Comprising a palace, monastery and church, the vast royal edifice of Mafra is one of the largest historical buildings in Europe and a must-see monument for people visiting the Greater Lisbon area.
It was built by Portugal’s King João V in fulfilment of a vow he made should God grant him an heir to the throne.
In 1711, Friar António de São José, a Franciscan born in Cheleiros and a great believer in the story linking Mafra to centuries-old fertility rituals, advised King João V to swear an oath to construct a convent in the town if his wife, Queen Maria-Anna of Austria, bore him the child he so desperately craved.
She did, but sadly the little prince died at the age of two. Nevertheless, construction continued and the vast building was completed with the help of 50,000 labourers and over a thousand oxen in the thirteen years between 1717 and 1730, followed by feasts and rejoicings that lasted for eight whole days and nights.
A fine example of Italianate architecture, the building’s façade is no less than 220 metres (722 feet) in length, making it larger than the famous Escorial in neighbouring Spain.
Designed by the German architect Johann Friedrich Ludwig, it has 880 halls and rooms and 4,500 doors and windows, making it big enough to house not thirteen (as had originally been intended) but almost three hundred friars.
But apart from its founder, King João V, and King Carlos I who enjoyed hunting in its park, none of Portugal’s kings was happy in Mafra and the majority of those doors and windows remained tightly closed, and its long corridors silent and empty.
On the 4th of October 1910, the last king of Portugal, King Manuel II, and the Queen Mother spent their final night in the palace chambers before fleeing to England the following morning, embarking from nearby Praia das Ribas at Ericeira, a sea voyage that effectively sealed the fate of a monarchy that had lasted almost eight hundred years.
The building’s huge marble basilica, predominantly Italian neo-classic and German baroque in design, is crowned by a large cupola 70 metres (230 feet) high in the centre of two long wings, with giant statues of the saints standing guard at the entrance.
Many of the rooms have charming painted walls and ceilings, with fine Empire consoles and delightful early Victorian furniture. With its tables, chairs and chandeliers all made of antlers, one of the rooms is entirely furnished with the heads and skins of stags shot in the forest behind the palace.
The jewel in the crown of this grandiose monument is the exquisite rococo library, which at 88 metres in length (288 feet) is one of the finest in Europe. Painted in grisaille with delicate gilding and innumerable windows, it preserves some 40,000 books and a fascinating collection of old maps.
With its ornate central façade, the interior of the church has an assortment of splendid pink, grey and white marbles quarried from different parts of Portugal, while its minaret-like towers house two sets of carillons made at Malines near Brussels in 1730.
Once a hilltop settlement inhabited by Celts and Lusitanians, and later occupied by the Romans and Moors, Mafra is a small market town located 40 km (25 miles) north-west of the Portuguese capital. Whilst in the area, it is also worth visiting the royal game reserve – the Tapada de Mafra – located 7 km (4 miles) north of the town, where deer, foxes, wild boar, hare and other game roam freely.