If I had to name one experience from our first visit to Portugal that still stands out as absolutely unforgettable even six months after Henk and I returned home, it would have to be our overnight visit to Bussaco Palace. Because even at the risk of overusing a word I’ve used many times to describe other places in this beautiful country, our time spent there was the very definition of the word ‘magical’. Here’s why.
A Palace for Romantics
Bussaco Palace is visual proof that if you give a talented Italian architect an inch, he’ll take a mile. What was supposed to be a ‘modest’ hunting lodge for King Ferdinand in the 19th century became an incredible over-the-top Neo-Manueline palace that looks like a fantasy castle, all thanks to the design of Italian Opera House stage designer and architect Luigi Manini.
Like his other fantasy palace at Quinta da Regaleira, no details were spared on either the interior or the exterior of Bussaco Palace, where every pillar, every transom, every ceiling and every archway is embellished with elaborate, unique carvings, tilework or stained glass.
If walking into this palace and seeing the grand 3-story staircase with its soaring stained glass window doesn’t take your breath away, you have become wayyyy too jaded by life!
The large common room here is one that is both great and grand as well, with huge stone fireplaces to evoke the ‘country lodge’ setting as well as archways that give even more stature to what is already an impressive and elegant space.
The dining room is no slouch, either, with incredible carved wooden ceilings, inlaid floors and floor-to-ceiling gracefully curved windows.
But it is the outdoor verandah just off the main dining room that best captures the essence of the Romanticism of this palace.
It is absolutely impossible not to imagine yourself as Juliet, or any other romantic heroine, when you stand on this semi-circular verandah, gazing out at the palace gardens through the delicate arched windows – THIS is a terrace truly fit for a princess.
A Sacred Forest
The gardens and sacred forest surrounding Bussaco Palace were once the responsibility of the Barefoot Carmelites, who in 1628 made this secluded location their sanctuary, even erecting a wall to isolate them from the outside world. Hiking the forest almost 400 years later, it’s easy to see why this setting is one that is both exotic and spiritual, with rare species of sequoias, eucalyptus and pine trees shading trails and pathways. One of these, the Via Sacra (Sacred Way), takes you past small chapels housing life-sized terracotta figures that represent the Stations of the Cross, and ends at the Cruz Alta (High Cross) far above the Palace.
Henk and I took this trail (which turned out to be a pretty strenuous hike on a hot day!), but the reward was a fantastic birds-eye view of the Palace and the surrounding countryside.
The more formal gardens in front of the palace are beautiful in a different way, with manicured hedges laid out in geometric designs, and reflecting ponds and flowering trees on the upper terrace.
Henk and I visited Bussaco in the spring, and we couldn’t have picked a better time to enjoy the grounds: the magnolia trees were just dropping their blossoms, creating a carpet of pink and white petals on the ground, and the curved promenade adjacent to the formal garden was in full bloom with fragrant wisteria gently swaying in the breeze. Picture-perfect for visitors who were snapping photos left right and centre (ourselves included).
Magic by Moonlight
As gorgeous as the Palace and its grounds are during the day, Bussaco becomes even more peaceful and beautiful in the evening, especially because the day-trippers and bus tours have left. Henk and I had already planned an overnight stay here, and after enjoying a delicious dinner in the dining room, we decided to take a final walk through the gardens – which turned out to be the perfect ending to a truly enchanting visit…because while we had been dining, a mist had rolled in, shrouding the palace and gardens in a soft fog, diffusing the light from the outside lanterns and the almost-full moon peeking out from the clouds. I would challenge even Emily Brontë to pen a more mysterious or romantic scene.
Bussaco Palace is a place that exceeded my expectations in just about every way, and gave me more than just a taste of the royal life – it gave me an experience that I’ll remember forever.
IMPORTANT TIP: While the exterior and grounds of Bussaco Palace are open to the public, the only way to gain access to the interior of the palace is by staying overnight, or making a dinner reservation in their restaurant. Even daytrippers are not allowed inside the palace without a reservation. So if you really want to experience the magic that is Bussaco, book a room. (Although the rooms themselves don’t live up to the luxury of the common rooms – unless you book the Royal Suite – there is something really special about having the palace as your home for even one night and the price is nowhere near what you might think!)