THE GREEN HILLS OF BUSSACO FOREST
Coimbra is nestled in amongst the hills of central Portugal, surrounded by rural hamlets, farms, and national parks. It’s a beautiful part of the country rich with hiking destinations and opportunities to get back to nature. The Portuguese royal family liked it so much up here that they had a summer palace and hunting lodge built in the area. The palace is still there, surrounded by 250 acres of woodlands that are criss-crossed with walking trails and free for any and all to enjoy. Fairytale palace? Verdant forest, perfect for hiking? Sounded just like our thing, so off we went, bound for Bussaco (also spelt Buçaco) Forest.
Bussaco Forest is situated about 30km from Coimbra, just outside the small town of Luso. Luso happens to have a train station, and all it took was an easy half hour train ride from Coimbra, and we were there. Well…., we were somewhere. Stepping off the train in Luso we found ourselves on a tiny platform with not much around… not much at all. Seems you don’t have to go far our of the bigger towns to find Portugal’s rustic side!
The centre of Luso itself was a short walk away and we were soon sitting at the town’s café (note the use of the singular there) enjoying a coffee and preparing ourselves psychologically for the steep up-hill walk to Bussaco Forest. There’s not much to Luso, though we were told that on weekends people flock to this small town just North of Coimbra for one thing: water. Agua de Luso is synonymous with good quality mineral water in Portugal, and thousands of bottles of this precious liquid are consumed daily across the nation. It flows freely from fountains and springs in the town and is also renowned for its healing qualities, hence the weekend traffic jams, as people come to fill bottles with Agua de Luso. On Mondays, however, the town is pretty quiet – as we found out.
Bussaco Forest was once home to an order of barefoot Carmelite monks who built a monastery, small chapels, and encircling walls to keep their piece of paradise safe and secure. From 1628 to 1834, when the monastery dissolved, the monks tended the forest and created something unique: one of the finest botanical collections in Europe.
Seeds brought back from Portuguese explorers from around the world found their way to Bussaco, creating a forest unlike any other.
The dedication of the monks paid off and Bussaco is now Portugal’s most diverse forest. It’s home to over 400 native species of plants and 300 varieties brought home by Portuguese explorers from such far flung places as Mexico, Japan, and Angola.
Hiking through the forest we came across groves of giant ferns and moss-covered trees, a little reminiscent of what we saw when hiking through Princess Mononoke’s Forest on Yakushima Island in Japan.
In another part of the park there was a grove of immense cedar trees, originally from Mexico. These 350 year old giants grew from the first seeds planted here by the Carmelites in 1656 and are amongst the oldest of their species in the world.
Throughout the park a system of rivulets, cisterns, and man-made lakes ensures an adequate water supply for all areas. Part of this water-delivery system is the Fonte Fria (i.e. the Cold Fountain), a lovely aqueduct that carried water down to a small lake.
Throughout the forest we came across small chapels, some in ruins, built by the monks in the 17th century. Some of the chapels still housed life-sized terracotta figures representing Christ’s journey to the cross at Calvary.
Following the paths ever upwards we eventually reached the top of Bussaco Hill, which stands at an altitude of 557m. The panoramic views from the top, all the way to Coimbra, made it well worth the climb.
Making our way back downhill from there we stopped at the old Monastery of Santa Cruz. Founded in 1628, the monastery was partially destroyed to make room for the royal palace but there was enough left to warrant the nominal entrance fee. The stone floors, cork-lined doors, and 17th century blue and yellow tiled altars were charming.
At the end of the 19th century much of the monastery was demolished to make way for the extravagant palace. The palace was built as a retreat for the royal family, but after the Portuguese ousted their royals in 1910 it was converted to a luxury hotel.
The hotel is like a storybook palace, decorated with intricate carvings, gargoyles, and a twisting tower reaching towards the sky. The covered corridors outside were beautiful and featured panels decorated with azulejos depicting scenes from Portuguese literature and historical events.
We explored as much as we could of the Palace Hotel (which is not much when you’re just an interloper rather than a paying guest), before heading back down the hill towards Luso. Another short train ride and we were back in Coimbra, watching our final sunset over the River Mondego.
What a great day trip! Bussaco Forest is lovely – lush and green, and quite enchanting. Definitely worth the trip out there, especially if you like scenic walks through the forest, ancient religious ruins, and fairytale palaces.