60km inland, above the small spa town of Luso lays the Bucaco Forest. Originally owned by the Diocese of Coimbra, in 1628 it was donated by the Bishop to the Carmelite Monks who constructed a convent at the heart of the forest and a wall surrounding it.
I penetrate this protected place through the Battlement Gate and follow the cobblestone road up through dense woodland and past small lakes to the plateau where the convent sits. Next to it is the fairy-tale Palace Hotel, built as a hunting lodge between 1888 and 1907 for King Carlos, the monarchy having taken over the land when religious orders were abolished in 1834. It looks more ecclesiastical than the simple convent which is decorated with different coloured, small stones on the outside and insulated by cork ceilings and doors on the inside.
However, it is the forest that I really came to see. So, while the sun is still out, I head upward along the ‘Via Sacre’, passing small stone chapels with scenes depicting the passion of Christ. Near the top is the Hermitage of the Holy Sepulchre and Cross which offers a glorious view back down into the forest to the convent and hotel. At the very top of the wooded hill stands a simple stone cross on a viewing platform with vistas across the flat fertile plains and the coastal dunes beyond.
I spend the night in a deserted bus parking area below the hotel. It’s very dark and a bit spooky but I actually feel completely safe. Just me and the nocturnal creatures of the forest: owls, genets, foxes and weasels.
The next morning I head downhill to the lakes, splashing through small streams and climbing over fallen trees that occasionally block the path. On 19th January 2013 an unexpected cyclone ripped through the forest felling hundreds of trees and closing the footpaths. Today the paths have been cleared but the evidence of the destruction is easy to see. Piles of logs, damaged buildings and horizontal tree trunks litter the grounds. Although state funding was requested, it was actually an army of local volunteers and private donations that enabled the forest to be reopened. Somehow I don’t mind paying the €7 entry fee, knowing that my money will be well spent to preserve this precious place.
During my walks I only saw 4 other people: an English lady who looked a bit lost, a local cyclist who’d ridden up to the Alto Cruz viewpoint and a brightly-dressed couple who seemed determined to feature in all my photos.
Before leaving I try to enter the hotel for a cup of coffee and a sneaky peak at the interior décor. However, unlike the Spanish Paradors, I get no further than the old-fashioned, wooden reception desk where I am politely escorted back out and directed to a small plastic conservatory that serves as a café for the forest foundation staff and non-resident visitors!