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I found my book mecca in Mafra

I’m married to my kindle. I never leave home without it. I know, I know. For years I banged on about never, ever going electronic when it came to books. I wanted to be able to touch the pages, smell the print, turn back and reread. I spent enough time on a computer without adding more, I said. But when the airlines started their draconian restrictions on baggage, toting half a dozen books with me on holiday became too expensive. So I gave in. Reluctantly.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m hooked. I’m completely sold on the idea. I can’t imagine life without my baby. Right now, the 200 books I have on my kindle weigh as much as a short paperback. I have a membership to a digital library so I can check out books I’d like to read but don’t particularly want to keep. And I’m reading more than ever, because it’s all so convenient.

That said, I still love the feel of a real book and some titles I still choose to buy in hard copy. I’d never consider getting rid of the hundreds of books on my various shelves and were I to move, my books would come with me, regardless of the expense. I’m a bookaholic and last month I found my book mecca in Mafra.

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Back in the 1700s, King João V promised to build a palace and monastery if he and his wife, Maria Ana of Austria, were to have a son. Some might say he went a little overboard with this baroque convent and palace, built on the back of gold from Brazil that was flowing into Portugal at that time. It’s nearly 38000 square meters – that’s nearly four hectares – with 1200 rooms, thousands of doors and windows, 156 staircases, and 29 courtyards. That’s a lot of gratitude.

The palace is huge. Massive. Goes on for miles. The Queen had her wing, the King had his, and the bit in between was home to chapels, anterooms, a hospital, the kitchens, and various other royal salons. We toured them all. Or at least we toured every room that was open to the public.There’s a notable difference in style between the two wings, one oozing oestrogen, the other awash with testosterone. All of it fascinating.

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The games room, with its forerunner to the modern-day pinball machine, was special. The hunting room, with its dead heads and furniture made from various animal parts reminded me a little of something I saw in Macedonia. Not for me, thank you, but hats off to putting the parts to good use. It was the hospital ward that got me. All the beds face an altar so the monks could hear mass even while they lay on their sickbed. Back in its heyday, 330 monks were in residence.

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As we reached the end of our map (and you need a map to find your way around the building), before we turned the final corner, I could smell the books. It was a heady, powerful scent of old manuscripts, faded ink, and leather bindings. Intoxicating.

The magnificent Rococo room is tiled in marble is 88 m long x 9.5 wide and 13 m high. With 36 000 books or thereabouts, it shows just how well-read people were back in the day. Apparently the library was used as the Emperor’s war chamber in the 1996 film Gulliver’s Travels. Can’t say I recognised it from that, mind you. But nonetheless, it is spectacular.

A sign clearly states that books cannot be removed without permission from the king. And as there’s no longer a king in the country, they’re there to stay. Definitely worth an afternoon if you’re in the vicinity.

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Living in a wifi world

Over coffee the other day, I was asked how many holidays I’d taken so far this year. I had to stop and think. Not to count, but to think. And not to categorise – does an overnight in Veszprém count as a holiday? Yes, I travel a lot. It seems like I’m always somewhere other than here, but I don’t see these trips as holidays. I see them as simply working from somewhere else. It’s one of the benefits of having a mobile job in a wifi world. I go, I work, and in between times, I try to fit in as much as possible. The ultimate working holiday.

In Portugal a few weeks ago, one such fit-in was to visit to the town of Sintra (home to Europe’s westernmost point), about a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon. We didn’t have time to fight the hordes of tourists milling about the narrow streets (something that even had we had the time, I’d have been reluctant to do – the place was heaving) but on a quiet day mid-winter, it might be nice.

The area has more than its fair share of palaces (if there is such a thing as a fair share of royalty). Queluz  palace is billed as a blend of  Versailles’ French grandeur and Portuguese eclecticism and in recent years has entertained no fewer than four US presidents – Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton – if that’s a modern-day claim to fame.

We missed the fourteenth-century National Palace in the centre of Sintra but I’d go back to see the magpie room, so called because of the birds decorating the ceiling. We missed seeing Challet Biester (think Johnny Depp in Polanski’s The Ninth Gate);  Monserrate Palace, which won the European Garden Awards a couple of years ago; and the eighth-century Moorish Castle. We missed the  fantasy Palace of the Millions. We missed the Tivoli Palácio de Seteais (now a hotel). We missed the Palácio da Regaleira, and its four hectares of grounds with lakes, grottos, and tunnels.

But we did get to see Pena Palace.

As we made our way through the valley of lakes and its amazing duck houses, beautiful black swans, and crazy art installations, we knew that we simply wouldn’t have time to see it all. You could spend a day in the park walking around and a day it deserves. We had a couple of hours.

IMG_6431 (800x584)IMG_6432 (800x600)IMG_6359 (800x600)IMG_6350 (800x600)Palacio Pena (which translates into Feather Place)  looks like it was built by someone on LSD, whose vision of fantastical was hallucinogenic. It’s what capitalises the WTF in incredible and lowercases the wow.  Mad. Truly mad.

The dreamchilIMG_6372 (600x800)d of Prince Consort Fernando of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, construction started on the Romanticist castle in 1840 and finished in 1885, the year he died. A garish mix of purples, pinks and yellows, it has a My Little Pony feel to it, even though I’m sure that the German architect Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Schewge, the man responsible for the jumble Neo-Gothic, Neo-Islamic, Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Manueline architectural styles, didn’t have that as his guiding inspiration. The outside is adorned with carvings, religious icons, and the must-have hand-painted Portuguese tiles.

IMG_6373 (800x600)IMG_6428 (800x600)Inside, there are some gems. I was particularly taken by the paper mache furniture (chair and cabinet in the photo are made of paper…) and the many walls painted in trompe-l’oeil . The rooms are a curious mix of influences that seems to range from Middle Eastern to Middle European. Strangely, for me, a lover of old palaces, castles, and manor houses, this is the first that I simply couldn’t imagine myself living in. There is way too much going on for me ever to entertain the slightest hope that I might find some peace within its walls. I was completely underwhelmed by the dining room but must admit that the kitchen was magnificent.

Each to their own, though. Others who have visited rave about it and go back time and time again. Me? I’m glad I saw it. Once. It was a nice break in an afternoon of work. And when next in Sintra I won’t feel at all bad about giving it a miss in favour of the many other palaces to see and a cocktail in Lawrences Hotel, the oldest hotel on the Iberian Peninsula, one that boasts Lord Byron as its first guest. A hotel where the doors don’t have numbers, they have names. Perhaps more my kind of place. IMG_6414 (800x600)IMG_6384 (800x600)IMG_6388 (800x600)IMG_6404 (600x800)IMG_6398 (600x800)