I found my book mecca in Mafra

I’m married to my kindle. I never leave home without it. I know, I know. For years I banged on about never, ever going electronic when it came to books. I wanted to be able to touch the pages, smell the print, turn back and reread. I spent enough time on a computer without adding more, I said. But when the airlines started their draconian restrictions on baggage, toting half a dozen books with me on holiday became too expensive. So I gave in. Reluctantly.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m hooked. I’m completely sold on the idea. I can’t imagine life without my baby. Right now, the 200 books I have on my kindle weigh as much as a short paperback. I have a membership to a digital library so I can check out books I’d like to read but don’t particularly want to keep. And I’m reading more than ever, because it’s all so convenient.

That said, I still love the feel of a real book and some titles I still choose to buy in hard copy. I’d never consider getting rid of the hundreds of books on my various shelves and were I to move, my books would come with me, regardless of the expense. I’m a bookaholic and last month I found my book mecca in Mafra.

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Back in the 1700s, King João V promised to build a palace and monastery if he and his wife, Maria Ana of Austria, were to have a son. Some might say he went a little overboard with this baroque convent and palace, built on the back of gold from Brazil that was flowing into Portugal at that time. It’s nearly 38000 square meters – that’s nearly four hectares – with 1200 rooms, thousands of doors and windows, 156 staircases, and 29 courtyards. That’s a lot of gratitude.

The palace is huge. Massive. Goes on for miles. The Queen had her wing, the King had his, and the bit in between was home to chapels, anterooms, a hospital, the kitchens, and various other royal salons. We toured them all. Or at least we toured every room that was open to the public.There’s a notable difference in style between the two wings, one oozing oestrogen, the other awash with testosterone. All of it fascinating.

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Throne room

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The games room, with its forerunner to the modern-day pinball machine, was special. The hunting room, with its dead heads and furniture made from various animal parts reminded me a little of something I saw in Macedonia. Not for me, thank you, but hats off to putting the parts to good use. It was the hospital ward that got me. All the beds face an altar so the monks could hear mass even while they lay on their sickbed. Back in its heyday, 330 monks were in residence.

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Hospital chapel

Hospital bed

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As we reached the end of our map (and you need a map to find your way around the building), before we turned the final corner, I could smell the books. It was a heady, powerful scent of old manuscripts, faded ink, and leather bindings. Intoxicating.

The magnificent Rococo room is tiled in marble is 88 m long x 9.5 wide and 13 m high. With 36,000 books or thereabouts, it shows just how well-read people were back in the day. Apparently the library was used as the Emperor’s war chamber in the 1996 film Gulliver’s Travels. Can’t say I recognised it from that, mind you. But nonetheless, it is spectacular.

A sign clearly states that books cannot be removed without permission from the king. And as there’s no longer a king in the country, they’re there to stay. Definitely worth an afternoon if you’re in the vicinity.

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