Not many travellers coming to Portugal know about this hidden treasure. In fact, we feel that Mafra National Palace hasn’t received its deserved spotlight.
That’s why we’re writing this, to present you one more gem to visit during your trip through Portugal, and especially if you’re staying in Lisbon and looking for a quick escape outside the city. But most of all, if you love books, libraries and bookstores as much as we do, or more :). Speaking of which, did you know in Porto there’s also one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world?
The story behind the Mafra National Palace goes back centuries ago when one king decided to build it on the grounds his wife would offer him descendants.
Some historical information first
The Mafra National Palace used to be a Royal Convent, that was ordered by king John V of Portugal after his wife gave birth to the first child. This masterpiece of the Baroque in Portugal is the largest monument in the country and also one of the largest construction efforts ever built in Portugal. It’s a massive structure which covers an area of four hectares, has 1200 rooms and more than 4700 doors and windows. The Royal Convent was never a permanent royal residence, though it was decorated as such by the finest Portuguese and Italian masters.
In the Basilica you will find the worldwide famous Six Pipe Organs, built by the best organ builders of the time, who designed it as such so that the organs play all together. After twelve years of restoration works, the instruments were finally re-inaugurated on May 15th, 2010 with a magnificent concert that you can watch here.
Beyond all this loftiness, the building holds the world record for the largest historic Carrillons (Car… what?, well it is a series of 98 bells tuned to each other).
The surprise is hidden on the palace’ last aisles. It’s the amazing Convent’s library, dating from 1771, which holds a collection of more than 36.000 leather-bound volumes, including some rare jewels like incunabula (printed books prior to the year 1500) or forbidden books that found shelter during the Inquisition period.
By looking down at the beautiful floor, the colorful marble will greet you lavishly, and then, by raising your head you will be greeted by the endless wooden bookshelves. The scent of long-time-ago will wrap you in magic. We tried to figure out a way to hide and reach to some of these books…Hah :)! But then we heard some chilling stories we’ll tell you in a bit, that made us gave up on our “stuck in the library” adventure.
Curiosity. Spoiler: it’s about bats
A unique way to preserve these books is made with the help of believe it or not, a colony of hard-working BATS. They eat the insects thus preventing the books from being damaged. It is said they are kept in boxes during the day and released at night to go hunting.
A legend that sends shivers down your spine
When I (Diana) told a Portuguese friend that I’m going to visit Mafra, the first thing he asked me with his eyes wide opened was: Do you know that terrifying legend about the Mafra library some locals are even afraid to talk about? As you may guess, at that time I had no idea about it. He then confessed there’s a legend about some giant rats living inside the library which get out at night in search for food, mainly humans…Not much of an inviting place especially for the guardians or anyone stuck there at night! Humm…Thinking that each legend has an inkling of truth, it really sends shivers down your spine.
Leaving aside all the curiosities and the legends, we believe that Mafra should have a special place on your travel list. Aside from discovering the grandness of the palace, you can stroll the narrow streets, eat pasteis de feijão (traditional red bean cake), Trouxas de Malveira (a rolled sponge cake with vanilla filling) and the bread from the region, Pão de Mafra, and why not, drive a few kilometers more to Ericeira or stop by Sintra.
How to get to Mafra from Lisbon
Typical sweets to try in this region
Pasteis de feijão, Trouxas de Malveira, Pão de Mafra
What else to see
Discover a bit more the municipality of Mafra or drive 20 minutes to Ericeira and on your back to Lisbon from Ericeira save some time to stop by Sintra.