Sunday, March 29, 2009

Mafra, Sintra And Cascais

This morning my parents toured The Mafra National Palace in Mafra, Portugal.

The Mafra National Palace is more than a palace—the complex also houses a monastery and a Basilica. The Mafra National Palace is Portugal’s answer to Spain’s Escorial (although The Mafra National Palace is supposed to be larger than The Escorial).

The Mafra National Palace is an 18th-Century Baroque monstrosity. Its construction required only thirteen years, but the short construction period was due solely to the fact that the bulk of Portugal’s national wealth was devoted to the project for over a decade (another parallel with The Escorial) and because up to 45,000 laborers were hard at work each day on the building (while 7,000 soldiers kept watch over them).

The Palace has 1200 rooms; 1383 workers died creating them.

Once completed, The Mafra National Palace was little-used by Portugal’s Kings and Queens, most of whom disliked the place. During The Peninsular Wars, the Palace served as headquarters first for Marshall Junot and later for Wellington. (The Portuguese Royal Family had escaped to Brazil shortly after France invaded Iberia.)

Most of the Palace’s original furnishings and artworks have been lost over the years. Only the Basilica and the library are intact, remaining more or less as they were in the 18th Century.

My parents said that the Basilica was magnificent.

However, they said that the great library was the most glorious part of the Palace.

My parents were informed that bats are kept in the library in order to devour insects that otherwise would constitute a threat to the library’s 40,000 rare books.

From Mafra, the tour group proceeded to Sintra, one of Portugal’s most charming towns.

Sintra lies on steep granite hills. The town is filled with palaces, castle ruins, churches, monasteries, convents and other historic structures. It would take visitors a week to explore fully the town’s many attractions, but the guided tour’s visit to Sintra was limited to two hours and thirty minutes. There was a short orientation tour of the old quarter, after which tour participants were allotted two hours to explore Sintra as they wished.

There was not enough time for my parents to explore one of Sintra’s many palaces—and The Mafra National Palace had already provided them with more than enough palace exposure for one day—so my parents took the tour guide’s advice and hired a horse-drawn carriage to transport them up and down Sintra’s steep, ancient streets and to show them the key sights of the town. My parents shared the carriage with a retired couple from Rochester, New York, whom my parents had befriended over breakfast and during the morning visit to The Mafra National Palace.

The carriage took them around Sintra for an hour, and proceeded past two of the key royal palaces.

One royal palace, Palacio De Vila, also known as The Sintra National Palace, is in the center of town. Palacio De Vila was formerly the summer home of The Portuguese Royal Family.

The other royal palace, Palacio De Pena, sits atop one of the hills. Palacio De Pena is largely an artificial 19th-Century fantasy and conceit, much like Neuschwanstein in Bavaria.

After the carriage ride, my parents and the couple from Rochester had lunch at a café in the center of the old quarter of Sintra.

From Sintra, the guided tour drove along the Portuguese Coast for half an hour, ending in Cascais, another resort town on the Atlantic Ocean. Cascais adjoins Estoril. Cascais and Estoril are basically indistinguishable; one cannot tell where one town ends and where the other town begins.

Members of the tour group were allotted two hours in Cascais to do whatever they wished. My parents and the couple from Rochester first walked around the center of Cascais for an hour.

There is not much to see or do in Cascais—the beach is the primary attraction—but the town has a modest Latin charm.

The center of Cascais has an unusual asphalt pattern.

After an hour exploring the town, my parents and the couple from Rochester went to a café overlooking the ocean, and enjoyed coffees and cappuccinos—and exchanged stories about children and grandchildren!

After the visit to Cascais concluded, the tour group was transported back to the hotel in Estoril—but only for an hour, as there was an evening activity on the schedule.

The evening activity was a trip into Lisbon for dinner and Fado music at one of Lisbon’s most renowned Fado venues, Adega Machado.

My parents almost skipped the Fado evening—they feared it might go on too late into the evening—but they decided to participate once the tour guide PROMISED that the Fado evening would end no later than 11:00 p.m. and that everyone would be back at the hotel in Estoril no later than midnight.

According to my parents, Adega Machado appeared to be an establishment that caters mostly to tourists. There was no walk-in traffic at all. Instead, patrons arrived in groups between 7:30 p.m. and 8:00 pm., were served dinner, and at 9:15 p.m. the lights went down and the Fado musicians began their presentation. According to my father, it was “the sort of thing that appeals to people who like that sort of thing”.

However, my parents survived the evening—and tomorrow they will be taken to a small village out in the middle of nowhere to visit Portuguese tile-makers and wine-makers and cheese-makers and such.

It sounds awful.

I hope they don’t buy anything.

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