I first visited the town of Sintra in Portugal nine years ago. Then I was avoiding a significant birthday, working on the principle, if it happened when I was out of the country it wouldn't count. On that day I stumbled across a gift wrapped palace in a garden every bit as secret as Helligan.
At the time the Monserrate Gardens and their crumbling palace were teetering on the edge of ruin or restoration. Once the home of the louche gothic author and friend of Byron, William Beckford, its elegant filigree plaster walls and ornate marble staircases showed many years of neglect.
Though officially open as a public park, few people ever went there. The paths were broken and it was hard to find a way through all the overhanging greenery, but the romantic hidden treasures were well worth the struggle: a strange semi Christian temple locked tightly in the grip of a banyan tree, elegant groves of tree ferns, towering palms and bird of paradise lilies sprouting weed like out of every crevice.
This time, instead of wandering in through a broken down gate, I paid a fee at a neat little kiosk, Well scrubbed lavatories and even a few plants for sale indicated a whole new order. Would E.U. funding and renewed civic pride have robbed this horticultural gem of its secret and brooding beauty?
The morning may have been overcast but the garden was the same; as mysteriously lush and green as ever, slightly more accessible but still bewitchingly beautiful. As the heavy rain started the tiny number of other visitors vanished and once again Monseratte Gardens were mine.
On my first visit the palace was wrapped bizarrely in polythene pending restoration. Then the careless guard had allowed us in and we wandered around in secret, marvelling at a fairy tale beauty, even half fallen ceilings and damp green walls couldn’t disguise.
Now the outside is repainted and a polite attendant checks tickets as you enter, but even E.U money had its limits. It will be while before tasteful restoration takes over completely and turns it into a splendid teahouse or museum. Give me romantic decay with a hint of decadence anytime.