Perhaps the most striking of all the marble towns in the Alentejo region, Vila Viçosa might be small in stature but it’s an immense place in the overall context of Portugal’s long and chequered history.
It was here that the Portuguese monarch, King João IV, dedicated his crown and realm to the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, thus heralding one of the most significant periods of highs and absolute lows for the Portuguese royal family.
The pomp-loving Dukes of Bragança had chosen this blessed town as their place of residence at the Paço Ducal de Vila Viçosa, a sumptuous palace that held more azulejo tiles, frescoes, porcelain, oriental carpets, tapestries, marble and ironwork than any other royal household in Portugal.
Its construction started in 1501 and was only completed a century later, replacing a much earlier building, probably of Moorish origin.
The palace’s great Italianate façade of creamy Alentejo marble (complete with three rows of twenty-three windows each) takes up the whole of one side of a huge square, the Terreiro do Paço, where in the old days bullfights would often take place.
Arguably Portugal’s most celebrated queen, Catarina de Bragança, was born in the palace in 1638 but it was also here that King Carlos and Portugal’s young heir to the throne, Luís Filipe, spent their last night before being assassinated in Lisbon in 1908, an event that was to trigger the end of the country’s 771-year monarchy.
The palace still cuts a striking figure today with its imposing, majestic presence in the heart of the picturesque Alentejo region. Its starkly formal interior reflects the grandeur of the Bragança dynasty’s 270-year rule and some of the rooms have been left exactly as they were when King Carlos embarked on that fateful journey to Lisbon.
Shorn of many of its former treasures, which were sadly swallowed up by the great earthquake of 1755, the palace still houses some exquisite paintings and a fine piece of Brussels tapestry, as well as some delightful blue and white azulejo tiles in the Dutch style.
Opposite the palace is the church of the Agostinhos, a delightful building filled with 17th-century tombs of the Bragança family.
To the left of the palace is the former convent of the Chagas de Cristo (now an upmarket pousada hotel) with its fine classical doorway and early 16th-century triptych at the side of the high altar, along with a charming cloister with several chapels.
Close by is the entrance to the great Bragança Chase or Tapada which used to be full of game, and is the largest enclosed space in Portugal with a wall extending some 18 kilometres in distance.
Besides its magnificent palace, Vila Viçosa boasts a large ruined castle – part Moorish, part medieval – originally built on Roman fortifications and offering splendid views of the surrounding countryside. Within its walls stands the Church of the Conception (Conceição), which is completely lined with 17th- and 18th-century azulejo tiles, and the town’s archaeological museum.
At the entrance to Vila Viçosa stands the Gate of Knots (Porta dos Nós), a symbol of the Bragança dynasty’s power, and many of the town’s old houses are affluently decorated with wrought iron balconies, ornate door knockers and marble windowsills and doorways.
Travelling north-west from Vila Viçosa to Estremoz, visitors cannot fail to spot the huge marble quarries outside the pretty town of Borba. The marble produced here is among the best in the world and much of it is exported far and wide for the construction of palaces, millionaire mansions and other such lavish buildings.