Another early morning, and another train ride adventure ahead of us, we leave the north of Portugal, and our host city of Porto with love and amazement for all that we’ve come to learn about this part of the country. The weather is still very grey and gloomy, and we had a date with royalty waiting for us.
When Susete and I take a train together, there always seems to be some kind of adventure/mishap…. it never fails. This time, we were heading to the town of Luso, a famed spa town where Luso water comes from (Portugal’s version of ‘Evian’), and more specifically, into the forested area of Buçaco where our next accommodation was. Buçaco located in the Bairrada region of Portugal, is quite secluded, and therefore didn’t have many transportation routes, so we had to get out at a particular station (Pampilhosa), and transfer to another train which would head to our destination…. mainly because we weren’t paying attention, we missed our stop and had to continue on to Coimbra. We caught the first train heading back in the direction we came from, and in a massive stroke of luck, this train ended up being the very same one that we were meant to transfer onto!
We try to travel relatively frugally, but every now and then you just need to treat yourself. This was that one time. Buçaco Palace Hotel, is high up in the mountains, above the town of Luso, and is on the site of what was originally a Franciscan convent, built in the 1600s. Later, the Portuguese royal family added a palace to this site, using it as a summer retreat, and then in the 1800s, the Duke of Wellington, who lead the Anglo-Portuguese joint forces, used it as a base of operations while fighting Napolean’s army. We’re such humble people, it was weird to walk into such grandeur. Weird, but AMAZING! The palace was built with Manueline accents added onto 1800s architecture. There were ornate designs, azulejos on the walls, gigantic stained-glass windows, a grand central ‘salon’ in the main floor and a grand staircase lined with red carpet, where you can just imagine kings and queens walking up and down. It was like being in a fairy tale, as we got to stay there. The best part is that in Portugal, this can be done for less than the price that we’d pay for a Holiday Inn back at home in Canada!
Although it was still a bit rainy out, there’s we’re isolated at the palace as there’s nothing else around… so after touring the palace and the adjoining 1600s original convent (which was pretty cool, by the way), we decided to explore the pathways leading up the mountains and through the forest around the palace. Up, up, up, and up some more. Narrow dirt trails, Small cobbled pathways, who knew where we were going, but it was all so interesting. Forest trails weren’t just forest trails, but there were also hidden treasures at different intervals throughout. Every now and then we’d come across a small hut built long ago, and now abandoned… or a tiny capela (chapel) barely big enough to fit 1 person. The forest littered the pathways with chestnuts that had fallen from above (have you ever seen one still in its spikey shell?) Some chapel points say perched on the edge of a cliff, providing panoramic views of the surrounding area… or at least, would have if it wasn’t so foggy out. Although it blocks our views, the fog and rain created a very mystical and whimsical atmosphere, considering the history that we were surrounded by, as well as the isolation. We were walking mountain forest trails that have been walked for half a millennium. There were no barricades or safety devices, there were no tour guides, or even any people at all. Not a single soul. Just us, nature, and history.
Probably one of the most spectacular elements of the entire forest walk, was the Via Sacra (sacred path). This was the trail that lead up the mountain from the palace grounds, in a back and forth windy pattern. At various intervals along the cobbled path, there was a tiny hut, and inside each on of those old stone huts was a terra cotta diorama of statues of characters from the New Testament Bible. After seeing the first two of these sculpture huts, I realized what was happening here. The monks of the 1600s had built this path with these huts, to pay tribute to the Passion of the Christ… the procession that the Romans lead Jesus on, carrying his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. At the end of the pathway, all the way at the peak of the mountain, and on the cliff’s edge, was a stone altar with a large cross… symbolizing the end of Jesus’ journey and his crucifixion on the cross. As we stood there beside the 400+ year old stone cross, on top of that mountain, the rain falling, the fog and mist surrounding us, the wind aggressively blowing… I realized that this was probably once one of the most holy place in all of Portugal… probably in all of Europe at the time. We were standing where monks and royals had once come to be one with God, and although I’m not a religious person, in a place like this, you can’t help but feel that there’s something bigger, something that we cannot ever really know or explain. You just have to stand there and take it all in, as many had done before.