by Carmen Allan-Petale
There’s something quietly magical about the area known as Buçaco in central Portugal; a wooded parkland perched on top of a mountain that stretches for more than 100 hectares.
Perhaps its bewitching because of its rich history, although when exploring its leaf-covered tracks it’s hard to imagine millions of people have trodden the path before you.
The ancient woodland was first used as a monastic retreat more than 1,000 years ago when monks used the park’s shady dwellings to study religion in private.
However, the park wasn’t always a peaceful place. The French fought the British and the Portuguese in the area during the Napoleonic Peninsular War and the monastery there later closed in 1834, before being taken over by King Carlos.
The King decided to build a grand palace in the centre of the woodland but never lived to see its completion. These days the building is the site of one of the fanciest hotels in Portugal.
Dave and I enjoyed half a day exploring Buçaco. Although it was about 35 degrees, the canopy formed by the tall trees creates a shady space, enabling you to wander without working up a sweat.
There are many picnic tables dotted around the place and we had lunch overlooking the Valley of Ferns. Nearby, there’s a waterfall built between a two magnificent ancient staircases which lead to six springs dotted around the woodland.
Exploring the windy paths, I almost expected a fairy or a gremlin to pop up from around the corner, such was the spell Buçaco cast on me.
Some parts I found more eerie, like the Stations of the Cross which have been built as life-size sculptures gated inside small chapels. A natural skylight was formed during construction by leaving a hole in the roof, allowing dappled sunshine to pour down onto the terracotta structures. Over time, the wind and rain have battered them and some of the disciples are missing limbs, making them look extra creepy.
Along the same path there are also a number of abandoned small houses and some of the rooms inside these brick buildings have been turned into shrines.
Reaching the end of the path you reach the Cruz Alta, the forest’s highest point, which gives you a view over the hills below.
It costs €5 to drive in to the National Forest but if you prefer you can park your car down the road and hike up.