Wow…That’s BIG!

How’s that for a cheeky teaser?

A few weeks ago, when Portugal reopened its beaches for walking, but not sun-bathing, we took Sweet Pea out to stretch her legs and have some fun. While we were frolicking in the sand and sun, a woman saw my Pepperdine University baseball cap and asked me if I was from California. (I earned my MBA from Pepperdine which is located in Malibu. Sending a big shout out to my PKE-120 cohort!!) I replied that we had lived in Southern California before moving to New Jersey in 2012.

That got us chatting. Mark and Jennifer were also expats from Los Altos in Northern California. They arrived in Portugal the week before we did and live in Monte Estoril, not too far from us. Mark is a principal with an investment firm focused on renewable energy start-ups and had been based in Berlin for the last year. Since Mark’s role isn’t location-specific, they took advantage of that by traveling and exploring Europe, staying a month in Paris or six weeks in Italy. They loved Portugal so much they decided to make it their home. Jennifer and Mark are a fun, engaging, and energetic couple. Jennifer plays tennis at least three times a week and they bike or walk nearly everywhere.

We swapped contact info at the beach and agreed to get together for dinner once the state of emergency was lifted enough to allow restaurants to reopen. A week ago Wednesday, we got together. Over great wine and a yummy dinner, we discovered funny connections like Mark and Won have the same wedding band and Mark’s father and my father both served in the Air Force.

During dinner, we shared stories about where we had been and what we had seen in Portugal. Jennifer told us about their recent visit to Mafra. After seeing some of the pictures she took and hearing about their experience – including the discovery of a tasty pastry called Amélias, doçuras de milho e mel (sweetness of corn and honey), we decided to make Mafra the focal point of our next outing. I promise it was the palace and not the pastry that influenced us…OK, it was the pastry, but the palace was pretty awesome too!

The city of Mafra is a pretty little town 35 minutes north of where we live. It is the home of the Mafra Royal Palace, the largest and most important Baroque and Neoclassical monument in all of Portugal. It was built in the 18th century by order of King João V (1689-1750) in fulfillment of a vow he made, to be blessed with an heir from his marriage to Maria Ana of Austria or be cured of a serious illness. The birth of his first daughter, the Infanta Barbara of Portugal, prompted construction to begin in 1717. The palace was conveniently located near royal hunting grounds and took 38 years to complete. On 7 July 2019, the Royal Building of Mafra – Palace, Basilica, Convent, Cerco Garden and Hunting Park was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

And, when I say it is big, the footprint of the building is just shy of 4 hectares (10 acres). The palace itself is 40,000 m2 (430,556 square feet). The property has 9 hectares of gardens and 1200 hectares of hunting grounds enclosed by a 21 kilometer wall. The front facade of the building is 220 meters (nearly 722 feet). The palace has 1,200 rooms, more than 4,700 doors and windows, and 156 stairways. Such magnificence was only possible due to the Brazilian gold that poured into the country, allowing the King to carry out his patronage of the arts and strengthen royal authority.

It’s hard to wrap your head around how big this building is, so to give you a visual of its size I pulled an aerial shot of the palace from the Internet. This structure dwarfs all the buildings nearby. I was gobsmacked as we rounded a corner and saw it for the first time. I think it was even more striking because to get there we had driven through lovely countryside with open land and small towns with modest homes and businesses…and then POW! My eyes nearly popped out of my head!

The spectacular Roman Catholic Basilica occupies the central part of the building and is flanked by the bell towers. So, let’s start there. The Basilica has the shape of a Latin cross with a total length of 58.5 m and a width of 43 m (192′ x 141′). It is made from limestone quarried from nearby regions. The dome is 65 m high and 13 m in diameter (213′ and 42′ respectively) and was the first dome built in Portugal. I found a diagram of this type of church on the Internet and posted it here to help orient you.

The Basilica has six organs with a total of 10,000 pipes designed to be played as an ensemble. Pieces of music were written by composers across Europe that could only be played there. Additionally, the church has 98 bells with a pair of carillons that were the largest in Europe at the time they were built.

There is no entrance fee to see the Basilica, but Won and I made a contribution before leaving. The church has undergone extensive repair over the last decade to protect and save it and we wanted to show our appreciation for the investment and hard work of this effort.

We entered through the center door and into the beautiful narthex. It was clad in sumptuous blue/gray marble and creamy lioz, a type of limestone originating in Portugal also known as royal stone. The narthex is lined with statues of saints that were double the size of a normal human.

We were very lucky to be the only ones in the church when we were there. It was serenely quiet and peaceful. We were instructed to wear our masks and I confirmed that it was permissible to take pictures.

The dome is beautiful. I stood in the center of the crossing and directly beneath it to capture the following image. I have also included images of the south transept, an intimate chapel that was to the left of the altar, and one of the two matching corridors that border the nave. Each corridor included beautiful statues similar to those in the narthex and relief panels depicting religious themes and events.

We exited the church and made our way to the palace gift shop to purchase tickets to see the palace. The entrance fee was €6 each. Again, due to the novel coronavirus we had our temperatures taken and were required to wear our masks the entire time we were inside. As it had been at Quinta da Regaleira, there were no prerecorded handheld sets offering commentary and information. We simply followed the arrows and were sure to read posted signs near specific areas or points of interest to learn more about what we were seeing.

To begin, we passed through the cloisters next to the Basilica and headed to the infirmary where friars took care of the seriously ill. On Sundays all the beds were pulled into the center of the ward so patients could take part in Mass.

A kitchen just around the corner was used to prepare meals for the friars and the sick. There were also three other kitchens in the palace; one for the King, another for the Queen, and one for the Convent. The friars rooms were in this area too

We went up another level and through some stunning rooms on our way to the King’s apartments.

To get to the King’s apartments you pass through a corridor with another impressive ceiling.

The King and Queen each had their own private apartments located on the 2nd floor (that would be the 3rd floor for all the US folks reading this). If you look back at the aerial image of the palace, the King’s apartment is in the front far left corner and the Queen’s is directly opposite on the far right. The following images are of the King’s private chapel, office area, dressing area, and bedroom.

Here are images of what constituted the King’s bathroom, which was made up of three distinct open areas that are located in a hallway and have to be passed through to get from the sitting and dressing areas to the bedroom. (I wonder what he would think if he knew so many people were traipsing through, gawking at, and taking images of where he did his personal business…)

Next to the King’s apartment is the throne/audience room. The figures on the walls depict the royal values of Perfection, Tranquility, Kindness, Knowledge, Generosity, Peace, Constancy, and Conscience…something we could all use in the world right now.

There is a 200m (656′) corridor that leads from the King’s apartment to the Queen’s across the front of the palace. Whenever the King left his apartment towards the apartment of the Queen, it was announced to the Queen by the sound of a trumpet. Won and I have discussed implementing this in our apartment when we are in separate rooms. We’re in the process of teaching Sweet Pea to blow the trumpet. She seems oddly resistant to this plan.

In the middle of the corridor is an open area called the Benediction room. This is where the royal family could attend religious ceremonies through windows that look down into the Basilica (you can see these windows in the image of the nave looking back to the narthex in my description of the Basilica). Just opposite those windows is a balcony overlooking the front of the palace where the King could bless the people below.

Exiting the Benediction Room you pass through the King’s Gallery, the War Room, and the Chamberlain’s Room before arriving at the Queen’s apartments.

Along the back of the palace and occupying the largest and most prestigious room is the Library. It contains one of the most significant Enlightenment-era collections in Europe with more than 36,000 rare books and was considered the best source of information on science and art at the time. It also included a pharmacy and pharmaceutical laboratory where doctors studied.

These books on physics are from the 1600s.

There is so much more to see, but I can’t keep you all day, so here is a montage of other images I thought were interesting, take particular note of the “trophy” room and it’s furniture and fixtures displaying and using the game that had been killed on the preserve. Also note the small game table in the billiards room – a precursor to Foosball, perhaps? I’ll let you discover the other treasures on your own…

And you thought that was it? No, my friend. After seeing the palace (and sitting in the car to recharge the battery on my phone so I could take more pictures), we walked to the Jardim do Cerco, the palace garden, which is open to the public at no charge. It was just heavenly! It included formal gardens, open spaces, a water wheel, greenhouse, aqueduct, aviary, fountains with water lilies, koi fish, and more!

We were relaxed and refreshed after walking through the garden and ready for the short drive home. Sweet Pea was very patient while we were gone so we took her to the beach to run and play, meet new dogs, and explore the ocean floor while the tide was out.

We had seen the directional signs to Mafra while driving on many occasions, but had no idea what a delight it would be! It just makes us more curious and excited to see what other treasures await us. And, when we do, I promise to share them with you.

Next week we explore Belém, a laid back, hip area of Lisbon right on the water with a rich history and some great places to see. Until then…

From Portugal with love,


Published by Beth Thomas-Kim

After working in corporate America for companies like Mattel, Nestlé, and Johnson & Johnson, I retired and moved to Portugal in January of 2020 with my husband Won and our 12-year old wire fox terrier, Sweet Pea. We now live in Monte Estoril, a lovely seaside town just outside Lisbon. We spend our days happily exploring this beautiful country and learning about its fascinating history, engaging culture, warm and welcoming people, delicious food and wine, and stunning architecture. This blog was started primarily as a way to keep family and friends updated on our transition from the US to Portugal. Now, my subscribers include people from all over the world. Enjoy!

11 thoughts on “Wow…That’s BIG!

  1. Beth,
    Imagine living in that space where almost everywhere one looks, is a work of art! Especially the Benediction Room. Our streamlined/functional living spaces today seem so mundane. Loved seeing Sweat Pea – what a darling.


  2. Well, if you’re gonna spend 38 years and a couple tons of someone else’s gold, at least you have something to show for it! That was awesome! Keep it coming Beth. Love this stuff.


    1. The funny thing is, it was more of a “hunting lodge” for the king. It was just wrapped around a basilica, convent, massive library and infirmary. Well, at least he got his money’s worth. Interestingly, neither the king nor queen lived to see it completed. King João V died in 1750 and his wife died in 1754. The palace was completed in 1755.


  3. Hey Beth,

    Another great peek into the beauty and breadth of Portugal. My question is how long have you been waiting to use the word gobsmacked? 🙂



  4. Beth, you may have topped yourself again for interesting posts and beautiful photos! Thank you! (I notice Sweet Pea’s trim is holding up dashingly well!)


      1. Beth, I think I screwed up by mistakenly “subscribing” again. I prefer and really only use Taffy. I suspect I have 2 accounts now, maybe get rid of the Patricia one.


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