Because I am inexplicably drawn to the strange and macabre, I've often found myself traversing the more mysterious corners of Portugal's tourist map. Places like tombs and monolithic rock formations and chapels strung with human bones. If you, too, take a shivery delight in eerie stories, can't resist peeking behind dark forbidden doors, and think that an old cemetery is a perfectly pleasant place to spend an afternoon, then read on. These places are for you.
1. The Tomb of The Corpse Bride, Alcobaça.
How Castilian noblewoman Inês de Castro came to be the The Corpse Bride is a gruesome story. It all began when Prince Pedro of Portugal plunged head-first into undying love at the sight of her, and the two become lovers. His father the King forbade the union, having already married Pedro off to Inês' cousin, Infanta Constança of Castile. This only made their love more determined and the Shakespearian tragedy that would ensue more twisted.
Against his father's wishes, Pedro continued to see Inês and they bore four children together. Even after his legitimate wife died, he refused to be with anyone else. The King took extreme measures: he ordered Inês to be killed. Three of his men cut her head clean off her graceful neck while her small child looked on.
Pedro was inconsolable. He eventually captured two of the assassins and publicly executed them by having their still-beating hearts ripped out of their chests. But not before the strangest part of the story unfurled.
When Pedro became King of Portugal in 1357, so the legend goes, he had Inês' body exhumed from its earthly grave and seated on the throne. Regally-robed, crowned and lifeless, Inês finally took her place as Queen. It's said that the entire court were forced to swear allegiance to her and kiss her cold, decaying hand.
Inês now lies inside the monastery of Alcobaça in an intricate tomb of carved stone. When you visit, note the way Pedro's equally-exquisite tomb lies opposite hers, their feet toward each other. When the day comes that the two cast off their heavy stones and rise up once again, there they'll stand, face to face, upon the altar.
2. The Chapel of Bones, Évora.
Pass under an ominous stone inscription, and pay attention to its meaning: Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos. We bones that here are, for yours await.
Inside is a chapel whose walls and pillars and archways are decked out completely in human parts: smooth femurs and tibias; the yellowed baubles of a thousand skulls.
The chapel is a physical manifestation of the latin motto Memeto mori. Remember that you have to die. Built by a Franciscan monk in the 16th century, the small but intriguing chapel is inlaid with the skeletons of monks who were disinterred from nearby cemeteries. You'll notice it's also decorated with a few dried hanging corpses, and a lovely painted ceiling of death motifs.
Whether it still invites contemplation on life's fleeting nature depends on you - the only way to know is to visit.
3. The Almendres Cromlech, Guadalupe.
A short drive from Évora is a peaceful stretch of countryside spattered with olive trees. Amongst it, in a large clearing, a circle of stones rises up like gapped teeth in a dusty mouth. These stones are menhirs - standing stones from the megalithic era - and the structure they form is one of the largest of its kind in all of Europe.
What were the stones for? What sacred rituals were conducted here since their arrangement in around 6000 BC? Or was the site not used for rituals at all, but as a giant calendar marking out the days, the astronomical events, the solstices and equinoxes with its alignments and shadows?
There's no real consensus, so as you walk around the Cromlech and observe the ancient markings that etch particular stones, and as you notice the seemingly-involuntary reverence that settles over the crowds who visit, you'll have to ponder the mystery for yourself.
4. Igreja de São Domingos, Lisbon.
Tourists stream past this innocuous looking church in the centre of Lisbon without looking inside. If they did, they’d see something beautiful, sacred, and scarred.
The walls of Igreja de São Domingos are blackened and burned, even as the vaulted ceiling sports a fresh coat of warm terracotta paint. It’s the contrast between the two things that makes such an impact. It’s as if the building is trying to convey some message about how underneath it all, we all have our scars and our sins.
This church’s own sins are nothing to sneeze at. Hundreds of Jews were mercilessly slaughtered here during the Lisbon Massacre of Easter, 1506. Later the priests who roused the violent mob to action were tried and burned alive.
Years passed but the church itself could find no respite from past misdeeds. It crumbled violently earthwards in the earthquake of 1531, was rebuilt, suffered the same fate in the earthquake of 1755, was rebuilt again. Finally, a fire tore through its guts in 1959, ravaging it from the inside out and taking the lives of two firemen before it could be subdued.
Perhaps continuing to restore the ill-fated São Domingos would be a futile act. Now days the damage is left visible, the walls still blackened and rough beneath the smooth red dome.
5. The Initiation Well at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra.
Quinta da Regaleira is not ancient - but it is beautiful, elaborate, and mysterious.
Built at the start of the 20th century, the estate's eccentric millionaire owner breathed his fascination for the esoteric into every corner of it. First the estate reveals acres of gardens peppered with various structures: towers, grottos, a chapel, a five-story palace with an incredible Gothic facade.
Delve deeper and it confesses underground tunnels and secret passageways. Look harder and hidden symbols relating to mythology, alchemy, the Masons and The Knight's Templar are divulged.
The most mysterious thing of all is the Masonic Initiation Well that spirals into the ground 27 meters deep. The bottom can be reached by secret underground passage. Peer down from the top and the well appears as a mossy stone flower graduating down nine levels - said to represent Dante's nine circles of Hell.
Suffice to say, it's the thrill of every mystic and Instagrammer alike.
Photo credits: Bone Chapel at Évora by Tania Braukamper; Tomb of Ines de Castro by royckmeyer on Flickr; Bone Chapel at Évora, Almendres Cromlech and Igreja de São Domingos by Tania Braukamper; Initiation Well by Stijndon on Wikimedia Commons.