The Mosteiro de Alcobaça, although empty since its dissolution in 1834, still seems to assert power, magnificence and opulence. And it takes little imagination to people it again with monks, said once to have numbered 999. It was their legendary extravagant and aristocratic lifestyle that formed the common ingredients of the awed anecdotes of eighteenth-century travellers. However, it has to be added that the monks enjoyed a reputation for hospitality, generosity and charity, while the surrounding countryside is to this day one of the most productive areas in Portugal, thanks to their agricultural expertise.
The abbey church
The main abbey church is the largest in Portugal, but external impressions are disappointing, as the Gothic facade has been superseded by unexceptional Baroque additions. Inside, however, all later adornments have been swept away, restoring the narrow soaring aisles to their original simplicity. The only exception to this Gothic purity is the frothy Manueline doorway to the sacristy, hidden directly behind the high altar and encrusted with intricate, swirling motifs of coral and seaweed.
The church’s most precious treasures are the fourteenth-century tombs of Dom Pedro and Dona Inês de Castro, each sculpted with a phenomenal wealth of detail. Animals, heraldic emblems, musicians and biblical scenes are all portrayed in an architectural setting of miniature windows, canopies, domes and towers; most graphic of all is a dragon-shaped Hell’s mouth at Inês’s feet, consuming the damned. The tombs are inscribed with the motto “Até ao Fim do Mundo” (Until the End of the World) and, in accordance with Dom Pedro’s orders, were placed foot to foot so that on the Day of Judgement the pair may rise and immediately feast their eyes on one another.
Sala dos Reis
The ticket desk for the monastery is immediately inside the church, on the left, by the entrance to the Sala dos Reis (Hall of Kings). Here, blue eighteenth-century azulejos depict the siege of Santarém, Dom Afonso’s vow, and the founding of the monastery, while high up are displayed statues of virtually every king of Portugal up until Dom José, who died in 1777. Also on show here is a piece of war booty which must have warmed the souls of the brothers – the huge metal cauldron in which soup was heated up for the Spanish army before the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385.
The cloisters and monastery quarters
From the Sala dos Reis you enter the Claustro do Silencio (Cloister of Silence), notable for its traceried stone windows, built in the reign of Dom Dinis, who established an enduring literary and artistic tradition at the abbey. An upper storey of twisted columns and Manueline arches was added in the sixteenth century, along with a beautiful hexagonal lavabo with Renaissance fountain. This was where the monks washed before entering the refectory, itself provided with a stone pulpit so that the scriptures could be read to the brothers as they ate.
The adjacent kitchen – with its gargantuan conical chimney, supported by eight trunk-like iron columns – puts Alcobaça’s celebrated feasting into perspective. As a practical test for obesity the monks had to file through a narrow door on their way to the refectory; those who failed were forced to fast until they could squeeze through.