A doll hospital may not be top of your list of things to see and do in Lisbon but if you have 30 minutes to spare, this unique place is worth visiting. Some tour groups pause outside the door but you really need to go in to appreciate how special the Hospital de Bonecas (Doll Hospital) is.
Hospital for dolls and toys
This is more than a workshop for repairing damaged dolls. The dedicated team make new ones, create costumes and have a collection of over 3,000 dolls.
They also fix and sell other toys; when Mike and I walked in, the two ladies at the counter were puzzling over a broken toy truck. We left them to it and followed the owner, Manuela Cutileiro, up the creaking wooden stairs to the first floor where the magic happens.
The hospital’s ambulance is a straw basket, used to transport the most serious cases to the operating room. We began our tour in the waiting room, where the shelves are full of toys in various stages of recovery. Several dolls were laid out on the operating table, waiting for repairs or finishing touches.
The table is surrounded by cupboards and drawers full of spare eyes, hair, arms and legs. What’s beyond repair can be clearly replaced by transplant.
Lisbon’s original doll doctor, Dona Carlota, used to sit in a busy market square making and selling dolls. When local children told her of their doll’s ailments, she would prescribe treatment. Years after the market closed, tales of her cures continued to spread among local families until Hospital das Bonecas opened its doors in 1830.
The doll hospital has stayed in the same family for centuries. Even in today’s throwaway society, patients from all over the world are referred to the care of Cutileiro and her team of experts who examine and diagnose each situation.
Some, especially the antique dolls, prove to be quite a challenge but few are beyond salvation.
“I suppose my favourites are the papier mache dolls from the 1930s,” Manuela Cutileiro told me. “They were made on the streets of Lisbon by the wives of newspaper sellers and you can still see the newsprint on some of the old dolls.”
These women would soak unsold papers in water then fashion them into replicas of more expensive porcelain dolls or other figures.
“We were asked to restore a papier mache horse but once we had stripped off the paint, the owners decided not to repaint it. They have the horse showing the newspaper instead,” she explained.
I was surprised to see so many boy dolls in the museum. Apparently, at that time (1930s), all doll molds were masculine; long hair, eyelashes and dresses were added later to transform them into girl dolls. It seems that before the days of Action Man and Transformers, boys were happy to play with more lifelike dolls.
Other eyebrow-raising examples include the black maid doll and some rather spooky-looking ones from 1920s Britain.
I spotted a doll in army fatigues and Dra Manuela explained, “This is one of our bonecas de saudades. People bring us special items of clothing, such as wedding dresses, or in this case, soldier’s uniforms, and we make a costume for their doll that serves as a memento.”
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Address: Hospital de Bonecas, Praça da Figueira 7, Lisbon.
Opening times: Shop and surgery open Monday to Friday from 10 am to 7 pm, Saturdays 10 am to 6 pm. Guided visits to the hospital and museum Monday to Saturday 10:30 to 12:30 and 2:30 to 5:00 pm, €2.