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May 31, 2012

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A Visit to Queluz National Palace

Posted by Hansel Hernandez, Historic Preservation and Cultural Heritage Consultant
World Monuments Fund

Last summer, when I was in Lisbon, my German friend Jens told me that Queluz Palace was very close, but I refused to believe it. He also told me I could do two palaces in one day; I was a doubting Thomas. It turns out Jens was right. I took the train at the Sete Rios train station in Lisbon headed to Sintra and got out at Queluz, and that was after I had kept my appointment with the Marquis of Fronteira to visit his Fronteira Palace, a seventeenth-century jewel of a place still inhabited by his family.

You arrive in Queluz after a 30-minute train ride, then you follow the signs, and 15 minutes later you arrive at the palace. You see it at a distance, lying in a lower plain from the street, which connects it to the town. It does look regal.

Dom Pedro of Braganza, brother of the then-reigning king, had the eighteenth-century palace, one of the last great rococo buildings to be designed in Europe, built as a summer retreat. He later became husband and then king consort to his own niece, Queen Maria I. The royal family kept the palace until 1908 when it became the property of the state. The architect was Mateus Vicente de Oliveira, who had trained under Ludovice of Ratisbon and Jean Baptiste Robillon during the construction of another royal palace, Mafra.

The information brochure refers to the palace as being a "harmonious example of Portuguese baroque". This palace, with its single-story flanking wings, forms a three-sided courtyard. Inside the courtyard lies the "Hanging Garden"—so called because it is on a raised terrace. The interiors are indeed ostentatious and extravagant, namely the Ballroom and the Hall of Ambassadors. But what most struck me about the palace’s private rooms was they seemed to be lived-in; everything was in its place. For one moment it appeared that the people living in this magnificent place had gone out for a drive and were expected back shortly. It was a bit eerie.

But for me the treat were the gardens. A double staircase at the rear of the Robillon Wing leads to the canal, which appears to be endless. The ribbon of canals is approximately 335 feet long and is decorated with magnificent eighteenth-century Portuguese white and blue tiles depicting seascapes and associated scenes. In the summer the family used to have picnics and country feasts in the patches of green and gazebos among the canal, and would even ride small rowboats inside it!

The other side of the palace grounds includes a large topiary parterre laid out in the French manner with a whole series of limestone classical allegorical statues, including some made of lead and designed by eighteenth-century English artist John Cheere. From 2004 to 2009 WMF, in collaboration with its British and Portuguese branches, undertook a conservation intervention on the decorative tiles in the canal, the restoration of the limestone statues, and a special conservation project on the Cheere statues. It all paid off, the gardens at Queluz are pièce de résistance of this magnificent retreat.

Deeper in the gardens is a grotto complete with a cascade, which I read was the first artificial waterfall to be constructed near Lisbon. The design of cascades was applied in Portuguese royal gardens beginning the trend set at Queluz.

On my way out I stopped by the former building for the Royal Guard, right across the street. The large building follows the same design principle of the palace, but it is somber and serious, reflective of it former function. It has been successfully converted into a 5-star pousada, or inn.

I walked back 15 minutes to the train station and went home. I called Jens that night to tell him of my visit. I had to eat crow, for I never would have believed it: two palaces in one day. Jens was right.