In 1711, king Dom João V vowed that if he was blessed with a son, he would construct a convent in Mafra. When a son was born in 1714, Dom João V spared no expense to fulfil his promise. By one count, the building has 880 rooms and 4,500 doors and windows. The convent includes a magnificent palace for the royal family and a basilica made of the purest marble, with intricate altars lavishly decorated with gold leaf.
To top it all, the king commissioned a 200-ton carillon. According to legend, when the craftsmen quoted the price of the carillon, they remarked that the cost seemed too dear for a small country like Portugal. Offended, the king replied: “I didn’t realize the bells were so cheap! I would like two sets.” And so, two sets were made. Nicholas Levach made 57 bells for the North tower in Liége. Willem Witlockx made 49 bells for the South tower in Antwerp.
The convent has many other bells: liturgical bells used in religious ceremonies, lecture bells that signaled the beginning and end of study periods, agony bells that rang when a monk was dying, refectory bells that reminded monks of their meal times, and the codfish bell that sounded in days when people should abstain from eating meat.
The carillon and some of the other bells were used to mark the passage of time with minuets and other compositions. In a world where musical sounds were rare, the bells of Mafra filled the village with harmony and grace.
We envy the early risers. They see Lisbon wake up, dress in pale blue light, put on a cinnamon fragrance and get ready to enchant its visitors.
We’re often asked about the drawings used on our blog. They’re the work of architect Rui Barreiros Duarte. For the first time, he’s selling a few original drawings like the one on this post. The sizes are around 60 cm x 40 cm and the prices around 200 euros. If you’re interested, email firstname.lastname@example.org .
Andy Warhol captured the essence of American culture using simple images: the appeal of convenience with cans of soup, the allure of fame with portraits of Marilyn Monroe, the love of brands with bottles of Coca Cola.
We wonder how Warhol would have captured the essence of Portugal. A good candidate image is the pastel de nata. It is sweet, with an exotic touch lent by vanilla and cinnamon. The crust gives it substance and the combination is unforgettable.
When you visit Portugal you need to sleep well to rest your eyes, because as soon as you wake up there’s so much to see!
A walk in an old neighborhood is a visual feast of architectural details. Doors, windows, roofs, and balconies tell us about the craftsmanship of their builders and the dreams of their owners. Each is a distinctive brush stroke on the beautiful canvas that is Portugal.
Portugal’s second largest city and the unofficial capital of the North is called Oporto. The city has an older feel than Lisbon. While much of Lisbon was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, Oporto preserved its meandering medieval streets and ancient buildings.
Oporto is a place full of surprises. The city looks austere, but its granite architecture is just a ruse to make the gorgeous Douro river look even more seductive. Life in Oporto is hectic, but residents always take the time to give visitors a warm reception. There are plenty of restaurants that look ordinary but serve great food. And there are many hidden treasures in the port-wine caves that store, sometimes for centuries, the precious nectars from the Douro valley.
The Portuguese call the city Porto, while the English call it Oporto. There are two theories about this discrepancy. The most plausible is that the English, hearing the Portuguese say “o Porto” (which means “the city of Porto”), combined the article and the noun into Oporto. The most romantic is that the name came from visitors falling in love with the city and sighing “Oh Porto!” We side with the romantic theory.
Click here for a guide of where to stay and what to do in Oporto.
Seteais means seven sighs, a name inspired, according to legend, by the romance between a Portuguese noble and a Moorish princess.
The Seteais palace was built in Sintra in 1787 by the Dutch consul and later sold to the wealthy Marquis of Marialva.
In 1954, the palace was converted into a luxury hotel. Booking a room at Seteais guarantees you’ll have a memorable experience. If you don’t stay at the hotel, you can still experience its unique atmosphere by visiting the elegant bar for a glass of white port before dinner.
In 1802, the Marquis of Marialva invited the Prince Regent, John IV and his wife for a visit. To celebrate the occasion, the Marquis built an archway decorated with busts of the royals. A Latin inscription praises the prince for his wisdom and prudence. No one could guess that five years later the Portuguese royal family would flee to Brazil to escape Napoleon’s troops.
The echoes of these twists and turns of Portuguese history have long faded. What remains, is one of the most romantic places in the world.
Monsaraz is a medieval village perched on a hill in Alentejo. Squint at the landscape and you see an abstract painting of white and pink shapes. Open your eyes and you see a world of peace and tranquility. Faint are the echoes of the battle in which Geraldo Sem Pavor (Gerald the fearless) first conquered the town from the moors in the 12th century. Gone are the busy years, early in the 14th century, when king D. Dinis built a castle to ensure that this strategic hill would forever remain Portuguese. The soldiers who kept watch from the castle towers were replaced by photographers who shoot with their cameras the majestic view.
Vinicius de Moraes, the Brazilian poet who wrote the lyrics of Girl from Ipanema, recorded his feelings about this Alentejo village: “Thank you, Monsaraz, but I do not want to see you ever again because, if I do, I will stay forever inside your white walls amidst your men and women with eyes full of honesty.”
To understand Portugal, you have to visit Alcobaça. It was here that the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques, founded a monastery in thanksgiving for his conquests. He laid the first stone in 1148 on a beautiful valley irrigated by two rivers, Alcoa and Baça.
Alcobaça became a center of agricultural research with a vast library that included volumes printed by Gutenberg. The monastery served as a luxury hotel for the royal family and their guests, but it also baked bread to feed the poor. The kitchen of the monastery was famous throughout the kingdom. Water from the river Alcoa runs through the kitchen, providing water for cleaning and cooking.
Built in an early gothic style, the monastery was expanded and renovated throughout the centuries. King Dom Pedro erected sumptuous tombs to celebrate his eternal love for Inês de Castro. Henry the Navigator, who was the abbot of Alcobaça, built a palace inside the abbey. Every stone of the Alcobaça monastery is a page of the history of Portugal.
King John II, who reigned in Portugal in the late 15th century, liked to say that “a nation is like an ocean. There are many types of fish in the ocean. The sardine tastes good and it is abundant, so it is cheap. The mullet also tastes good, but it is rare, so it is expensive. I prefer the sardine.”
Historians debate whether this aphorism, in which the mullet represents the nobility and the sardine the people, was good court politics. But it is good advice to those going to the fish market.