Around 30km northeast of Coimbra, the Buçaco forest – properly the Mata Nacional do Buçaco – is a great place for a ramble, not to mention something of a Portuguese icon. The country’s most famous woodland was a monastic domain throughout the Middle Ages, and the site in the Peninsular War of a battle that saw Napoleon’s first significant defeat. It’s easy enough to visit the forest from Coimbra for the day, or stop en route to Viseu or the Serra do Caramulo, though there’s also plentiful accommodation at the old spa town of Luso, just 3km by road from the forest.
Benedictine monks first established a hermitage in the midst of Buçaco as early as the sixth century, though the forest’s great fame and beauty came with the Carmelite monks who settled here in the seventeenth century, building the walls that still mark its boundary. In 1643 Pope Urban VIII issued a papal bull threatening anyone who damaged the trees with excom- munication; an earlier decree had already protected the monks’ virtue by banning women from entering. The monks, meanwhile, were propagating the forest, introducing varieties new to Portugal from all over the world. Nowadays there are estimated to be more than seven hundred different types of tree, but the most impressive remain some of the earliest – particularly the mighty Mexican cedars.Read More
LUSO lies downhill from the Buçaco forest, 3km by winding road into the centre or a more direct walk on shady paths. A spa town for the past hundred years or so, it still draws crowds of Portuguese to take the waters. As such places go, its dated charm makes it worth a brief stop, and visitors are welcome to try the various treatments at the Termas de Luso (May-Oct; w www.termasdoluso.com). Otherwise, a turn around the small town centre (population 3000) and municipal park won’t occupy more than an hour. Locals take the opportunity to fill bottles and plastic containers with free spa water from the Fonte São João spring – Luso water is sold all over the country – next to which there’s an old-fashioned Art Deco casa do chá (tea room) with a terrace overlooking the central gardens and spa buildings.