MAFRA CONVENT, Portugal – Rats, Bats and Excellence! (2022)

Mafra convent is a symphony that harmonizes the best of all the arts: architecture, painting, sculpture, music, tapestry, literature and ceramics. Nothing is left out and everything is of excellence!

MAFRA CONVENT

It was supposed to have been just a small convent for 13 friars. It culminated in the magnificent complex of the National Palace of Mafra, with a Basilica, a Royal Palace, and a convent for 300 friars. It absorbed the influence of the greatest works of European architecture of the time, particularly St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in the Vatican State. It combines the drama of the palatial baroque style with the robustness of military engineering. At the center of the immense facade, more than 200 meters long, the Basilica dominates, with two bell towers reaching a height of 70 meters. The entire noble area is destined for the Royal Palace. 

MAFRA CONVENT
MAFRA CONVENT

The palace-convent of Mafra is the most important Baroque monument in Portugal. It is so impressive that, already in 1910, the architectural ensemble won the title of National Monument. In 2019 it was considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. To frame this grandiose work, the Tapada Real was also annexed, intended for recreational hunting by the royalty. It has about 1200 hectares and is now known as Tapada Nacional de Mafra.

WHERE IS CONVENT OF MAFRA?

Mafra is a town in the Lisbon district. It is about 40 km northwest of the city of Lisbon, a distance that can be covered in 37 minutes by car. If you go by transport, departing from Lisbon, you can expect a journey of almost 1h30.

When the Convent of Mafra was built, this was a rural area, belonging to the so-called Saloia region of Lisbon, which supplied the city with horticultural products.

WHO ORDERED THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE CONVENT OF MAFRA?

The Convent of Mafra was ordered built in the 18th century by King João V – The Magnanimous.

MAFRA CONVENT, HISTORY

As the story (or legend) goes, the king had been married for three years to D. Maria Ana of Austria, but still had no descendants. He then made a promise to build a convent for the Franciscan friars, there in Mafra, if God answered his prayers and granted him an heir. When D. Maria Barbara, his first daughter, was born, D. João V paid his promise and began the construction of the Convent of Mafra.

MAFRA CONVENT CONSTRUCTION
MAFRA CONVENT CONSTRUCTION

The initial project would have been humble, however, thanks to the gold coming from Brazil, there were times of great opulence in Portugal. Modesty was left aside and gave way to sumptuousness, and so the palace-convent of Mafra was built. Construction began in 1717 and 27 years later the work was finished. One might have thought such a 40,000 square meter monument impossible to erect in such a short time, but it was in a hurry to be finished for the king’s birthday. And so it was, on October 22, 1730, D. João V was 41 years old, and the Basilica of the Convent of Mafra was inaugurated with celebration and pomp. The basilica was dedicated to Our Lady and to the most popular Portuguese Franciscan, Saint Anthony.

MAFRA CONVENT II
MAFRA CONVENT II

Refinement and excellence are the words that run through the entire work of the Convento de Mafra. The architectural design was given to the German goldsmith João Frederico Ludovice, who, in addition to being a goldsmith, graduated in architecture in Italy. A lover of culture and the arts, D. João V made sure that no detail was overlooked. It was from the most important artistic centers in Europe that he sent the works to line the Convent of Mafra. The paintings and sculptures he commissioned from great Italian and Portuguese masters. In France and Italy he had the vestments and religious implements made. In 1834 religious orders were extinct in Portugal. As there were no more religious in the Convent of Mafra from 1841 until today, the space was given to the military. Currently belongs to the School of Arms.

HOW TO VISIT THE PALACE OF MAFRA?

The National Palace of Mafra is gigantic! It is composed of different structures and not all of them are open to the public. In its central structure we find the basilica and two bell towers. The façade has the palace and two huge towers. At the back we find the convent near the Tapada nacional de Mafra and the Jardim do Cerco.

MAFRA CONVENT
MAFRA CONVENT

Here follows a description of the most interesting elements that you can find in the Convent of Mafra.

PALÁCIO REAL (or Royal Palace)

In the Royal Palace, the north wing was the king’s palace while the south wing was for the queen’s palace (each in their own little room!). The two palaces were totally independent, with their own rooms, kitchens and servants. But to unite north and south, a large gallery extended, which would be much appreciated for court walks.

GALLERY CONNECTING THE TWO TOWERS
GALLERY CONNECTING THE TWO TOWERS

Kings and queens were written in history. But the interior of the palace-convent of Mafra still lives and vibrates, in space and in art, bringing together history, the sacred and the profane. On the walls and ceilings, paintings of mythological themes, much appreciated by the nobility of the time, unfold. Gods and goddesses dominate the representations, animals, satyrs, and nymphs, sometimes hiding behind the trees, sometimes showing themselves in amazing plots…

In the Diana Room, the ceiling painting is dedicated to the goddess of the hunt.

DIANA'S ROOM
DIANA’S ROOM

The Throne Room, exalts on its walls the royal virtues.

ROOM OF THRONE
ROOM OF THRONE

The Discoveries Room recounts the exploits of the Portuguese who crossed the seas.

DISCOVERY ROOM CEILING
DISCOVERY ROOM CEILING

The Music room was for the reception of guests. A room with a grand piano and an upright piano.

MUSIC ROOM
MUSIC ROOM

It is in the Games Room that we find some of the most popular games that were played in the 18th and 19th centuries. The game of spinning top and billiards were kings in the royal quarters!

GAMES ROOM
GAMES ROOM

For those who are (very) fond of animals like me, the Hunting Room is not particularly pleasant. Still, here is the record. A room adorned with hunting trophies and deer stags. There are also several paintings illustrating hunting scenes. Brave men with rifle in hand distilling testosterone and firing a trigger at cornered animals. Bravo, bravo! What intrepid males!!!

HUNTING ROOM
HUNTING ROOM

MAFRA CONVENT

The space of the convent is amazing! The convent itself is in the former part of this super structure. It was built to house friars of the order of St. Francis. Here was created a small hospital (also open to residents of Mafra), where there were even operating rooms and triage rooms. Pioneer! In the Convent of Mafra we find an infirmary, with sixteen individual “rooms”. In each individual space there was a wooden bed, a table, a potty and a small bench for visitors. The beds face the altar of the chapel at the back of the infirmary so that the sick could attend mass. It is the only 18th century infirmary that exists in Portugal. Later, in 1835, the convent came into use by the military and they still occupy part of the building today.

MAFRA CONVENT INFIRMARY
MAFRA CONVENT INFIRMARY

The infirmary has a stairway leading to another curious space, the Campo Santo (Holy Field). This is a corridor where the friars of the Convent were buried. At the end of this corridor is a chapel where funeral ceremonies were held. In the friars’ cells look closely at the 18th century furniture and the austerity of the friars’ quarters.

FRIARS' ROOM
FRIARS’ ROOM

There is also a botica, the former pharmacy of the convent. An authentic pharmacy laboratory where medicines made from herbs, plants, and roots were produced and stored. We can still see the instruments used and the ceramic jars where the medicines were kept, prepared in the infirmary kitchen with herbs from the convent’s garden.

MAFRA CONVENT'S OLD PHARMACY
MAFRA CONVENT’S OLD PHARMACY

Other spaces, such as the Staircase and the Refectory currently belong to the School of Arms and it is necessary to book in advance to visit them. The infirmary kitchen is one of the most impressive places in the convent. A super kitchen equipped with gigantic tables and through which streams of water flowed.

MAFRA CONVENT'S KITCHEN
MAFRA CONVENT’S KITCHEN

RATS IN THE CONVENT OF MAFRA

Giant rats, man-eating monsters that live in the four underground floors of the Convent of Mafra. They are blind, because daylight does not enter the depths where they live. There are so many of them that, to exterminate them, it would be necessary to evacuate the town of Mafra and all its surroundings within a radius of 60 km, because the fearsome beasts would rise to the surface and devour everything in their path. Many of those who dared to descend into the convent’s underworld did not return to tell what they saw…

Several are the myths that hover around the underworld of the Convent of Mafra. But where do all these stories come from? The reality is quite simple, less exciting than the fabulous narratives that pass from mouth to mouth.

RATS INSIDE CONVENT OF MAFRA
RATS INSIDE CONVENT OF MAFRA

It would have happened like this. In 1971, two soldiers went to the terrace of the Convent of Mafra to hunt pigeons. One of them fell, ending up in the sewage collectors, which is the only underground floor (there is no such thing as a four-floor underworld). The colleague, fearing punishment, because hunting pigeons should not be part of his duties, took a long time to report what had happened. When they found the missing soldier, naturally dead from the impact of such a big fall, his body would have been nibbled by rats, not voraciously devoured. The rats found in the sewers of the Convent of Mafra are those that one would expect to find in any sewer of a large building, no more, no less.

MAFRA CONVENT LIBRARY

The library of the Convent of Mafra is among the most important in the world, both for its unique beauty and its content. It occupies a cross-shaped room, the largest in the entire convent. It has 36,000 books and some of them are engraved in gold and have leather bindings. The Bookshop House (as it is also called), is almost 100 meters long and 13 meters high. Visitors can only visit the entrance to the library. Access to the volumes is restricted to researchers. The carved wooden shelves that were the walls, hold the thousands of books dating from the 15th century to the 19th century. All areas of knowledge and leisure are represented there, from poetry to the sciences, from history to religion. Its collection includes some unique books and other rare ones, such as the…

Nuremberg Chronicle (of the first books in the history of printing). Among these volumes are remarkable first editions: of the Koran, the first Encyclopedia, The Lusiads, the polyglot Bible… Each book is duly inscribed in one of the two catalogs, one from 1755, the other from 1819.

MAFRA CONVENT LIBRARY
MAFRA CONVENT LIBRARY

The library repertoire of the Convent of Mafra can be consulted free of charge by researchers, historians, and students over the age of 18, by appointment and if they have a study in hand that justifies it.

BATS OF THE CONVENT OF MAFRA

Several factors contribute to the good preservation of the books in the library of the Convent of Mafra, including the conditions of the space and the fact that the books have never left the library. But the most curious contribution to the conservation of this heritage are the bats that cohabit with the books in the library. They feed on insects that, if they weren’t the bats’ meal, would eat the paper, glue, and ink from the books. 

MAFRA CONVENT BASILICA

The convent basilica is in the center of this large structure. It is almost 60 meters long, 43 meters wide and on each side we find a bell tower.

MAFRA CONVENT BASILICA
MAFRA CONVENT BASILICA

The towers stand out for their imposing size! They are 70 meters high to house more than 100 bells (53 in the north tower and 49 in the south tower). The heaviest bell weighs “only”… 12 tons!

MAFRA BASILICA BELL TOWERS
MAFRA BASILICA BELL TOWERS

The interior of the basilica features 58 marble statues and one of the largest zimboria in the world (the zimboria is the central dome of the basilica). It is 13 meters in diameter and stands 65 meters high.

ZIMBORIUM (DOME) OF THE BASILICA
ZIMBORIUM (DOME) OF THE BASILICA

One more note for the 6 giant organs there that can play simultaneously. When they do, they produce a masterful sound! In no other basilica in the world can you find anything equivalent!

 BASILICA OF MAFRA GIANT ORGANS
BASILICA OF MAFRA GIANT ORGANS

10 INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT CONVENT OF MAFRA

  • The Convent of Mafra occupies an area equivalent to 4 soccer fields.
  • To build it, more than 50,000 workers were employed.
  • Some of the stones used for construction were so large that it took 50 yoke of oxen to lift them.
  • Pope Benedict XIV in 1754, forbade the detour or lending of the books of the library of the Convent of Mafra, without the authorization of the king. The penalty was excommunication. He also granted permission to include forbidden books in the library.
  • In the Basilica, there is a unique set of six organs in the world, designed to play together. In the library of the Convento de Mafra, there are musical scores written especially for these organs that cannot be played anywhere else.
  • The bell towers of the Convent of Mafra have more than 100 bells: hour bells, liturgical bells and two chimes, designed to play pieces of music. Tradition has it that an envoy of the king went to inquire about the price of a carillon. He was presented with the amount of 400.000$00 réis, emphasizing that it was an excessive amount for a small country like Portugal. Feeling disregarded, D. João V replied with astonishment that it was so cheap, and ordered two chimes.
  • Windows are approximately 2,500, doors 5,000, and stairs 156. Behind every door and window there is astonishing beauty. Each staircase, itself a work of art, leads to a story and a new treasure, whether in marble, paint, fabric or gold. 
  • The Mafra palace was one of the first buildings in Portugal to have an elevator (at the time they called it “vaivém or caranguejola”). It was maneuvered by 4 men and was acquired by Queen Dona Maria in the 19th century.
  • The construction of the Mafra Convent was so gigantic that the lessons learned in the building process were used in the reconstruction of the country after the 1755 earthquake.
  • The basilica of the convent of Mafra has over 100 bells in its towers! The heaviest bell weighs 12 tons… and the hammer of the same bell weighs a modest 300 kilos.

MEMORIAL DO CONVENTO

The Mafra Convent is the stage for history and stories that, with the literary ingenuity of José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner, gave rise to the novel Memorial do Convento. It is a remarkable work, woven of contrasts, light and darkness, love and tragedy, nobles and commoners… Throughout the plot, the religious and social criticism, a well-known characteristic of the author, stands out.

MEMORIAL DO CONVENTO - JOSÉ SARAMAGO
MEMORIAL DO CONVENTO – JOSÉ SARAMAGO

VIRTUAL TOUR TO MAFRA CONVENT

MAFRA CONVENT PRICES AND SCHEDULES

There are so many precious works and secrets of the Convent of Mafra that, to better enjoy the visit, it is worth being accompanied by a guide. You only have to book in advance, by calling the following telephone number: 261 817 550

The complete tour includes the Royal Palace, the Conventual Nucleus, the Sacred Art collection and the Library. The ticket costs €6.00 and children under 12 are free. To visit the terraces, you will be charged an entrance fee of €5.00. Admission is free, for residents in Portugal, on Sundays and public holidays, until 2pm. A 50% discount will be applied to visitors over 65 years old; holders of student cards or youth cards, on family tickets, and large families. There are also differentiated rates for large groups and exemptions in specific cases. The palace can be visited every day of the week, except on Tuesdays. In the morning you can visit between 9:30 am and 12:30 pm, and in the afternoon between 2 pm and 5:30 pm. The Basilica is also not open to the public on Tuesdays. The Library can be visited Monday through Friday by appointment. All areas of the palace-convent of Mafra are closed on Tuesdays, January 1st, Ascension Thursday, and December 25th. The building does not have access for people with reduced mobility. La Basílica tampoco está abierta al público los martes. La Biblioteca puede consultarse de lunes a viernes, previa cita. Todas las áreas del palacio-convento de Mafra están cerradas el martes 1 de enero, el jueves de la Ascensión y el 25 de diciembre. The building has no access for people with reduced mobility.

WHAT TO VISIT NEAR THE CONVENT OF MAFRA?

To get to know the essentials of the Convento de Mafra, you can count on a full afternoon. If you have time to spare, be aware that there are other attractions in the vicinity of the convent that deserve a closer look. We suggest the Jardim do Cerco, the Tapada Nacional de Mafra, the museum village of José Franco and Ericeira. In order to organize your tours efficiently, we have prepared a map for you. We hope it will be useful!

ERICEIRA
ERICEIRA (click on the image)

12 minutes and only 11 kilometers by car separate the Convent of Mafra from the town of Ericeira. A hamlet that in times gone by was essentially dedicated to fishing. With the development of the roads (50’s), Ericeira gradually changed. Nowadays it has an urban environment and in the summer it fills up with tourists visiting the capital. It has some attractions that I particularly like: the fishing port, the marginal, the south beach and the Vila Galé hotel (which offers an absolutely incredible view to those who go there).

TAPADA DE MAFRA

From the convent to Tapada de Mafra is only 7.8 kilometers (11 minutes by car). It was created by Dom João V after the construction of the convent of Mafra. It was intended as a leisure park for the court (it was there that the “sad” hunts took place). It has an extension of 800 hectares (800 soccer fields) and there you will find deer, wild boar, foxes, rare birds and an equally rare and interesting flora. It is also very popular with those who like to go for long walks, bike rides, and horseback riding. On weekends you can visit the tapada by (tourist) train! Interesting!

CERCO GARDEN
CERCO GARDEN

The Mafra Convent is “right next” to the Cerco Garden (1 minute walking distance). It was built by Dom João V (1718) and is right next to the Convent of Mafra. The Cerco Garden consists of the Botanical Garden and the woods. There you will also find a picnic park and a children’s play area. It is a very pleasant space, almost idyllic, if it wasn’t built for the royalty of yesteryear. Admission is free and the space is managed by the local municipality.

TYPICAL VILLAGE OF JOSÉ FRANCO
TYPICAL VILLAGE OF JOSÉ FRANCO

From the Mafra Convent to the typical village of José Franco (sculptor) is only 4,2km, a distance that can be covered in 7 minutes by car. A pearl very little known by the Portuguese. The museum village was erected in natural size, but is entirely made of clay. Besides this particularity, the village is also a “photograph” of the way people used to live in Mafra when it was a rural village. There you will find period representations of houses, furniture, mills, butcher shops, taverns, carpentries and much more. Super interesting!

RESTAURANTS NEAR THE CONVENT OF MAFRA

It is very possible that after visiting the huge convent of Mafra, you will feel hungry! If that happens, take our gastronomic suggestion.

FEITO AO BIFE RESTAURANT

From the convent of Mafra to the restaurant Feito ao Bife are only 400 meters away, a distance that can be covered in 6 minutes (on foot). Restaurant of 1 cipher (in a maximum of 3). It has over 300 reviews on Google and an overall rating of 4.2 stars. The compliments mention with insistence the friendliness of the staff, the Steak à Mafra and the good price-quality ratio.

  FEITO AO BIFE RESTAURANT
FEITO AO BIFE RESTAURANT

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