Vila Viçosa Palace - Portugal

The country seat and preferred residence of the Dukes of Bragança (Portugal’s last ruling dynasty), Vila Viçosa’s Ducal Palace (Paço Ducal) once comprised more marble, azulejo tiles, tapestries and elaborate ironwork than any other noble edifice in the country.

Basking in a sense of preserved majesty, the palace remains as imposing today as it was in its heyday of the 16th and 17th centuries and recounts many very important chapters in Portugal’s long and chequered history.

Inside the palace in 1512 the fourth duke, Jaime of Bragança, stabbed to death his wife Leonor de Guzmán and her page, with whom he assumed she was having a passionate affair. Catherine of Bragança (wife of England’s King Charles II) was born here on the 25th of November 1638 and Portugal’s penultimate king, Carlos, spent his last night on the premises before his fateful journey (and subsequent assassination) in Lisbon, an event that triggered the end of the Portuguese monarchy.

It was on the morning of a wintry day in 1908 – the 1st of February (when he was just 44 years old) – that the king and his heir to the throne, Crown Prince Luís Filipe, left the Paço Ducal de Vila Viçosa for the Portuguese capital where they were both shot by a republican activist in the north-western corner of Praça do Comércio. His other son, Manuel, was also in the carriage but survived the assassination attempt, later dying in exile in England in 1932.

It was as early as the 15th century that the second Duke of Bragança, Dom Fernando, chose Vila Viçosa as the official place of residence for his court. Begun in 1501, its grand cream-coloured façade (built with locally-extracted Monte Claros marble) fills one entire side of the Terreiro do Paço, Vila Viçosa’s imposing main square. Fronting the building, this impressive macadam plaza set around a bronze equestrian statue of King João IV further enhances the immense grandeur of the lavish Ducal Palace design.

Full of exquisite objets d’art from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the palace is a labyrinth of elaborately draped, tiled and furnished rooms and royal quarters offering its steady stream of visitors from all over the world a rich collage of faded royal mementoes.

Where to go in southern Portugal

Whilst wandering through the many halls and corridors, one can only marvel at the vast display of Aubusson carpets, Gobelin tapestries, Arraiolos rugs, lavish crystal chandeliers, 17th-century tiled wall panels and ornately inlaid marble tables.

A particular highlight for art lovers is the series of wall paintings depicting the 15th-century battle of Ceuta and subsequent Siege of Azamor on the main staircase rising regally to the palace’s first floor.

Bulging with copper pans and dozens of other vintage culinary utensils, the extensive kitchens situated on the ground-floor are an integral part of the Vila Viçosa Ducal Palace complex, whilst another section houses the sumptuous apartments of Queen Amélia and King Carlos (1863-1908), who was himself a talented painter and draughtsman.

The palace’s immediate environs comprise a number of other must-see attractions for visitors, most notably the Coach Museum (incorporating the Royal Stables), Marble Museum (located on the main road to the wine town of Borba) and the church of the Agostinhos which is filled with the 17th-century Bragança tombs.

Nearby, Vila Viçosa Castle is also well worth seeing, particularly for its excellent on-site archaeology museum which includes an abundance of Roman artefacts found in the local area, as well as a substantial part of the personal collection of King Luís (1838-1889).

Described as a museum town, Vila Viçosa (indicated on the Google map below) is a pleasant place with broad boulevards and fine esplanades shaded by orange and lemon trees that come springtime start to waft their sweet scents out towards the marble quarries situated close by.

Using Vila Viçosa as their base, visitors also have good access to a number of interesting places, chief amongst them the historical town of Estremoz, Borba (famous for its fruity wines), the ancient hilltop village of Monsaraz and the Great Lake of Alqueva, the largest reservoir in the whole of Europe.

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