Uncover Arrábida’s Royal Secret at Palácio da Comenda

Abandoned to degradation and graffiti, Palácio da Comenda was once known as one of the most regal palaces on the European coast, having hosted Portuguese royalty, French aristocracy, and the First Family of the U.S.

Deep within the luscious forests of the Parque Natural da Arrábida stand the remnants of a mansion with a surprising history of secrets. Abandoned to degradation and graffiti, Palácio da Comenda was once known as one of the most regal palaces on the European coast, having hosted Portuguese royalty, French aristocracy, and the First Family of the U.S.

I stumbled upon the hidden treasure one day when I decided to take a trip down to Setúbal, a beautiful fishing town on the Sado river estuary. It was a warm, sunny winter’s day, so we took our time walking at the waterfront and along the beaches. Since the cliff face slashed down sharply onto the beach, there was a lot of rock fall blocking our path, but when we managed to clamber over these obstacles, we discovered a series of hidden beaches and coves — peaceful, secluded, and cut off from the world. Eventually, after meandering along for a couple of hours, we noticed a steep path leading directly up the cliff.

It was a struggle to climb up the almost-vertical slope but when we reached the top, the sight we were faced with made the struggle worthwhile.

Photo by Emily D’Silva

Standing tall, prominent and proud of its former status was Palácio da Comenda, a five-story abandoned mansion. Overcome with excitement by the mere sight of it, we wasted no time venturing directly into the overgrown courtyard, defined by wild creepers snaking up around the regal marble pillars. There was a haunted feeling about the place as the ghosts of preceding inhabitants whispered in the wind around us. Entering the mansion, we were immediately in awe of its grandeur: although covered in graffiti with shattered windows and parts in complete ruin, the high ceilings, delicately framed doorways, and remaining traditional tiles gave us the impression that this place was once very important. The mystery that lingered in the air was, how had such a remarkable building come to such ruin?

Photo by Emily D’Silva

Tiptoeing apprehensively through each desolate room, we tread with caution for fear of the floors collapsing beneath us, my companion quietly hesitating to say that she didn’t have travel insurance. Nonetheless, we continued ascending higher and higher, exploring the property in its entirety. From the large number of en-suite bathrooms, recognizable because of the tiles, toilets, and bathtubs, we deduced that the building had most likely been used as a hotel or guest house of some sort. Two huge balconies on the uppermost floors gave us a breath-taking panoramic view of the Atlantic ocean and formidable Serra do Risco mountain range.

I was so enamored by how incredible the mansion was that as soon as I returned home, I began my research to uncover the history of the building. As it turns out, the mansion had an extremely interesting past.

Originally built in the 18th century, the palace was home to European royalty for almost a century. Queen Dona Maria II (1819-1853), eldest child of Emperor Pedro I of Brazil, queen regnant of the United Kingdom of Portugal and the Algarves, and the only European monarch to have ever been born outside of Europe, was one of the palace’s occupants. In 1848, just five years before her death, the queen sold the estate to French nobility: the family of the Count Ernest Armand (1829-1898).

The property was handed down within the family over the years, and by the late 19th century it was in the hands of Count Abel Henri Armand, a diplomat and representative of the French government in Lisbon. The family had always been committed to respecting the nature surrounding the property, and with this in mind, Armand commissioned Raul Lino da Silva to renovate the palace. Not only an architect but also an architectural theorist and writer, Lino da Silva was one of the most recognized and heralded architects of the early 20th century. As the story goes, Armand invited Lino da Silva to spend a night in the Serra do Risco mountains and bathe in the moonlight, so as to gain inspiration from the natural landscape.

In 1903, Lino da Silva completed the re-design of the mansion, in the style of Casa Portuguesa, an idealized concept of the Portuguese house. He was known for incorporating both Portuguese traditionalism and European modernism in his iconic designs, resulting in beautiful spacious interiors with natural light and space that maintained a poetic marriage between the architecture and nature.

“A Natureza é o verdadeiro motivo de sublime beleza que o homem nunca pode exceder” / “Nature is the true motive of sublime beauty that man can never exceed”

– Count Roger Ernst Marie Joseph Armand (1893-1981)

After his death, Abel Henri’s eldest son Roger Ernst Armand took on the property and continued to extend the invitation for European aristocracy and other significant friends —including President J.F. Kennedy’s sister-in-law Caroline Lee Radziwill — to use the house as a summer resort. What is not so commonly known is that after President J.F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Casa da Comenda assumed another purpose, as a refuge for Jacqueline Kennedy and her children. In such a remote utopia far from Washington D.C., it was the perfect location for the Kennedys to retract quietly and safely during their grieving.

After Roger Ernst’s death, the house was acquired by António Xavier de Lima in the 1980s and remained under his ownership until his own death in 2009. The building has since been utterly abandoned. Surrounded by a protected natural reserve boasting Mediterranean vegetation and a micro-climate due to its location in between Sesimbra and Setúbal, the house still maintains spectacular significance. It is no wonder, then, that with five stories, 26 rooms, and a private beach, it is now on the market for 50 million euros.

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