by de Visme. The design was heavily influenced by Romanticism and Mudéjar Moorish Revival architecture and cleverly incorporates neo-Gothic elements. The Islamic architectural influence relates to when the region was a part of the wider Muslim Gharb Al-Andalus until the 13th century. A quirky element of the house is that there are no interior doors with the exception of the bedrooms and the library where Francis Cook worked. This was a purposeful decision to allow the family and guests to wander the palace freely and feel comfortable going into any room. When completed, the palace became the summer residence of the Cook family.

Unfortunately, the palace was emptied of its furniture and collections in the middle of the 20th century, so it is not a museum. Even though the Portuguese state acquired the property in 1949, nothing was done for about fifty years and the building fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until it was deemed a building of public interest that restoration processes began in 2000. There are photographs by David Knights-Whittome taken in 1905 and exhibited in different rooms to show what the palace looked like when the Cook family lived there. I know it’s not optimal to take an image of an old photograph, but I felt it would help you see what some of the rooms looked like when they were lived in – it’s truly remarkable. I’ve shared some of these below.

The following two images are of a scale model that was available to study. It helps provide a good understanding of the overall structure. The formal entrance to the palace is at the far left in the image below. You enter into a double-height vestibule with a stunning view all they way to the other end of the palace. Today, visitors enter through the door on the side which leads you straight into the center point of the palace directly under the cupola. At the opposite end of the main entrance, is the double-height music room. The bedrooms are located on the second floor in the square structure beneath the cupola. The kitchen is located below grade.

This is the other side of the palace which has a beautiful loggia and is called the garden entrance.

Now…let’s look at the real deal!

When you enter through the side door the first thing you see is the beautiful fountain in the center of the palace located directly under the red glass cupola. The interior details are stunning. All walls and ceilings have different plaster patterns reflecting nature and foliage. I’ll share close ups of some shortly. The delicate, lace-like arches with arabesque details lining the ceilings of the corridors (going both directions) are amazing.

A close up of the cupola.

Looking up at the second floor balcony. The foliage motifs in all the plaster work reflect nature in a harmonious way.

Looking down at the fountain from the second story balcony (where the bedrooms are located).

As mentioned earlier, the main spine of the palace, that runs from one end to the other, is lined with stunning, highly decorated arches. There are skylights between every other arch to illuminate the corridor and the arches themselves. This image was taken next to the fountain looking toward the music room. Note the plaster work on the walls and the details on each column. It certainly doesn’t feel like you are in Portugal, does it?

The rooms off the corridor are gracious in size and scale and employ the same detailed plaster techniques on the walls and ceilings. However, having caught a glimpse of its beauty as we walked down the corridor, it was hard not to rush through the secondary rooms in order to get to the music room to see it in its fully glory. Even empty, except for a piano, it is stunning! And the setting of the palace on a hill surrounded by lush greenery and a gracious veranda adds to the beauty and experience as you gaze out the windows. Cultural events are still being held in this room due to its impressive acoustics. Look closely, you will see inspirational muses encircling the room above the windows while statues of Apollo and St. Cecilia look on.

Here is what it looked like in 1905 when the room was fully furnished and had (what looks to be) velvet curtains and beautiful potted palms and plants. It changes the entire feel of the room! Wow!!

Heading back the other direction down the long, lovely corridor toward the formal front door, you pass by the office and library of Francis Cook. This is the only room on the first floor with a door and what a door it is!

Here are images of the library/office where Francis Cook spent his time.

A small portion of the ceiling was left as it was prior to restoration to give you an idea of how much the palace had deteriorated before it was saved.

And, here is what it looked like back in 1905.

Here are some close-ups of the plaster work that range from very detailed to more simplistic in design.

The formal living room is lovely, but it is the ceiling that is not to be missed. (I’m beginning to wonder if people back then developed neck problems looking up to admire the ceilings all the time!)

The entrance vestibule is a large, round welcoming space and provides you with a view through the entire palace all the way back to the music room. (I’m pretty sure that the chandelier isn’t original – it’s looks it might have been a good deal on Overstock.com.) But, let’s not let that ruin the beauty of the rest of the room, especially the inlaid floor!

A stairway leading to the kitchen was just off this area around a corner and via a hallway also used to access the dining room. The use of a modern technological wood burning stove provided hot water for the boiler, thus integrating the heating system for the house. This was considered very progressive at the time. Note the tiled barrel vaulted ceilings.

The garden entrance was off the loggia side of the palace. The intricate design of the staircase and walls adds to the beauty of the space. This atrium was designed for the family and any guests to conveniently access the garden or the bedrooms upstairs without going through the main entrance.

Here is what it looked like in 1905.

While there were other rooms like a billiard room, dining room, sitting rooms, bedrooms and bathrooms, I think its time to head outside and take a look at the terraces that encircle the palace and the spectacular grounds.

The area that is most romantic and relaxing is the loggia. How wonderful to sit here in the shade enjoying a cool glass of lemonade and looking over the beautiful landscape and the views of the countryside beyond. There are built-in stone benches tucked between the plants against the palace.

Nearby there is a beautiful stone staircase that takes you down to a lower level of the garden with a large water feature that had bright orange koi fish lazily swimming around.

From here the first area of the garden you encounter is “Fern Valley.” I’ve never seen a garden dedicated to ferns, but it’s a wonderful idea! Signage nearby states that it is one of the most significant examples of the collectionism characteristic of 19th century Romanticism with more than 40 different fern species. Laced throughout all the ferns were delightful little trickling waterfalls which made walking through on a hot day an absolute delight.

As you wander through Fern Valley the pathway leads you to a ruin. This secondary house was built by Gerard de Visme in 1790 and resembled the first palace of Monserrate through its windows, turrets, pinnacles, stone masonry and plaster work. The site was described as a “ruined fane” in Thomas Cargill’s lyric poem about Monserrate called “Fairy Life in Fairy Land” published in 1870. An amateur botanist, Cargill had quite an influence on the development of the garden.

There is no certainty as to when the Australian rubber tree that has overtaken a corner of the ruin was planted. It is said that the apparent fusion between the tree and the structure depicts the supremacy of nature over man. Not sure I can argue that point!

Unfortunately, the Mexican Garden and the Rose Garden were both undergoing further restoration so they were closed to us that day. Perhaps when you come to visit we can see them together.

Before we left Monserrate and its dreamy gardens, we took one more stroll past the palace’s front entrance area.

I hope you enjoyed this short mental escape to another time and another place. Until next week, please stay safe, stay healthy and stay in touch!

From Portugal with love,

Beth

Published by Beth Thomas-Kim

After working in corporate America for companies like Mattel, Nestlé, and Johnson & Johnson, I retired and moved to Portugal in January of 2020 with my husband Won and our 12-year old wire fox terrier, Sweet Pea. We now live in Monte Estoril, a lovely seaside town just outside Lisbon. We spend our days happily exploring this beautiful country and learning about its fascinating history, engaging culture, warm and welcoming people, delicious food and wine, and stunning architecture. This blog was started primarily as a way to keep family and friends updated on our transition from the US to Portugal. Now, my subscribers include people from all over the world. Enjoy!

12 thoughts on “The Exotic Palácio de Monserrate

  1. Absolutely stunning Beth! The pictures and history are so interesting.
    Your Dad would have loved your blog.
    Thanks for a respite and Namaste from this crazy world.
    XO,
    Jeanne

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    1. Your comment brought tears to my eyes, Jeanne. You’re right, Dad would have loved my blog. I would give anything if he could come for a visit. Love you. ❤️❤️❤️

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  2. Fabulous! Literally, one’s eyes must get tired from looking at all the detail on those interiors. And that belvedere across the back of the house, what a place to relax! When houses were built to last!

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  3. Beth,
    Another great blog & photos. I can’t help but feel these magnificent buildings should still be lived in/enjoyed, not that I’d prefer 1% of the population living in splendor while the 99% live in…not-splendor. The other thought is this beauty that is expressed in almost every surface in architecture must be so inspiring and connecting to the creativity of humanity. Would we all be more reflective & inspired to be surrounded and inhabit such a wondrous environment? The trend now is to live streamlined and functional, sort of like in The Matrix where our “life essence” is being farmed for fuel. Okay, that’s a bit of a downer. I’m in awe of that kitchen and those lovely copper pots. The detailed plasterwork is amazing – how was that accomplished? The Fern Valley with the moss-covered rocks seems so enchantingly tranquil- one can almost imagine fairies or pixies hiding in that glen.
    Leslie

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    1. I hear what you are saying about these magnificent places – they are real treasures and not much has changed in the world between the haves and the have nots. But I suppose that is how we must think of these exquisite buildings now; as works of art. They are to be appreciated and admired for the craftsmanship and skill it took to bring these inspired ideas to life. What I think is sad is that most people today don’t have the time or resources to explore and discover their own creativity let alone bring their ideas to life in such a spectacular way. Our lives are filled with constant demands for our attention, time, and resources. The opportunity to step out of that craziness for an hour or two and into another world filled with beauty and tranquility is a lovely respite. Fortunately, the state acquired Monserrate, recognized its importance and invested in the restoration process (and now maintain it) so we can all appreciate its beauty and historic context. Love that you are enjoying these posts so much and that you share such deep and thoughtful comments as a result. It motivates and inspires me to continue. Thank you!!

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