Beckford’s Monserrate – Portugal Travel

As I retrace my steps down the long zigzags to Cintra again, and ever and anon look up at the heights from which I have come, they seem quite inaccessible. Equally, or more so, does the somewhat lower, but even more precipitous eminence called the Cruz Alta, from which the prospect is of surpassing extent over land and sea.

Everywhere the flowers trail over the walls of villas, and the high palms within rock softly in the heliotrope-scented breeze. Very beautiful it is; but the gardens belong to other people, and are jealously closed by stone walls and iron gates. From above them, at hundreds of points all over Cintra, you may command views of gardens of tropical luxuriance; but without permission of the wealthy owners you may not enter them. Cintra’s beauty is not free like the sacred wood of Bussaco, where you may wander at your will through purely sylvan scenery that not even Cintra can surpass. The grandeur of the towering Moorish stronghold on its crest of gray boulders is more imposing than anything Bussaco can show, and the interior of some of the highly cultivated private gardens of Cintra are as fine as any in Europe; but, so far as the enjoyment of the mere traveler is concerned, I am inclined to agree with the opinion of those who hold that Cintra’s fame is quite equal to Its merits. Beckford had very much to do with it.

His friends the Marialvas were among the first of the Portuguese aristocracy, and owned the large palace of Seteaes, where Byron and some guide-books erroneously say that the humiliating convention of Cintra was signed by the victorious English generals. Beckford’s visits to them and to the court at Cintra inspired him with an enthusiastic admiration for the place, and his letters are full of references to its beauty. To the immensely wealthy and eccentric young English-man desires and their accomplishment ever went hand in hand, and Beckford purchased a picturesque valley and slopes of the mountain some two miles from the town round the shoulder of the hill toward the west. Here he built an eccentric house, partly in the Moorish style, and here he displayed the virtuoso tastes and exotic luxury which afterward made Fonthill famous.

When Byron visited Cintra in 1809, Beckford, whose fame as an author rests upon his curious Eastern tale of “Vathek,” had left his villa at Monserrate for the more pretentious splendors of Fonthill, and the Peninsular war was pending.

“And yonder towers the Prince’s palace fair: There thou, too, Vathek, England’s wealthiest son, Once formed thy paradise, Here didst thou dwell, here schemes of pleasure plan, Beneath you mountain’s ever beauteous brow; But now, as if a thing unblest by man, Thy fairy dwelling is as lone as thou.”

All that money and skill could do was lavished upon the gardens in the ravines and slopes of Monserrate; and long before Beckford died the place became famous throughout Europe. Sir Francis Cook, Viscount de Monserrate, to whom Monserrate belonged for many years, greatly extended and improved the property, and his son, Sir Frederick Cook, the present owner, has followed the same course of munificent maintenance of this earthly paradise; with the result that now the beauties of the glens at Monserrate are probably unequaled in their own way. It was the middle of October when I visited the gardens on this occasion, altho I had seen it in all the glory of its spring and summer splendor on other visits, and the luxuriance of the vegetation showed as yet no signs of waning.