Palaces and castles and monasteries! Oh, my!

I have spent my entire life fascinated with the romanticized versions of castles or huge estate homes. I’m not sure if my obsession with history fairy tales is to blame or just the amazing work authors have implanted into my mind, but I have always wanted to see a castle. Only there aren’t that many old structures in the U.S. since we’re a pretty young country that loves to make everything new.

But living in the South gave me the chance to visit and explore some of the older places in the States. Charleston, South Carolina, St. Augustine, Florida, and so many places in Virginia could transport me in time. Even though all of these places were lovely in their own right, something was missing. I wanted to see a castle and not just one that Tinkerbell flew out of whenever the weather was safe.

When my husband proposed going to Portugal, I was secretly a little sad we weren’t going to go to England and Ireland. In truth, I didn’t know much of Portugal other than when the rest of Europe was fighting. They were exploring and charting our seas. But I was disappointed with myself for not knowing more and started to research the country where we would be spending a month in, and damn was I pleasantly surprised with what I learned. Not only were we about to spend a month along lovely coastlines, but the castles and nobility homes that littered the country were enchanting in their own right.

We spent our 4th of July weekend riding a Vespa along the coast from Cascais to Sintra. There we made a stop at Cabo da Roca, the most western point in Europe. The view here was insane. We both looked out over the ocean, crashing into rocks, and thought no wonder these people were the ones to chart the seas. You couldn’t help but wonder what else is out there far beyond your view when you had a view like this.

After Cabo da Roca, we got lost trying to find the Convento dos Capuchos on our first day. We didn’t go far enough up the mountain, so we headed into Sintra and to the Moorish Castle. The castle was built around the 8th and 9th centuries and was surrendered in 1147 to the Christian king. When we were walking through the massive ruins, we kept wondering how one would be able to take over this heavily guarded fortress, and surrendering seems like the only way one would have done it, which was probably the smartest idea for the thirty people left living in the castle.

As we walked along the high walls, I asked my husband how long he thought it would take an invading army to make the journey from the ocean to the top of the mountain. In our research, we didn’t find the answer but it wasn’t hard to imagine watching as they closed in. The walls gave a panoramic view of the ocean and surrounding lands.

The ruins of the castle left me a little confused about where people would have actually lived and slept. The point of the castle was for protection and mainly housed the military, but I was hoping for more of an understanding of how the structure would have worked on a day-to-day basis. What did remain were silos where they would store grains and a large cistern to hold water.

I wasn’t able to take pictures in the cistern because they came out all wonky, but this one room showed so much. The colors on the tiles were still rich, probably from the lack of sunlight and how much design went into a place that was just to house water. It made me sad that I couldn’t see what they had done with the architecture that everyone back then could see.

On leaving, we passed by the ruins of the chapel, and that’s where I saw something strange, almost hidden, behind an overgrown tree. A marker was placed by King Ferdinand II with two symbols on it, one of the cross and the other was the Islamic moon and star. When they were creating the chapel, the builders accidentally disturbed a gravesite, and on the worn plaque, it read that both symbols were placed there because there was no way to know if the remains were Christian or Muslim. It’s strange that out of everything I saw at the Moorish Castle, this one small act of kindness and respect to the dead is what has stood out the most to me.

The next place we went to we went by accident. Instead of making a left to go to the Pena National Palace, we made a right and ended up at the Quinta da Regaleira. This place is a palace that no royal had ever lived in. It belonged to a Baron, a wealthy merchant family, and I can’t say that I am anything but jealous that this place was just a summer home.

My husband and I parked and walked up thinking we’d go inside, look at the house, and then head up to Pena. Two and a half hours later, we were still exploring the gardens trying to make sure we had seen everything there was possible to see in the four-hectare estate.

I forgot about the grueling heat the moment we stepped into the first grotto. Never in my life did I think I would get lost in a labyrinth, let alone one that was so cold that I put on my sweater after only moments of being underground. I was blissfully ecstatic to look out through the caves and watch ducks swim in what could only look like the mermaid pond from Disney’s Peterpan.

My husband knew what he was doing when he said, “let’s go to Portugal,” but never in my wildest dreams did I expect to walk into a fairy tale. The gardens were enchanting, and I did not want to leave. Everything I had read in my fairy tale books had come to life by what this man had created. He wanted to create a place of bewilderment, and he did just that.

Everything was connected one way or the other. This is something we learned at the end of our exploration when we had hiked up hills and climbed down spiraling stairs into a well. At the bottom of the well, it led us into another grotto that led us back to a path where we had to choose either to climb up and back over a man-made waterfall or through a path of stones that led you across a tiny lake. If I were to have fallen in that water, it would have been about shoulder high on me.

There is honestly too much to write about but I took as many pictures as possible. I really wanted to focus on the here and the now and experience what it would really be like to wander in the gardens. There’s no way one could enjoy that garden in a heavy dress and be a lazy individual. You’d have to be fit for sure.

By the time we made it to the house, I had expected something more. It was a lovely house with a grand first floor. I guess António Augusto Carvalho Monteir wanted something a little more home-like and easy on the mind after so many hidden passageways and confusing labyrinths. But I would have thought the wonders he filled his garden with would have done the same with his house.

After leaving Quinta da Regaleira, our feet were killing us, but we had to make our way to Pena. We accidentally chose to visit the National Palace on the one day they would open up the palace at night. The woman told us the last time they did this was three years ago, and before that, it was so long ago she didn’t remember. We knew we had to take this chance. The day before we got there was too late to explore the inside of the palace, but we did explore some of the gardens, and they were pretty, but they weren’t anything like Quinta da Regaleira’s gardens.

As we hiked our way up from the main gate, we followed a winding path that felt like it was never going to end. As we walked, the sun was setting, and a fog was rolling in. The day before, you should see all the surrounding ocean and city at the top of the palace, but today it was getting hard to see three people in front of you. It made me think of the line from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movies, “She was singing about pirates. Bad luck to sing about pirates, with us mired in this unnatural fog… mark my words!”

There was something very eerie about the fog that night, but it just added to the whole night. The rooms were dimly lit, most likely to protect the old paintings and furniture, but every time you looked outside, you could see nothing but black and gray. It was as if the city below no longer existed.

The palace was originally a large monastery that King Ferdinand II purchased in 1883 to be the royal family’s summer home. When you walk through the interior, it’s nearly impossible to know that the palace was made up of two different buildings.

I was looking and photographing different things and was listening to people remark on how small the bedrooms were or that the beds weren’t as large as they expected. It really put into light how drastically people have changed. Now we expect large oversized bedrooms to fill with our stuff whereas, when this castle was built, the bedroom was for sleep and getting dressed. No one really remarked about the sitting, coffee, or smoking rooms, other than they didn’t understand why the royalty needed so many different rooms.

We decided to travel up the coast again and try to find the Convento dos Capuchos and I’m truly glad we did.

The small monastery, built around 1580, was created to be in harmony with nature. They built walls alongside giant buildings and trees. There were benches carved out of the rock face so the monks would have places to sit and enjoy God’s splendor. It was interesting to see how they used the natural cork to line their walls for insulation and how the structure was perfectly set up as a breezeway. All the doors were low and not because everyone was short back then, as we were told by the guy who rented the Vespa to us, but because they made the monks bow and humble themselves every time they entered a room. I am a very petite woman, I barely stand five feet tall, and I almost had to duck going into them.

The rooms were very small throughout the monastery, but I guess a monk didn’t need much room, seeing as they had taken a vow of poverty, and all they needed to do was sleep.

There were three large rooms, the kitchen and the library were two of the largest rooms, which made sense to me. Monks had to study and store the books, and cooking for eight plus men did take up space. But the largest room was the latrine. There were four holes cut out next to each other for you to do your business in. But off the side, there was one little area that was more private. It even looked like a modern-day bathroom stall. There was still running water flowing through the place. It was fascinating to see where they would wash up and how things would actually work.

It’s one thing to look at pictures and try to understand places I wish my characters to live in, but it’s another to walk the halls. I do my best to give my readers a complete understanding of the time and the place of where my characters are, and I genuinely hope that, with all my travels, I can now fully engulf the readers with the same feeling of awe that I have experienced so far.

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