Sintra: where labyrinthine paths wind through lush forests and castles keep watch from atop towering hills. Even without being acquainted with the stories of the place, one immediately senses the echoes of history, and wonders at what mysteries the ancient structures hold.
The area of Sintra is part of the greater Lisbon region, known for its many Romantic monuments. So filled with significance is it that it’s even been classified overall as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Renowned Portuguese poet Luís de Camões referred to it as a mythic land ruled by water nymphs; Lord Byron called it a “glorious Eden.”
Sintra’s mountains have long been considered sacred. Their ancient name was Lunae Mons (meaning “Mountains of the Moon”), while the name Sintra reportedly descends from Cynthia – the Roman Goddess of the Moon. As for the many man-made sites, well, expect plenty of mysteries within them too.
Shrouded by lush greenery is the Convent of the Capuchos. The convent was founded in 1560 when, legend has it, one João de Castro got lost in the Sintra mountains while hunting a deer. The former Indian Viceroy fell asleep against a rock and received, in a dream, divine instruction to build a Christian temple at the site. The buildings of the convent are small, minimal, and austere, designed to integrate into the nature around them and to utilise its beauty instead of any form of decoration. The tiny rooms where the monks once lived are empty but for whispers of times long past, while the stone walls and outdoor stone seats sink into nature, partly reclaimed by moss and creeping vines. Representing the pursuit of the spiritual over the material, the humble surrounds are liable to cause a profound impact on any visitor.
Pena Palace, one of Sintra’s grandest and most well-known attractions, has many mysteries of its own. Esoteric symbols can be found throughout the palace and its rambling acres of parkland – it’s no accident, for example, that a number of stone tables at Pena are octagonal in shape, since the octagon is considered a figure of sacred geometry. The palace architecture too merges Christian images with a revived interest in Ancient Greek mythology and symbols from the zodiac. Even the very entry is guarded over by a menacing stone Triton: an allegorical creature of half-man, half-fish who represents creation.
Meanwhile, there’s no way to mention the words mystery and Sintra in the same breath without talking about Quinta de Regaleira. Anyone with an interest in secret societies and esoteric themes will love the trail of hidden symbols and interpretable meanings laid out for them at this early 20th century Romantic estate. Wander down a picturesque avenue lined with statues of ancient deities. Spot mystical elements that allude to the Knights Templar and the Free Masons. Explore the carefully designed gardens with their ornate fountains, fairytale towers, and secretive underground passages. And if all that wasn’t enough, there’s still the most mysterious structure of all: the Masonic Initiation Well. Here, a mossy stone spiral staircase descends into the ground, broken up by nine platforms – each said to represent one of the nine circles of Dante’s hell.