Begun in 1717 to honour a vow made on the birth of a royal heir, the Mosteiro Palácio Nacional de Mafra was initially intended for just thirteen Franciscan friars. But as wealth poured in from Brazil, João V amplified his plans to include a massive basilica, two royal wings and monastic quarters for hundreds of monks. The result, a fusion of Baroque and Italianate Neoclassicism, was completed in thirteen years and is quite extraordinary – not least the 5200 doorways, 2500 windows and two immense bell towers, each containing over fifty bells. An apocryphal story records the astonishment of the Flemish bell-makers at the size of the order: on their querying it, and asking for payment in advance, Dom João retorted by doubling their price and his original requirement.
The seemingly endless royal apartments are a mix of the tedious and the shocking, the latter most obviously in the Sala dos Troféus, with its furniture (even chandeliers) constructed of antlers and upholstered in deerskin. All the rooms are re-creations from when João VI fled to Brazil 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. The undoubted highlight is the magnificent Rococo library, rivalling Coimbra’s in grandeur. Byron, shown the 35,000 volumes by one of the monks, was asked if “the English had any books in their country?” The books are still in place, kept free of insect infestation by a colony of tiny bats that lives in the eaves.