Early Modern History, Portugal, Research

Buçaco – the Palace, Forest and Convent

Picture taken on our first night at the Palace; a balmy June evening

This week I’m staying at Buçaco Palace Hotel (Palace Hotel do Buçaco). I’d visited the Palace and its surrounding forest back in the summer of 2013, during a research trip to Portugal as part of my Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. It has been a real treat to be able to stay here this week. (Not work this time; I’m actually on my honeymoon… I thought I’d blog about this wonderful place while in situ.)

The Palace was built between 1888 and 1907, having been commissioned by King Carlos I as a royal retreat. This neo-Manueline gothic building was the invention of the Italian architect Luigi Manini (who also acted as stage designer for the National Opera House), and certainly succeeds in evoking the beauty of the sixteenth-century design principles.

Manini did not live to see the project’s completion and was succeeded by Nicola Bigaglia, José Alexandre Soares and Manuel Joaquim Norte Júnior. This latter architect designed the Palace’s annex, the ‘Casa dos Basões (House of the Coat-of-Arms), and was also the architect of the famous ‘Café a Basileira’ in 120 Rua Garrett in Lisbon (first opened in 1905, in the Baixa Chiado district). The building was opened as a hotel in 1910.

I’ve been sat at one of these tables, while writing much of this blog
The reception area of the Palace

The interior of the palace is resplendent in its wealth of Neo-Manueline portals and stucco work, reminiscent of Manueline rib vaulting. It is also awash with spectacular tile panels (azulejos), created by Jorge Colaço. They depict scenes from works of great Portuguese literature (such as the writings of Luís Vaz de Camões and Gil Vincente), as well as key scenes from the Battle of Buçaco. The Battle of Buçaco was fought on 27 September 1810, during the Peninsular War, resulting in the defeat of French forces by the Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese Army. Wellington stayed at the Carmelite convent in the lead up to the battle. The Palace is, in part, attached to the remains of the convent. Still an active community at the time of Wellington’s arrival in Buçaco, one of the monks resident at the time wrote an account of Wellington’s time situated amongst their community (detailed below).


Scenes from the Battle of Buçaco:

Further azulejos at the Palace:

The surrounding forest (Serra do Buçaco) was first settled by Benedictine monks during the sixth century. It was subsequently administered by priests from Coimbra Cathedral. A papal bull of Pope Gregory XV (1623) declared that any women who entered the forest would be excommunicated; the same fate await any who sought to damage the trees. The barefoot Carmelites took over the area in 1628, building both a monastery and a wall to encircle their 105-hectare (250-acre) forest abode, the Convento de Santa Crux do Buçaco.



The convent’s surrounding garden was intended to represent Mount Carmel (where the order was founded), as was as an earthly paradise. A series of chapels (representations of a Via Crucis) in the surrounding gardens were created in the seventeenth century. Part of the convent, including its chapel with Baroque altarpieces, remains to this day. The forest contains over 400 varieties of Portuguese trees, shrubs and flowers, and hosts around 300 species from former Portuguese territories, including specimens from Mexico, Chile and Japan, all introduced during Portugal’s great ‘Age of Discovery’. The perimeter wall of the forest (approximately 5km / 3.1 miles in circumference) is punctuated with a series of gates, which bear the text of the seventeenth-century papal bull forbidding women to enter the forest.

The forest and the monastery were eventually taken over by the Portuguese government in 1834, when monasteries were abolished across Portugal. In 1885, the dining hall, kitchen and library of the Palace, as well as some of the cells of the convent were demolished, and a new foundation stone laid. The Palace was erected in brick and then encased with local limestone, sandstone from Ançã, and marble from Vila Viçoca in Alentejo. Though first conceived as a retreat for the Portuguese royal family, the building has now spent the significant part of its existence as a luxury hotel, having been converted to public use after the Lisbon Regicide and subsequent coup d’état.

The trees of the surrounding forest have been the subject of literary and academic analysis from the seventeenth century onwards. The celebrated female Portuguese scholar and playwright, Bernarda Ferreira de Lacerda (1596-1644), dedicated her Soledades de Buçaco (Lisbon, 1634) to Felipe III. In 1768, an English botanist provoked a 200-year-long debate by claiming that one of the varieties of Cypress trees found in the forest had originated in Goa.

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 3.43.45 PM.jpg
The 1634 edition of Bernarda Ferreira de Lacerda’s Soledades de Buçaco


The convent

While much of the convent was destroyed to make way for the palace, sections of it do remain, not least its chapel and a number of the monks’ cells. The exterior is decorated in the Carmelite’s characteristic white quartz and coal-tar inlay, and the monks’ cells are each insulated with cork (much-needed protection against the cold throughout the winter months).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

IMG_7081 (1).jpg
Frei Sebastião da Encarnação


Paintings housed in the convent include this seventeenth-century painting of Frei Sebastião da Encarnação. There is also an impressive seventeenth-century painting of Dom João de Mello; these two pictures are part of a set of around 40 paintings throughout the cloister, which are all framed in cork and detail various depictions of saints and ascetics in the desert.

The central chapel includes a number of noteworthy pieces, not least those dedicated to holy women. The chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Milk was damaged by fire on Christmas Eve 2014, and the painting by the celebrated female artist Josefa d’Óbidos, of Mary offering milk to the baby Jesus was destroyed. (A copy is now in situ.)



The (now lost) painting of Our Lady of Milk by Josefa d’Óbidos

The Via Crucis and the forest – the storm damage of 2013.

On 19 January 2013 (the year of my first visit to Buçaco) Portugal was hit by cyclone ‘Windstorm Gong’. More than 40 per cent of the forest was seriously damaged by the storm, and a number of buildings on the site suffered significant damage. Of the area’s 86 most precious trees, 10 were felled and six critically damaged.

The Via Crucis was also damaged in the storm. First introduced in 1644, these stations offer an idyllic setting in which to contemplate the Stations of the Cross. Those damaged in the storm are slowly being restored to something near their former glory but much remains to be done. The hard work and dedication of those tending the needs of the battered forest and the Via Crucis has been exceptional, and the dedication of those involved should not be underestimated or go unacknowledged. It has been a privilege to stay at the Palace this week; it has been a genuine joy to see the progress made in the salvage and restoration work undertaken in the surrounding forest.


Restoration work continues in the forest
Interior of one of the Stations
Interior of one of the Stations
Storm damage to the Hermitage on the Via Crusis
DSCN1920 (1)
Storm damage to a Station of the Cross
Damaged interior
The painstaking work of salvaging this Station continues
IMG_7020 (1)
Restoration of the Hermitage

Further Reading / viewing

The website of the Palace Hotel, which includes a brief history: http://www.bussacopalace.com/en/history.html

On the Battle of Buçaco: René Chartrand, Bussaco 1810: Wellington Defeats Napoleon’s Marshals (Osprey, 2009)

The Carmelite monk’s account of Wellington’s time at the convent is available for pdf download here: https://ia800306.us.archive.org/6/items/bussaco00cham/bussaco00cham.pdf

Bernarda Ferreira de Lacerda, Soledades de Buçaco: available for pdf download here: http://bdlb.bn.br/acervo/handle/123456789/259101 (via Biblioteca Digital Luso-Brasilieira)

Pùblico article about the loss of the painting by Josefa de Óbidos at Buçaco:  https://www.publico.pt/culturaipsilon/noticia/incendio-destroi-pintura-de-josefa-de-obidos-1618330