Atlas Obscura: 5 interesting spots in Portugal
July, 2 2019
Michèle and Sanne are travelling through Europe, sharing their experiences on ‘The adventures of MiSa’. They came across an interesting book: the ‘Atlas Obscura’, and decided to buy it. This guide, with its accompanying website, is full of strange and original places to visit all over the world. Discover five Atlas Obscura spots in Portugal together with Michèle and Sanne.
1. Books and bats in Mafra Palace Library
Mafra Palace is a monastery and palace in baroque and neoclassical style, built between 1717 and 1755. It’s viewed as one of the national treasures of Portuguese architecture. The library is the real attraction though. This 85-metre-long room was built in the sixteenth-century rococo style, characterised by its asymmetry. The elongated library houses about 36,000 leather-bound books, from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. They are under threat from insects, that view these ancient books as little more than a tasty snack. But the way the Mafra protects her treasures is a little unusual. Where ordinary libraries might fight pests with chemicals or radiation, the Mafra employs a colony of bats! Every night, the animals head out and protect the books. Unfortunately, they do leave some excrement behind, so all the furniture is carefully covered. And the marble floors are scrubbed every day.
Our visit to the palace was special. We didn’t expect to see a monastery and palace together in the same building. The library definitely didn’t disappoint. The beautiful decoration and asymmetry, together with the old books, made for a stunning experience. The collection even contains forbidden books, which only a few high-status people have access to. The bats are nocturnal animals, so (thankfully) we didn’t see them!
Campsites near Mafra:
2. Splendour at the Bussaco Palace Hotel
This unique hotel used to be a monastery. The monks of the monastery planted a huge garden with small chapels and different types of flora. After the monks left the monastery, King Luis I transformed it into a holiday palace for his wife, Queen Maria Pia. But due to political changes, the king and queen never lived in this country residence.
The whole building was transformed into a five-star hotel in the nineteenth century. Outside the hotel you can find the palace gardens which are still perfectly maintained. Much of the park around the hotel was destroyed by a heavy whirlwind in 2011. Workers are still busy every day trying to restore everything to its original state.
We were very curious to see what the hotel would look like on the inside. So we asked the receptionist if we could take a look around. The hotel is considers privacy to be very important, but we were still allowed to take some photos in the hallway. Afterwards we started on one of the many walks through the park. We were lucky with the weather and could enjoy seeing the small lizards, the beautiful swan and the blooming roses. Make sure you take the time to have a walk in the park. We do recommend researching your parking options before visiting. Outside the park there are two large free car parks, while inside the park you’ll pay a daily parking fee.
Campsites near the Bussaco Palace Hotel:
3. Bom Jesus do Monte: pilgrimage in Braga
Bom Jesus do Monte is a religious pilgrimage site dating from the fourteenth century. The construction of the entire park, which consists of different styles, took almost a century. There are symbols everywhere. Such as the five fountains that flow next to the stairs. These represent the five senses: hearing, seeing, feeling, tasting and smelling. The 577 steps that you climb – either on foot or on your knees – represent a form of penitence. Once you reach the top, you’ll find a small church, various chapels, and a landscaped garden. The ultimate reward is a beautiful view of city of Braga.
If you don’t feel like walking all the way, you can always use the oldest working traditional cable train in Europe. We really wanted to climb the stairs all the way to the top, but on the way from the parking lot to the stairs, Sanne twisted her ankle. So we decided to use the cable train to get there and to get back. Having enjoyed the beautiful view for a while, we took a careful walk around the landscaped gardens. We also visited the church. It was a beautiful spot that felt very peaceful. We would love to visit again, and to take the stairs next time!
Campsites near Braga:
4. Castelo Branco and Necropolis in Monsanto
Monsanto is a village surrounded by huge boulders. It lies at the top of a mountain, which gives you a panoramic view of the Portuguese countryside. In the village you can see several houses that were built under, between, or next to the huge boulders. And right at the top is the castle of Monsanto: Castelo Branco. It has been a strategic spot since ancient times. Due to an explosion in the nineteenth century, only the walls of the castle are still standing. The village is also known as a living museum because there are still people living there, and many people come to visit it each year. Between the village and the castle you can also see the ruins of the Necropolis van São Miguel. The interesting thing about this place is that the villagers were buried in the stones, and you can still see the outlines today. There are also open sarcophagi at the entrance to the chapel.
Michèle had found out about this place and we were very curious. Could it really be as cool as the description? To be honest…it was even better! The village looks quite strange, with all the stones and the steep pathways. It wasn’t like anything we’d ever seen before. And we enjoyed the castle even more. Normally there are paths you have to stay on or places that are closed. We were really able to enjoy ourselves by climbing on top of the tall walls to get an even better view. Nothing was forbidden, but of course you needed to be a bit careful. The Necropolis was also interesting, and Sanne was even able to lie down in a sarcophagus (call it a bucket list thing). All in all we had a really great time in Monsanto. You do need to be fairly fit to do it all though. We were also struck by the well-kept tourist office facilities and the public toilets.
Campsites near Monsanto:
5. An interesting well in Quinta da Regaleira
When people visit Sintra, they will often take a bus to the Pena Palace. The Atlas Obscura website suggested visiting a different castle which seemed far more interesting: Quinta da Regaleira. Quinta da Regaleira has several buildings that are richly decorated, an enormous garden with caves, corridors, small castles, chapels and other interesting details. There is an underground labyrinth, an aquarium and two wells. One of those wells is a real highlight of Quinta Da Regaleira. This well was not used as a well during the occupation of the Templars. Instead, stairs were carved into the walls of the well. They were used to quickly get from A to B. The stairs lead to underground caves, and ensured you could get to them quickly.
We couldn’t believe our eyes on our visit to Quinta da Regaleira! What a beautiful place, full of flora and beautiful architecture. Most of all, we enjoyed seeing all the secret passages and caves. Even though it was a weekday and the weather was just ok, there was no lack of tourists. The entrance price is fairly steep, but it’s well worth it!