“Oof, you know I think we’re a little lost.”
Those words usually inspire a flurry of mild anxiety in me no matter who says them but, for some reason, as Silvia peers at her phone on some random bumpy backroad near a town who’s name I can’t pronounce, I just feel a sense of calm descend over me.
We had left the beautiful Palace of Monserrate about two hours before this, stopping at a couple of view points along the way, most notably the Miradouro das Azenhas do Mar (the observation deck area pictured above) where we had wandered along the coastline for a bit, just chatting about the area and our plans for the rest of the day. Already Silvia had guided me around the lovely town of Sintra and toured me through the grounds of Monserrate, as well as a couple of other stops after that. But we were at a bit of an impasse now, because she still had me for next 4 hours and we weren’t quite sure what to do. Usually people picked another larger palace for her to take them to, like Pena Palace, and/or hadn’t already gone to Cabo da Roca but of course I had to be different and while she still had her last stop of the day planned, the fishing village of Cascais, she really wanted me to get the most out of the day with her.
“Ok, hey! Do you want to go to Mafra? Mafra Palace? I think you will like it.”
I had actually looked up the Palace of Mafra on my first day in Sintra and had been interested but unfortunately it was about a 40 min drive from where I was staying and I really didn’t think the effort of trying to get out there and back would be worth it. But, if Silvia was offering to take me, why not?
And thats how we found ourselves driving along the quiet road towards Mafra, occasionally doubling back when a road sign told us we had gone the wrong way and jotting down phone numbers of any properties for sale in the area (her husband works in real estate and after I saw her take a photo of a “for sale by owner” sign, I kept my eyes peeled for them as well, a new kind of roadtrip game to play). It should have been slightly stressful, not really knowing where we were going and traveling with someone I had never met before but, honestly? It was the most relaxed I had felt in weeks. This of course, probably had something to do with the fact that just two weeks prior my whole department at work had been laid-off and I was the only one kept on from a team of about 30 people. A shocking turn of events to be sure, but once I had landed in Portugal I had been determined not to think on it, not to move on from it exactly, but at least not linger on the unexpected hole blasted in my work life. (Obviously there is something to be said for being lucky enough to not only keep my job but be able to then jet off to Europe on a preplanned trip and I really can’t overstate that enough for having enabled me to keep some semblance of calm about the whole thing and not just flip a table on the spot)
Chatting with Silvia about Portuguese culture, her family and my plans for the rest of the trip as we watched the landscape change from coastal to hilly farmland, winding our way through quiet towns to whatever Mafra would hold, it was the best kind of escape I could ask for.
Built between 1717 and 1755 during the reign of King John V, the palace was constructed per a vow the king made in 1711- in summary, he would order a great convent built if his wife gave birth to an heir. As Silvia told me, the vow must have really worked because the couple went on to have not only their first child María Barbara but an additional 6 children beyond that. Though it was originally meant to be a convent only large enough to house 13 Capuchin friars, due to the immense influx of wealth received from Brazil (a Portuguese colony at the time), construction was vastly expanded to have enough space for 330 friars. The original design was also altered to include state rooms, so in the end the proposed convent ended up serving as hunting retreat for the king as well due to it’s proximity to the royal hunting preserves in the area.
It’s hard to really explain the size of this palace in terms that can be visualized. I could tell you the front façade of the palace is over 250 meters long and stands high above the surrounding town buildings at a not inconsiderable 68 meters. I could tell you there are over 1,200 rooms built around the central awe inspiring basilica, not to mention the rare books library that houses over 30,000 books on it’s shelves. All these things don’t really make you feel the true size of how big this place is though- how tiny you feel inside- especially when you and tour guide seem to be the only people wandering in and out of rooms, only the occasional other visitor seen far ahead of you.
We spent about two hours there, slowling winding our way around from one end to the other, taking in the sumptuous gorgeousness of some rooms and the almost stark emptiness of others. I think we saw one other person visiting while we were there and I could almost imagine what it would have been like to wander these halls as if I lived there, no one to disturb me as I walked down the long halls. Silvia apologized many times for not knowing too much of the history of the palace since she rarely visited but I was just thankful she had brought me and made sure she realized I couldn’t have asked for a better guide for the day.
The library was the most memorable place in the whole palace, at least to me. The day we visited was sunny, allowing golden light to spill into the deep rectangular room, the shelves packed from end to end with books as far as my eye could see and though the area was roped off to prevent damage to the library, being able to take photos and some moments of video was enough for me to cement the visit as a complete and happy success.
We ended the trip with a visit to the giftshop so I could grab some postcards for friends as well as a book on other rare book libraries in Portugal (you can bet this inspired many ideas of future trips once I read it) and then we were back on the road towards Cascais.
Unfortunately, a perfect day from start to finish was not to be as I ended up having to cut the last part of our trip short due to some unexpected nausea and stomach cramps. I promised Silvia I would much rather just head on back to my hotel than have her try and cart me around Cascais- that though I would have loved to see it with her, it was no great loss to save it for a future trip. She was of course accommodating and even stopped at a gas station before she dropped me off to buy me a water and some Sprite to settle my stomach which I honestly just love her for. We hugged tightly as we said goodbye outside my hotel and I thanked her profusely for an amazing day, promising to leave her as high of a review as possible on the WithLocals site I had booked her through.
I ended my day sipping Sprite out on the patio connected to my rooms, one of the house cats sitting above keeping me company, reading about other beautiful libraries in Portugal and already dreaming of coming back to visit them one day.
Btw, if you’re at all interested, this is the WithLocals link you can use to get $15 off any private tour you book through them (and I in turn would get $15 to use as well, which hey, thats nice). If you do end up going to Lisbon and Silvia is available as a guide for a tour you’re looking at, I can’t recommend enough that you book her. She was so knowledgable, friendly and just one of the loveliest people i’ve ever met and I honestly would love to go back and take another tour with her. (No i’m not sponsored by them btw, I just honestly loved being able to use them and legit can’t praise the guides I had enough)