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Royal rooms

The most unforgettable hotel in Portugal is a castle, built for a king who was murdered before he could move in.

It's the Palace Hotel of Bussaco (pronounced boo-SAH-ko), a huge, ornate building set deep in a forest far north of Lisbon. King Carlos, one of Portugal's last monarchs, planned it as his summer place, but he was shot in 1908 just as it neared completion. For years, discerning travelers have headed to Bussaco, shunning modern hotels in favor of rustic elegance that is as true to Portugal as the wine from Bussaco's own vineyards.

Moreover, Bussaco is set in a part of Portugal that is both less crowded and more historic than much of the country _ a short drive from the former capital of Coimbra and within minutes of one of Portugal's most affordable spas.

The hotel rises almost dream-like in a 250-acre forest that is the legacy of 17th-century monks, devoted to God but also to nature. They added so many trees, many brought to them by Portuguese explorers and sailors, that the forest has more than 700 varieties.

Many of the hotel's 68 rooms have balconies overlooking its splendid gardens and an ocean of green. Beneath the turreted roof, the architecture is Manueline, a form recalling Portugal's great age of exploration, depicted in numerous blue and white wall tiles, azulejos, special to Portugal.

You can dine in late spring or summer on a Renaissance terrace, with a canopy overhead, a touch from the hotel's renowned Italian architect, Luigi Manini. (Try the grilled chicken with olive sauce accompanied by chilled Bussaco blanco, a white wine from Bussaco's cellar estimated at 200,000 bottles.)

You will be served by men with the devotion of the monks of long ago, for this is their palace, and many have been here a lifetime. The manager, Jose Rodriques Dos Santos, has completed more than 50 years.

Ideally, you'll give yourself a few days at Bussaco, on the first enjoying the beauty of the palace and its grounds, then taking a couple of day trips, first on foot perhaps to nearby Luso, (2 miles), where you can take the mineral waters of a beautiful spa, and the next day by car to Coimbra (17 miles). Once Portugal's capital, it is home to its ancient university _ students in the streets often wear the traditional black cape, each with tears at the hem indicating the number of romances in the wearer's past _ and marvel at the fantastically ornate library rooms.

While staying at Bussaco, rise early and, with a map provided by the hotel, follow the hilly, dew-moist footpaths. Trace them along the Via Sacra, the Way of the Cross, past the many tiny chapels built in the 1600s and standing as rare examples of Portuguese Baroque, then stop at the Cold Fountain and touch water that cascades 144 steps to its pool or stroll the fragrant Rua dos Fetos, lined with great cypress trees.

That night, dine in the palace's formal dining room, with gleaming silver and slender stemware. Perhaps you'll choose the country's national dish, bacalhau, the familiar salt cod fish.

By all means, give yourself time every evening to stand outside on your balcony and listen to the night whispers of the trees and sniff their scent _ pine, eucalyptus and sequoias _ tinged with the faint smell of the sea drifting in from the Atlantic.

Kenneth Bagnell is a Toronto author and travel writer who spends part of each winter in Sarasota.

IF YOU GO

Bussaco can be reached by car, taking the highway north from Lisbon for about 140 miles. Portuguese drivers often race by with little concern for either the posted limits or the road traffic. Care is urged. The hotel phone number is (31) 93 01/2/3. Fax: (31) 93 05 09. Rates vary by season, but in spring 1994 the cost per double room per night was roughly $230 including breakfast.

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