Sintra is the Garden of Eden all grown up and walled off. Ghosts of Portugal’s gold-encrusted elite recline in the green-canopied paradise. Songbirds, nearly extinct in Lisbon, have found haven in the ivy-woven jungle of these mountainside estates.
Climbing the path from the train station, I walk past forest shrines to forgotten saints, fountains mumbling to themselves, grottoes of lonely echoes, abandoned summer villas overrun by morning sunlight—all spun from fairytales and slave silver.
The crowning glory of this paradise is Quinta da Regaleira, white stone rising from the treetops like an ivory tiara. Every whimsical spire, finial, balcony, and gate sparkles with the sugar egg delicacy of the Monastery’s white stone, for Regaleira was dreamed in the Neo-Manueline style, imitative sister of the Hieronymite’s Manueline architecture.
I enter the mansion alone. I feel like the young girl stepping into the Beast’s palace. The foyer is deserted, occupied only by orphan breezes and shy morning light. But the dining room is alive: white plaster stags and boars charge from medallions high on the wall; tropical birds flutter in the mosaic on the floor; the mantle is a riotous boar hunt, with rearing horses, snapping hounds, and a cornered boar—all silent in cool, white marble.
The hallways are dark, but a light flickers on to greet me as I walk deeper into the Beast’s abode. Through the window of the music room, a duet for two songbirds pipes in at a glassy pitch. The carpet loping up the staircase is torn and frayed where the Beast’s claws have caught it. On the upper floors, few lamps glow, and the windows are shuttered with dark wood panels as solid as church doors. The Beast hates his reflection.
From the tower terrace, I gaze out over the map of fairyland unfolded below me: clifftop citadels, forest chapels, and red-roofed villages. I’ve climbed into the topography of the Brothers Grimm.
A spiral stair in the Chapel’s crypt unwinds into serpentine tunnels, raveling far beyond the footprint of the diminutive chapel above. The white stone tunnels are cool and damp as bodies in snow.
I wander the estate grounds, skimming from one story to the next. In Leda’s Cave, I climb a spiral stair to find myself on a parapet overlooking the gardens. The staircases of Regaleira are the spiraling ways between the worlds.
In the western corner of the park, poisonous green ponds spill through labyrinthine grottoes and under stone bridges—bridges dark and echoing with the granite laughter of trolls. Moss-licked trees grow from raw caves. Surely these stones were never new-quarried blocks. They belong to the eldritch Once-Upon-a-Time of old tales.
I step into a cave and walk past the edge of blindness into the truest dark I have ever known. True dark is not the mere absence of light. True dark is the vertigo of infinite space falling away in front of me, and pressing close enough to graze my hand. The cave washes me in necrotic cold, a baptism into the Kingdom of the Dead. I learn that blindness is not a lack of sight, but a mirage the mind stitches itself from threads of remembered light. I ‘see’ the green-gold eye of the tunnel’s end long before it flashes across my retinas.
Stepping stones lead me from the cave and across a pond to a bridge that looks as if it were constructed of skulls: white stones pitted with dark, hollow eye sockets and gaping mouths. As I climb higher into the park, the statuary mutates, growing deformed and ominous. I have passed out of Fairyland and into the borderlands of Nightmare. A pair of wrestling dragons guard the entrance to another strand of the cave labyrinth. Three twists of the tunnel later, light chips away the darkness, gouging down through a dry well: the Initiate’s Well, ringed with a spiral stair. In which direction runs Initiation, up or down? What sinister spell do my footprints trace as I climb to the mouth of the well?
I walk back to the gates, still enfolded in the stories written across this landscape. Cats black and splashed with white hoard sunlight on the paths. They are Regaleira’s only living denizens—surely bewitched princes. Or perhaps dragon-young. If you study the anatomy of the dragon, you will notice a striking alignment with the anatomy of the feline (excepting wings).