Even curious adventurers unknowingly travel right past some of Europe’s most idyllic natural reserves. Perhaps we don’t know about these parks, hidden away as they sometimes are. Perhaps they are too far off our beaten path of beaches and museums. Perhaps we’re afraid that there won’t be adequate accommodation. Perhaps we play it too safely, and we are missing out.

West Central Portugal’s Mata Nacional do Bussaco is one such magical jewel entirely worth a quest. The national park – also known as the Buçaco Forest – is on the tentative UNESCO world heritage list for good reason. For centuries, poets and novelists have romanticized the forest, which is Portugal’s most ecologically diverse. And though it is completely unexpected, the wondrously ornate Neo-Manueline Buçaco Palace/hotel in the park’s center caters to even the most selective guests and diners.

Once upon a time, only monks could enter the walled national park. Various orders lived there from the 6th through 17th centuries, keeping it to themselves and royalty as a monastic site of worship and recreation. But now that it’s open to everyone (even women, as of relatively recently) it’s heaven for naturalists and history buffs, trekkers, and admirers of fantastical architecture.

Mata Nacional do Bussaco. Photo credit: Angela Orlando

The forest is an easy drive from several popular sites. It is situated in the Centro region, just a kilometer off the N235 highway, and quite close to the heavily touristed ancient city of Coimbra. It’s also only a 15 minutes from the Roman resort spa town of Luso. Buses stop by once in a while, too – a recent schedule is here. One thing for travelers to note is that Portuguese buses don’t always adhere to an exact timetable. When you do catch one, ask the driver if he or she will be stopping at the park. It costs about five euros to enter by motorized vehicle, but it is free for cyclists and pedestrians (and horseback riders too!) to travel the two kilometers to an ancient monastery – the starting place of many labyrinthine trails.

I accidentally ended up at the preserve in January 2016 because, as is my annual tradition, I was driving around in a miniature rental car, very lost in a foreign country. Siri, as great as she is, cannot pronounce Portuguese street names. It was so misty that I couldn’t see road signs either. For five days, I had been feeling my way from town to town, region to region, making giant loops through the fog. That day, I was aiming to rest in Luso, which is known for having some of the purest drinking and bathing water on Earth. It didn’t matter too much whether I reached my destination sooner or later, though. As long as I could get back to Porto to make my flight home, I was free to explore for another week.

I saw very few foreigners and even fewer Portuguese nationals when I landed at the park. Granted, it was raining quite heavily and the forest floor was slippery and gooey, and the wind wasn’t kidding around. Locals knew it wasn’t the best time of year to visit. But as I drove in under the entry arch, raindrops twinkled on the tree leaves, and the relative solitude lent a romantic and peaceful respite from the road.

A fountain dedicated to patron saints. Photo credit: Angela Orlando.

Since the Age of Discovery in the 1600s, the forest has preserved the rarest of plant species. At the time, Portuguese sailors were actively colonizing the world, and the naturalists among them gathered seeds from faraway lands ranging from Western Africa to the Americas to Japan. They brought the seeds home and gave them to the Discalced Carmelite monks, who resided in the forest. Apparently, the Carmelites had the greenest of thumbs, as they created an arboretum housing more than 700 types of trees and shrubs and ferns. With time, Bussaco evolved into a garden preserve. In 1643, Pope Urban VII said he would excommunicate anyone damaging the plants in the park.

Though the monks are gone, the government still ensures the forest’s protection of many critically endangered plants. Today, just over 300 of the species are exotics. There is literally nowhere like it in the world. Short hikes lead to fountains and pools, curious statues, and hidden nooks where monks prayed and slept. And by making a reservation, you can sleep in the lavish palace and eat the chefs’ renowned eight-course meal – the opposite of a monkish lifestyle, but still surrounded by their ancient Garden of Eden.

The monks’ living quarter. Photo credit: Angela Orlando.

 

  Angela Orlando travels to at least one new country per year – more if she’s flush. She’s a cultural anthropologist who craves new food, new ecologies, and new conversations. Her favorite countries to visit are Nicaragua, Portugal, and of course Peru, where she lived for two years and where she knows some secret spots she can show you. Contact her at angelamarie@ucla.edu