Buçaco (Bussaco), Portugal
No tour of Northern Portugal is complete without a visit to , a mountain forest located just northeast of Coimbra on the way to Viseu. Bussaco (sometimes spelled "Buçaco") is a delightful refuge of cypress groves, ferns, statues, fountains, and formal gardens. It's also home to the Palace Hotel do Bussaco, which may be Europe's best value in a grand hotel.
1,400 years of forestry
The Bussaco Forest was first settled by Benedictine monks in the 6th Century. Later, it was administered by priests from Coimbra Cathedral, and a Papal edict of 1622 declared that women entering the forest would be excommunicated.
The Discalced Carmelites, an order of barefooted monks, took over in 1628. They built a monastery and surrounded the 250-acre (105-hectare) forest with a wall. Over the centuries, the monks and the government foresters who succeeded them have planted nearly 400 Portuguese varieties of trees, shrubs, and flowers while importing some 300 species from as far away as Mexico, Chile, and Japan.
From battleground to public park
In 1810, 66,000 French troops attacked the Duke of Wellington and his army of British and Portuguese soldiers during the unsuccessful Napoleonic invasion of Portugal. The forest survived, and so did the monastery--although it fell into government hands in 1834, when monasteries were abolished throughout Portugal.
Later in the 19th Century, the Portuguese royal family commissioned an Italian operatic scene painter and architect to build a summer palace and hunting lodge in the Bussaco Forest. The building (see photo above) was completed in 1907, shortly before the assassination of the king and crown prince. The king's Swiss chef obtained government permission to turn the palace into a hotel in 1910, and guests have been wallowing in pseudo-Manueline architecture and Edwardian comforts ever since.
Things to see:
Besides the Palace Hotel do Bussaco, with its wedding-cake architecture and formal gardens, the Buçaco Forest offers a variety of monuments and walks. High points include:
From a mountain spring, water bounces downhill over 144 steps in a cool, shaded forest setting. Follow the lakeside path to the Fern Alley. This will lead you past the Grottoes Gate via groves of cypresses and other exotic trees. At one point, you can head uphill to a scenic overlook at the Coimbra Gate (see photo) before heading back to the hotel through the Cedar Alley.
As you follow the stations of the cross up the hillside, you'll pass a series of large shrines containing life-size terracotta figures of Christ, his disciples, and other characters in the Crucifixion story. (See photo.) The hike terminates in the Cruz Alta, or High Cross, which offers views of the forested mountains and the Palace Hotel.
Most of the monastery was torn down during the construction of the royal summer palace, but a few portions remain--among them, a chapel (with innumerable photos of the religious faithful hoping for miracles) and several of the old monks' cells, which are lined with cork for insulation against the winter cold.
This small museum commemorates the Battle of Buçaco and other key battles during Napoleon's attempts to conquer Iberia and destroy the Portuguese alliance with Great Britain, which dates back to 1373.
Where to stay:
If you can afford it, spend at least one night in the Palace Hotel do Bussaco (see previous page). Unlike most "palace hotels," this one was built as a royal palace--and it has a grandiosity, if not a grandeur, that combines Disneyland fantasy with Hollywood excess.
The hotel's rates are a bargain by the standards of the U.S. and Northern Europe. You'll like your accommodations, too: the rooms are mostly huge, with plenty of dark wood, chandeliers, old-fashioned bathroom fixtures, crenellated balconies, etc. to make you feel like a weekend guest at a stately home during the Edwardian era. (You may wish that you'd brought evening clothes so you could play dress-up in the ornate dining room, which serves Continental cuisine with puff pastry and flair.)
The Bussaco National Forest is 28 km (17 miles) north of Coimbra. You can reach it via Penacova or Luso. Just consult your roadmap and watch the signs.
If you don't have a car, take the Coimbra-Viseu bus and get off at the Palace Hotel. A number of buses run each day, so you can easily spend a few hours exploring the forest and enjoying the views before returning to Coimbra or heading north.
Top photo copyright © Luis Pedrosa.
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