Beauty and romance in the Alcobaça Monastery
A visit to the Alcobaça Monastery is a must see on any itinerary in the Centre of Portugal. This National Monument and UNESCO World Heritage Site will make those who like architecture, history or romance definitely fall in love.
The origins of the Alcobaça Monastery
It was Portugal’s first king Dom Afonso Henriques who ordered the construction of the monastery in 1153. Portugal at that time was a fledgling kingdom, still fighting the Moorish occupants and dealing with internal power struggles. After defeating the Moors in Santarém in 1147, Afonso Henriques had the opportunity to offer a significant part of land to the Cistercian order of Bernard of Clairvaux. The deserted but fertile 44,000 hectares of land were perfect for the farming Cistercian monks. For Afonso Henriques it not only meant the colonisation of the area, but also getting a step closer to Rome’s recognition of Portugal as an independent kingdom.
Building the monastery
It took centuries to build the monastery as we know it today. The architectural plan of the abbey in Clairvaux served as an example of the initial building of the church and the monastic wings. The construction started in 1178, but only in 1223 the monks moved from their wooden temporary houses to the newly built monastery. The church was completed in 1252, being the largest of the country at that time. It was also the first wholly Gothic building in Portugal.
In the same century more rooms were added like the Chapter House, the Dormitory, the Monks’ Room and the Refectory. A century later a large cloister was built, by order of King Dinis. Portugal’s golden ages made more additions possible, like the Library, the New Sacristy, the Upper Cloister, the Kings’ Room, the Palace, the Conclusions Room and the Rachadouro Cloister. During the late 17th century and 18th century the Reliquary Chapel, various sculptural works, the Desterro Chapel, the New Kitchen and the Tomb Room were the final additions to the rich and powerful monastery estate.
In 1834 Portugal dissolved all of its monasteries and nationalized the property. From then on the Mosteiro de Alcobaça was used for all kinds of public and private functions. Luckily it is still one of the most notable and best conserved examples of Cistercian architecture.
Highlights for your visit
The first thing you will see when entering the doors is the impressive church. The height, more than twenty meters, and the Cistercian austerity provides for a unique, serene sensation. This church is the largest Gothic religious structure in Portugal.
The tombs of King Pedro and Lady Inês de Castro are another highlight. Not only for the beauty of the very decorative tombs, but also for the love story behind it. You could call this couple the Portuguese Romeo and Juliet.
The Portuguese prince Pedro fell in love with Inês, the lady-in-waiting to his arranged wife Constance. After the death of Constance, Pedro and Inês lived together as a married couple, much to the dislike of his father, king Afonso IV. In 1355, Afonso ordered three men to murder Inês. It led to a civil war between father and son, which was won by Afonso, but he died a year later. After succeeding the throne, Pedro demanded the murdered Inês to be recognised as Queen of Portugal. He ordered the construction of two tombs so he could rest close to Inês, after his own death. The tombs are placed in the Alcobaça monastery, facing each other, so they can look each other in the eyes when rising at the Last Judgement.
The kitchen dates from 1752. Its most impressive feature is the huge chimney, fully covered in glazed tiles, as are all the interior walls. The chimney is supported by eight wrought iron columns. At the back there’s the water basin which held water brought by the canal system, an example of the ingenuity of the Cistercian monks in the field of hydraulic engineering.
In the 17th century the Reliquary Chapel was built into the New Sacristy. It is stunning for its all around Baroque gilded wood carving and the diffused light that enters the octagonal space through a skylight. No less than 89 reliquary sculptures house in niches around the room. The central sculpture is the Virgin Mary, the central figure in the whole Cistercian imagery.
Alcobaça is a small town about 100km north of Lisbon and little over 200km south of Porto. The spacious square in the town centre is the perfect setting for the impressive Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça. It’s a short walk from the big parking area next to the bus station.
The area around Alcobaça is full of impressive monuments. The Batalha monastery, the convent in Tomar and the Sanctuary of Fátima are all nearby.
Get to know all you need about the Alcobaça Monastery on the website.
You can visit the church for free. For the monastery and the sacristy separate tickets need to be bought. It might be interesting to buy a combination ticket for the so called Heritage Route, which gives you a discount for visiting all three monasteries in Alcobaca, Batalha and Tomar.
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