The vast Cistercian monastery at ALCOBAÇA was founded in 1153 by the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henrique, to celebrate his decisive victory over the Moors at Santarém six years earlier. Building started soon after and – with royal patronage assured – by the end of the thirteenth century it was the wealthiest and most powerful monastery in the country. Nearly a thousand monks and lay-brothers lived here running a veritable business empire based on market-gardening, farming, fishing, forestry and trading. Notorious tales of the lavish lifestyle at Alcobaça were a staple of the writings of early travellers, who found the monastic excesses shocking and titillating in equal measure. The dissolution of the Portuguese monasteries in 1834 put an end to all this, but the buildings still stand as an extraordinary monument to another age.
A visit to the monastery can comfortably occupy a couple of hours. Alcobaça itself is a small and fairly unremarkable town, though the Rio Baça winds attractively through the few remaining old-town streets. The ruined hilltop castle provides the best overall view of the monastery, while down below in town there’s a large market building (the market is held on Monday) and attractive public gardens.