In the early 17th century, the head of the Order of Barefoot Carmelites, searching for a suitable location for a monastery, came upon an area of dense virgin forest. A site was selected halfway up the slope of the greenest hill, and by 1630 the simple stone structure was occupied. To preserve their world of isolation and silence, the monks built a wall enclosing the forest. Their only link with the outside was through a door facing toward Coimbra, which one of them watched over. The Coimbra Gate, still in use today, is the most decorative of the eight gates constructed since that time.
So concerned were the Carmelites for the well-being of their forest that they obtained a papal bull in 1643 calling for the excommunication of anyone caught cutting down even a single tree. They planted a number of exotic varieties, and the forest flourished. Attracted by its tranquillity, individual monks left the monastery to be alone with God and nature. They built simple hermitages, where they would stay, without human companionship, for several months at a time. You can still see vestiges of these as you walk through the forest.
In 1810 this serenity was shattered by a fierce battle in which the Napoleonic armies under Massena were repulsed by Wellington's British and Portuguese troops. An obelisk marks the site of the Battle of Buçaco, a turning point in the French invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. In 1834, owing to the rise in anticlerical sentiment and the country's need for money to rebuild the economy after the war of succession between the two sons of King John VI, the government issued a decree ordering the confiscation of all monasteries and convents. The monastery was virtually abandoned.
Early in the 20th century, much of the original monastery was torn down to construct an opulent, royal hunting lodge under the supervision of Italian architect Luigi Manini. Never used by the royal family, the multi-turreted extravaganza became a prosperous hotel—now the Palace Hotel do Bussaco—and in the years between the two world wars it was one of Europe's most fashionable vacation addresses.
Today many come to Buçaco just to view this unusual structure, to stroll the shaded paths that wind through the forest, and to climb the hill past the Stations of the Cross to the Alta Cruz (High Cross), their efforts rewarded by a view that extends all the way to the sea.