Since Greek and Roman times, man has known about the health benefits of thermal waters and one of my favourite things is to go to the Monchique Spa to relax in the pool with all the massage jets. The water is extremely alkaline, containing bicarbonate and fluoride, and to me it feels thick and oily to swim in.
Since Roman times, these Monchique healing waters have been used for a variety of health treatments and thermal spas all over the world are used for healing skin diseases, respiratory illnesses and for relieving muscular and joint pain.
Portugal has over 400 classified mineral waters and 50 thermal baths, which are increasingly making Portugal a popular destination for those seeking treatments or for relaxation.
However, did you know that one of the first thermal hospitals to be built was here in Portugal, in Caldas da Rainha, and it was the first of its kind in the world?
A few years ago, my family visited Caldas da Rainha, which is situated above Lisbon. I had never been there before but, in the depths of my memories, I remembered reading about the area in my school history books and of their importance as a healing centre for royalty.
The story is that, in 1484, as Queen Leonor was travelling from Óbidos to Batalha, she came across some people bathing in water holes by the side of the road. The Queen was curious about this, not only because at the time people did not really bathe much, but they would certainly not be doing so in strong smelling water.
Informed that the waters had healing powers and that those bathing were actually patients, the Queen, who allegedly had a skin ulcer that would not heal, also had a ‘bath’. She was so impressed with the healing powers of the sulphuric waters that she sold some lands and jewels in order to fund the construction of a hospital on the bathing site.
Her promise and legacy were that the hospital was to be available for the poor and needy of the kingdom, but it also became a popular place for royals and bourgeoise to attend each year.
Building of the hospital began in 1484 and finished in 1503, and the village that developed in the area was named after Queen Leonor who gave special tax privileges to those that settled there thus encouraging a village to grow.
Queen Leonor was wealthy in her own right as her father was the adoptive son and heir of Henry the Navigator’s fortune, amassed during the Age of Discovery.
Portugal’s queens were also independently given land destined for their sustenance and, when Queen Leonor’s brother succeeded her husband as King, he gave her many lands including Silves, Faro and, of course, the town she founded.
She was regarded as the richest princess in Europe and used her wealth for her charity works including the creation of the Misericórdia de Lisboa in 1498, which was set up for equality and rights of the destitute, poor, prisoners and sick, helping them with medical treatments, housing, clothing, food, funerals, etc.
Her charity organisation subsequently spread throughout the country and is still helping people today.
Caldas da Rainha was given the status of a city in 1927 and, over 500 years later, Queen Leonor’s hospital is still operating and providing a variety of treatments for everyone, just like the Queen intended.
Next to the hospital is a huge, beautiful park named after King Carlos I, which is connected to the hospital by a “glass sky” walkthrough made of glass and ornamental iron.
The park was created in 1889 by architect Rodrigo Berquó for patients to convalesce in and became an important addition to the hospital where people would go to read, take walks, play tennis and croquet, go boating and ride bikes. There was a ballroom too.
The José Malhoa Museum dedicated to the leading naturalist painter from the first half of the 19th century opened in the park in 1933 and has an important collection of 19th and 20th century paintings and sculptures.
I was amazed that this large park with such a vast variety of enormous trees and plants was in this relatively small city. There were beautiful gardens and pathways, with statues and sculptures spread around, and we had fun rowing on the lake. However, I was more fascinated by the huge building on the north-eastern corner of the park, and I was excited to find that it was an abandoned building.
I often watch YouTube videos of people who ‘respectfully’ break into abandoned buildings to take photos of the inside, many of which look like time stood still when the owners suddenly disappeared leaving all their possessions behind. Hospitals, mansions, theatres, palaces, etc, they are all fascinating.
Sadly, I could not see in any of the windows, but this imposing and kind of sinister building reminiscent of a scary movie set was part of Rodrigo Berquó’s vision to extend the facilities of the Thermal Hospital. He wanted to build seven wings destined to be infirmaries, a sanitorium and even a meteorological observatory, but he died, aged 57, of a heart attack on March 17, 1896, just before the building was finished.
A doctor took over the administration of the Thermal Hospital and the overbudget project but, with no government funding, the building did not progress, leaving the six wings seen today.
Over the years, the building has housed an infantry school, tourism offices, a newspaper, a library and, for 85 years, a Technical School. However, since 2005, this 125-year-old majestic building has been empty and is now due to be restored as a five-star hotel due for completion in 2023 at a cost of over €15 million.
This will undoubtedly be a success, attracting more people to visit this beautiful region but, more importantly, this amazing building will be restored and a little more of Portugal’s wonderful history and architecture will be saved.
So, now you know!
By Isobel Costa
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Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.