The Forest of Bucaco: An Exploration of Portuguese Wildlife

Station of the Cross in the Forest
One of the day trips we took from Coimbra was to the forest of Bucaco (Bussaco is the English spelling). Apparently, monks built a convent here as early as the 6th century, but sometime in the 17th century, Carmelite monks decided to plant a bunch of the previously unheard of species of trees that were arriving from the Portuguese explorations of the New World. Monks that felt that the confines of the monastery were too social then went a built various hermitages throughout the forest to help them reflect upon the beauty of God’s natural world.

The Palace of Bucaco, now Hotel Bucaco

 Apparently, this natural world was so beautiful that the Portuguese monarchy decided to seize the monastery in the late 19th century and build a Manueline-style summer palace there, with part of the old convent attached at the back. They never got a chance to use it (this is where I have to wikipedia Portuguese history) and now, it is a fabulously gorgeous hotel.

Alyson in the Hotel Bucaco foyer
Alyson and I took the one bus of the morning that was going there from Coimbra. Luckily it was March, so the heat wasn’t too unbearable once the bus started moving and a breeze circulated throughout. But Portugal is like Southern Californiaweather wise and I can’t imagine what that bus would have been like in tourist season, jam-packed with locals and tourists, sweating it out, while people ate their packed lunches of linguisa and cheese and the old ladies chattered on like a flock of birds.
Once at the bus stop at the hotel, we found the visitor’s center closed for lunch and could hear the hotel workers laughing and shouting. As we walked by, we could hear them guess our nationality. French, one guessed, while another supposed we were British. Only half right, and besides, Alyson is Scottish.
There was a tiny (and very misleading) map in my guidebook, so we decided to try to find the waterfall on it. Instead, we ended up going along the path that followed the stations of the cross. The stations of the cross were what looked like to be terracotta murals and figures, enclosed in tiny little huts with either bars or glass allowing us to peer in. Every once in awhile we’d stumble across a house that we could enter, although most were filled with scattered remains of snack wrappers and beer bottles. A few looked a little rickety and I kept expecting them to crumble at any second. We kept winding our way along an increasingly steeper path, Alyson’s sandals and my flats beginning to seem like bad choices. My Catholic upbringing kicked in as I tried to figure out how far we gone when we reached Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. How many times was Jesus whipped again?

We finally reached a series of huts that were on top of the hill, and looking down, we could see across the entire valley, Coimbra in the far distance. We could see various farms and tiny dotted houses and we looked at each other, amazed at what we had found on this accidental hike. We climbed to the highest house and sat on it’s little overlook eating the custard-filled pastries we had bought on the way to the bus station. This is why I traveled, I thought.

The rest of the day we spent wandering around other parts of the forest, including the old Carmelite monastery, which had a chapel devoted to pregnant women and their children. What made it unusual was the number of wax models of breasts and pictures of children that were underneath. We assumed it must be some sign of devotion, but even my knowledge of Catholic traditions failed there.

Alyson Waiting for the Bus

We were done around 4pm, but had to wait for the bus, which wouldn’t arrive for another hour or so. It was the only bus that would take us directly from the forest to Coimbra, and if we missed it, we’d have to walk to the nearest town, about 6km away, and take our chances. There had been other tourists who had gotten off the bus with us, but they were no where to be seen. We waited at the tiny bus stop tucked in the bushes, praying that it would come. We waited and waited. The German woman who had also gotten off the bus appeared and then disappeared. Maybe she knew some other place that we were supposed to wait? We tried to discreetly follow her, but then she came back to the stop. Eventually, a bus showed up, with a hostile looking driver and we got on, still wondering if we’d ever get back. Of course, we did.
However, as we were driving back, Alyson asked me if I had seen the women on the side of the road earlier. “No,” I replied. She told me they had been strangely dressed, sitting in plastic chairs smoking, on a section of the road that seemed to border fields mostly. Based on her description, it seemed like they had to be prostitutes. But they weren’t there now that it was evening. We could only guess that they picked up random men driving down the country roads, or else, perhaps some sort of agricultural workers nearby. We were curious to know how business would go around 2pm during the middle of the week. But then again, I saw the same thing when I was in Poland as well. 

Forest Fountain

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