Wednesday 19 August 2015

Monks and battles: Buçaco forests

Roughly halfway between Porto and Lisbon, a short detour off the national road into green wooded countryside leads to Buçaco Palace, an extravagant architectural fantasy in romantic Manueline style.

It's set in a hilly forested region not far from the Serra de Estrela, Portugal's highest mountain range, in the midst of forests filled with trees brought back to Europe by Portuguese explorers from Africa and the New World.

The Palacio (now a luxury hotel) itself is not very old, built at the turn of the 1900s, but there's a much older Carmelite convent right next to it, where monks long ago established elaborate gardens complete with fountains, mazes, waterfalls and secret grottoes (still there today).

Two papal bulls from the 1600s are handily displayed at the entrance to the gardens - one banning women from entering this garden of Eden (to keep the monks free of temptation?) and another threatening any person harming the trees with excommunication. At least one of those had some lasting value.

The palace's interiors are all elaborate ornate stucco ...

... and grand marble staircases guarded by knights in armour and massive tiled murals depicting gory battle scenes.

Over the top? Absolutely. But the dining room is elegant and cool with views to the 'garden of Eden' and forests beyond.

There's masses of history here. In 1810 one of the great battles of the Peninsular Wars was fought in these woods, and the Duke of Wellington tied his horse to an olive tree and spent a contented night in the Convent after helping the Portuguese defeat Napoleon's troops in a battle in these woods.

Later (in a kind of Portuguese-French reconciliation?) Portugal's last king, the young Manuel II, used the Palacio as a discreet venue for trysts with his girlfriend, French actress Gaby Deslys.

We did not linger for lunch but pressed on south to Lisbon.

Buçaco, Portugal June 2015
Day 7 Iberian road trip

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