Saturday, May 22, 2010

Spring Break Travels - Part 8: O Parque de Monserrate

On our last day in Portugal we went to Sintra, a pretty hill station of sorts about an hour outside of Lisbon. Compared to the dry heat of the capital, the town's climate is cooler and wetter, with mist frequently enshrouding the surrounding mountains. As a result, Sintra has been a popular summer getaway for centuries. The center of town is dominated by a large royal palace which was constructed and expanded over the course of several centuries and thus displays a somewhat eccentric mixture of architectural styles, including Manueline, Moorish, and Gothic elements. In the hillsides surrounding the town itself are various historic palaces and estates surrounded by parks; the Quinta de Monserrate is but one of these. The estate was developed since the 1790s by a number of wealthy Englishmen, beginning with the merchant Gerard de Visme who built the first manor house on the site and continuing on with the writer and art critic William Beckford and the textile millionaire Francis Cook. The mansion standing today was built as a summer residence for the Cook family in 1856 by the British architect James T. Knowles. Its style is an eclectic mix of Gothic and Orientalist elements. Along with various other decorative elements in the park and a large collection of Asian plants,  this contributes to an atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of British colonial hill stations in South Asia. This Indian influence might not be coincidental, since much of the cotton and fabric dyes which formed the basis of the Cooks' business and wealth came from India and Francis Cook had in fact traveled in the Subcontinent, even bringing back a few architectural elements, such as stone screens and archways, which were used in the house and gardens.

The entrance to the palace

 A stone staircase leading from the level of the palace into the valley below

Velvet groundsel (Roldana petasitis) flowering next to the visitor parking lot

Among the most striking features of the grounds are the artificial ruins of a small Gothic chapel, partially overgrown by a Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla) and planted with aspidistra (Aspidistra elatior), parlour palm (Chamaedorea elegans), and various bromeliads.

The still relatively young Moreton Bay fig (Ficus macrophylla) that is slowly overgrowing the chapel ruin

The chapel ruin as seen from the opposite side

One of the windows of the ruin, framed by the aerial roots of Ficus macrophylla

 The plantings inside the ruin

Other features of the park include a large collection of palms and other trees from all over the world,  small architectural decorative elements such as fountains, a fern valley and secluded walks through lush, misty  woods full of gnarled, moss-covered cork oaks (Quercus suber).

 A typical path in the Parque de Monserrate

 A view uphill towards the main house through some of the collection of palm trees

 Chilean wine palms (Jubaea chilensis)

 A view uphill showing some more of the large collection of palms

 A fountain ringed by a species of Aloe

 A view through the parkland downhill from the mansion

 The fern valley, with small terracotta rills for running water to insure sufficient humidity

Finally, while lush greenery and quirky architectural elements do tend to predominate in the Parque de Monserrate, there is also plenty of floral interest in the form of camellias, rhododendrons, calla lilies, and many flowering shrubs, perennials and annuals, both rare and common.

 Large specimens of Camellia japonica

Light pink-flowered cultivar of Camellia japonica

 Bright red cultivar of Camellia japonica

Pale yellow-flowered primrose (Primula vulgaris)

 A large, purple-flowered, Abutilon-like shrub - Let me know if you can identify this plant!

 Calla lilies (Zantedeschia aethiopica) which grow in abundance throughout the park

 A small-flowered variety of Canna indica
On the whole, the park at Monserrate is lovely and worth a visit, even though ongoing restoration work inside the house and in various parts of the grounds means that visitors are currently unable to see the palatial interiors and some parts of the gardens. The entry price, too, is relatively steep but if you have time to visit some of the other estates in the Sintra area, there is a combination ticket which allows you to visit all of them at reduced cost. For more information, you can visit the website of the City of Sintra at Câmara Municipal de Sintra: Palácio de Monserrate.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your post. The gardens are similat to Indian gardens.


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