The rain had just cleared out when we got in the car to go to Mafra on Sunday afternoon. “Get your kicks on Route 66” was playing on the radio and it was as if everyone knew we were going on another road trip.
Initially the plan was simply to go to see the Mafra Palace and visit the library, but, as always, I took this opportunity to check something else out of my bucket list, the José Franco village, a place that was recently featured on the Gerador magazine alongside my article about Lumiar.
If you mention Mafra to anyone of my generation they will probably remember it from José Saramago’s book “Memorial do Convento”, one of those books we were obliged to read in school and also an excuse for a field trip.
While you can learn all the facts about a building with a group tour, there’s nothing like walking through a place on your own terms, stop where you want to, walk past whatever you don’t fancy and head straight to the end if you are feeling tired. Also, the minute you start spending your own money it’s like you appreciate it more.
As we approached the ticket office, my dad started reaching out for his wallet and I knew I wouldn’t be able to argue with him about it. “Student discount?” – the guy in the front asked. “Not anymore” – I replied. He then turns to my dad and asks “Senior discount? – and he politely answered “not yet”. And so, we stood in the middle, unable to get any of the discounts. If we had come a few weeks afterwards, the first Sunday of the month, it would have been free!
Downstairs we could only hear a group of noisy kids eagerly waiting for their tour guide. As soon as we climbed the first flight of stairs, it was like someone had put the silent button on. The room was full of religious artifacts and there were only a few people walking by.
The next floor was separated into a series of rooms that included the king’s bedroom, as well as thematic divisions like the music room, the games room or the hunting room, each one featuring distinct elements such as a piano, a pool table and even a chandelier made out of deer antlers.
The walls were adorned with royal portraits from several generations of Portuguese Queens and Kings and the ceilings illustrated with mythological representations made by 18th century painters. Every corner was covered with decorative details and it was nearly impossible to spot a plain white wall. This excessiveness was clearly a sign of the Baroque period, a time where palaces were built to demonstrate power and impress visitors. I was definitely impressed.
Finally, after going through a dozen of corridors, we made it to the library. There are over 30.000 books resting here and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge that lays on these white shelves. But the one thing I will always retain from this place are its bookkeeping bats. These small bats are hidden during the day and come out at night to eat insects that may otherwise damage the books. They get to live in a 18th century palace and the books stay intact, sounds like a fair deal to me!
It was getting late so we started making our way to the exit. We descended the marble stairs and before we left, we made a quick stop by the palace’s garden. Little did I know they had owls there!
As soon as I spotted them I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. There were four different species, each one standing on their own perch and while I was delighted to see them, I thought they might have been happier somewhere else. The handler assured me they had a good life and that most of them live longer when they are bred in captivity. I bid my farewells and left wanting to adopt an owl or two…
Aldeia José Franco
Aldeia José Franco has been showing up on my Instagram feed for a while, but it was only a few weeks ago that I realized where it was.
This tiny village is only a 7 minutes drive away from the Palace but they are worlds apart. One embodies the wealth of Portuguese royals, the other is a mere dream of a local potter, José Franco.
It’s hard to imagine how one person could use their hands to mould his own village, but somehow he managed to do it. While he passed away in 2009, his creation remains open to the public to be photographed and admired by incoming visitors.
Inspired by the memories of his childhood, José built a replica of Mafra’s countryside, where you can find life-size windmills, chapels and even a bakery, always ready to welcome you with a warm chorizo bread.
Despite its small-scale, I got lost inside it, going through the underground passages beneath the souvenir shop and trying to capture as much as I could before my dad signalled me to leave.
We bought our chorizo bread and some sweets and stepped out as the guard was closing down the gates and wishing everyone a good week…
Also worth visiting in Mafra:
- Tapada de Mafra – created shortly after Mafra’s Palace, this park was initially meant for hunting. Today it’s open to the public and is a great place to spot deers, foxes and wild boars or practise activities like archery or mountain biking.
- Jardim do Cerco – inspired by Versailles, this garden features water ponds, plenty of trees and even an old water wheel. Entrance is free, so make sure to check it out if you can.
- Centro de Recuperação do Lobo Ibérico – if you want to learn more about wolfs, this is the place for you. This non-profit organization aims to protect the Iberian wolf and prevent their extinction.
- Aldeia da Mata Pequena – I visited this village on a recent road trip and I loved it. The colorful houses and the old bikes are worthy of endless shots and if you want you can book a stay there and get away from the hustle of the city for a bit.