Construction of the Mosteiro Palácio Nacional de Mafra started in 1717, and it was originally planned to be a modest Franciscan monastery, built to honour the birth of king Dom João V’s first child. But the king’s reign coincided with Portuguese holdings in Brazil producing vast mineral wealth, and this bonanza changed everything. The simple monastery became a lavish palace, with hundreds of monks in residence to care for the royal souls. The resulting building was a magnificent, over-the-top Baroque statement of intent, completed in just thirteen years by the gruelling labour of thousands (of whom hundreds died). The oft-quoted figures tell a tale of grandiose excess – a 200m-long facade, 1200 rooms, over five thousand doorways and windows, 156 staircases, and two soaring bell towers over the basilica containing 98 bells, the largest carillons in the world.
There’s little humanity or empathy at work in the seemingly endless royal apartments, and it’s hard to imagine a life lived in these cavernous chambers. All the rooms are recreations from when João VI fled to Brazil in 1808 in the face of the French advance and took all the furniture and valuables with him. However, there is at least one original piece – the bed in which the last Portuguese monarch, Manuel II, slept the night before he went into exile in England. Some of the rooms are simply shocking, like the Sala dos Troféus, where the furniture, including the chandeliers, is made from antlers and upholstered in deerskin. The undoubted highlight is the stupendously decorated library, with its 90m-long tiled floor. Forty thousand books are still in place here, kept free of insect infestation by a colony of tiny bats that lives in the eaves.