This was the deciding trip. Sintra held the answers I was certain. By the time we left, the decision about moving to Portugal would have been made. To give it all up again, as so many times before, and start over. There was a weariness simmering under the surface, which is the downside of having a nomadic nature. Even pushing fifty, when I have accepted myself and stopped judging, there is the gnawing worry of where to live, what to do to make money, of having nothing but my wits, some camping gear and Scott’s sometimes doubtful Manc-skills. And these days a folding walking stick… But mostly I was just excited to be going somewhere that had famous leylines. The guidebook had a fact box which said that Sintra was a place of cult worship and strange happenings. Right up my street…
I stood at the window the following evening in Casa Miradouro, by the four-poster bed, looking at two different castles in the distance, both of which I now knew. The hotel was a safe haven, although it had its secrets. The buildings had a strange glow about them. The rest of the landscape was black, faded. I felt something click. It was the sound, or rather the feeling, of a key being turned in a lock. It was a golden triangle closing.
The previous day we had arrived at the exquisite yellow and pink candy-striped hotel on a steep wiggly lane leading out of Sintra. Anywhere else it would have been incongruous or self-conscious. Not in Sintra. Everything is fantastical, sugar-coated, Disney-magic. A contrived surface that hides the actual magic and gives an ironic nod to magic without a ‘k’ – this place was anything but surface, so it could laugh a little. Turrets and spiral stairs and stone bridges to nowhere. Battlements and gargoyles and little towers with no purpose. Ha!
There was something enchanting and rather charming about Casa Miradouro. It had such attention to comfort – in fact, comfort prevailed over profit in all ways. When we arrived it was silent and calm. I sat on a velvet chair and looked around me. The entire downstairs of the villa was a series of softly carpeted lounges with sofas and plants and open fires, and silk-covered chairs that wanted to be sat in, for people to muse and be happy in their skins. There were silver trays with port, and coffee-making machines in corners. I am not sure its real purpose was a hotel. It was an incubator for something wonderful.
In the afternoon we went to the Pena Palace on a tourist mini-bus which trundled around the little roads through overhanging trees and huge rocks in piles. Up and up. The palace blinked in garish yellow and pink through some distant branches. Walking up to the palace, the path sloped this way and that, getting ever closer but it was still seen unnervingly fragmented through tumultuous foliage. I felt a bubbling in my chest area, a fizzing. It was the same feeling I got in sacred sites in the UK.
When I was about twenty I made a vow to go to all the standing stone circles in the UK. I didn’t manage it, but I got through a lot considering I was relying on hitchhiking with a tent and big hard-backed book my granny had given me called ‘Sacred Sites of the British Isles.’ It has ‘with fond love’ in Granny’s scrawling script and no maps. I would often camp illegally in remote windswept fields and wake up in dew near some old stones. Every time I got the same fizzing in my chest. It was leylines. I make no apology or explanation. I got it in the Blue Mosque last year. I read later that Pena Palace had been a monastery and it didn’t surprise me – through time, spiritual sites breathe out people and buildings as though pushing a frieze relief up from within. This one was an outlandish ridiculous laughable glorious exclamation of joy and mess. It was brightly iced like a kid’s cake, with tiles like scales and turrets like hats and grinning carved creatures, all mixed up together in a mish-mash. I was on a fantasy film set.
We followed the spiral path up to the entrance and went inside. It was just as confusing – with pictures and furniture and niknaks from every century and every land. It reminded me of the Brighton Pavilion with its motley collection of exotic statues and baroque furniture, facing off prissy Victorian vases and embroidered hangings. A bit like a National Trust property really, but in Hollywood. Scott regarded it all thoughtfully and quietly – not a Manc-skill in sight – he must have been affected by the chi.
From the end of a long drawing-room, I saw a young woman standing as still as could be near an open window. She wore a jacket as part of her uniform and a badge on a string. Through the window were distant statues rising up out of the treetops, pointing or gesturing in some way. The wide Atlantic was open and present and a beam of sunshine hit her yellow hair and turned it to gold. It wasn’t hard to see her as a princess in a tower, in a medieval dress with a crown and veil, forever standing waiting, held in a moment, like the images on Keat’s Grecian Urn. Forever a possibility, a hope. I asked her her name and if she had been standing there for hundreds of years. She laughed but didn’t say she hadn’t.
Quinta da Regaleira was also a riotous folly but darker. It had been built to serve the predilections of a wealthy Italian and designed by a theatrical set designer. We were all wannabe actresses in that garden, peering seductively through an ivy-clad archway, or descending a miniature stone stairway over a fake bubbling brook. There were fountains, wide terraces with beckoning goddesses, lakes, and grottoes reached by underground tunnels in pitch black. There were sunken ‘wells’ which were inverted towers for magic rituals. With a window for each tarot card in the major arcana, the spiral stairs led down into chill stone. Apparently, the initiation well was inspired by the Knights Templar practices. Scott and I ran around the garden like we were on a quest, as indeed we were. Gothic folly and not ashamed of it. I wanted to don a hooded green cloak and swish it around me. I wanted to turn fifty in this garden.
Back in the hotel the light was fading and I was still looking from the window up at the Pena Palace outlined in the darkness on top of the hill. Even at this distance, I could see its garish pink and yellow reflecting grin. There was a swirling coloured cloud above it, like an aurora. Quinta da Regaleira was lower down to the right in the darkness of trees, and then there was me standing in the pink and yellow Casa Miradouro. I was the third point of the triad. Click.
Lord Byron has a street named after him in Sintra. In the evening, we followed his footsteps to Lawrence’s Hotel, and ate a meal in the ancient chilly dining room. He knew all about magic and madness, Lord Byron.
The following morning our gentle host Suku wore a frilled white apron and showed us to the dining room in the basement with views over the green hills. We ate breakfast with chia seeds, pineapple and homemade cake. Then I sat by the fire and heard how she had travelled from Kathmandu, via Denmark to Sintra. Daisy, my daughter, was conceived in Kathmandu – I am sure she was a floating Buddhist monk looking for a body.
I was becoming obsessed with signs. Okay okay… I will move to Portugal.