Something for everyone at Buçaco national forest in central Portugal
Whether you’re after a fairytale palace, war museums, magnificent views, an old convent or a wander through Portugal’s finest collection of national and imported trees, Buçaco is the place to go. Which explains why this 250-acre forest is such a popular weekend picnic spot and worthy tourist destination. Only 30 km from Coimbra and 3km from the spa town of Luso, it’s an easy day out from most places in central Portugal.
The palace hotel
The Portuguese royal family liked it so much they had a summer palace and hunting lodge built in the centre of the woods. The palace itself wasn’t completed until 1907, leaving the royal family very little time to enjoy it before the monarchy finally came to an end in 1910.
Luckily for wealthy tourists, the king’s chef got permission to turn the elaborate, neo-Manueline embellished building into a posh hotel which continues to provide luxury accommodation over 100 years later.
Even if you’re not staying at the Palace Hotel, you can go inside for a nosy around the ground floor to take a peek at the azulejos and period furniture and decor. Or for 35 or 40 Euros (not including drinks) you could treat yourself to lunch under the arches of the terrace restaurant overlooking the sculpted shrubbery and flowers of the well-tended gardens.
If the hotel’s restaurant is out of your price range, it’s best to come prepared with a picnic and find a shady spot at one of the many picnic tables dotted around the forest. Failing that, you may have to make do with an ice-cream from the kiosk.
Long before tourism started, an order of barefoot Carmelite monks took over the management of the forest from the Benedictine monks in 1628 and promptly built a wall around it, constructed a monastery and set about conserving and propagating the flora.
While this work was going on, two papal decrees were issued; women were banned from the forest so the monks would not be distracted and anyone daring to cut down a tree was to be excommunicated.
These measures, and the dedication of the monks, paid off and Buçaco is now Portugal’s most diverse forest. It’s home to over 400 native species of plants and 300 varieties brought home by Portuguese explorers from such far flung places as Mexico, Japan and Africa.
Although the government took over the forest in 1834 when they abolished the monasteries, there are still plenty of monastic features to experience. Much of the original convent was destroyed to make room for the palace but there’s still enough left to warrant the nominal entrance fee. Namely stone floors, cork-lined doors, ceilings and walls, 16th century blue and yellow tiled altars with painted flower displays and enormous religious paintings on the walls.
Not to mention the small chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Milk which hosts a painting of the Virgin Mary offering her breast to the baby Jesus by Josefa d’Obidos. Below this important work of art by Portugal’s first female artist lies a collection of wax breasts and photographs of people left by the faithful hoping for divine intervention.
As well as the azulejos painted with scenes from the Battle of Buçaco in 1810, one of the monks’ cells has been set aside for battle memorabilia. Napoleon’s troops were defeated here, marking the turning point in his attempted invasion of Portugal. So the story goes, the Duke of Wellington slept in the convent at night during the conflict.
For those who want more military history, there’s a small museum just outside the ‘Portas da Rainha / Queen’s Gates’ and a memorial obelisk nearby with views of the Serra da Estrela.
Walks through the forest
Otherwise, after admiring the striking patterns made by the monks in black, white and orange pebbles that cover the convent walls, why not go for a walk? For more religious artefacts, head away from the convent along the ‘Via Sacra / Way of the Cross‘ and discover the series of chapels that house life-sized terracotta figures representing Christ’s journey to the cross at Calvary.
If you’re feeling really fit, you can follow this path up to its conclusion, the enormous ‘Cruz Alta / High Cross’ that stands at an altitude of 551 metres. Those with less energy and a car can take the easy option and drive to the summit. Either way, the panoramic view across Coimbra to Aveiro makes it well worth the climb; on a clear day, you can see the Atlantic Ocean.
If you’re after a more gentle stroll, the ‘Vale dos Fetos / Valley of the Ferns’ provides a magical experience shaded by giant ferns from New Zealand with trickling streams that lead to a lake. Wander around it to discover grottos and poems.
Alternatively, follow the water of the ‘Fonte Fria / Cold Fountain’ as it makes its way down 144 steps to the lake, making sure you find a less gruelling way through the forest back up the hill. There are plenty of walks to choose from and they are fairly well signposted but it may pay to pop into the tourist information office in Luso and pick up a map beforehand. If you’re in a group of 10 or more, contact the forest foundation to arrange a guided tour.
The foundation organises a range of activities and events, although mostly in Portuguese, such as night walks, children’s adventures and Sundays in the Valley of Ferns. Check the website or contact them for more details.
Whenever you go, whatever you choose to do while you’re there, you’ll want to come back for more.
Staying there: Get more information and book your stay at the Palace Hotel on Booking.com (if you end up staying there as a result of using this link, I’ll get a small commission but it won’t cost you any extra. I use Booking.com all the time so I’m happy to recommend it to you).