For centuries a centre of study, contemplation and religious doctrine, the Mosteiro de Alcobaça still possesses an overwhelming power that’s also at least partly related to its historic and architectural significance. Founded in the very early years of the Portuguese kingdom, its overall construction took centuries, with major expansions and additions mirroring each notable era of Portuguese imperial might. In particular, Alcobaça stands as the first great early-Gothic building in Portugal – both abbey church and medieval cloister are the largest of their types in the country, while the church is also the burial place of Dom Pedro and Dona Inês de Castro, whose story echoes down through the ages as one of enduring love. The monastery has had multiple uses since Portugal’s religious orders were dissolved in 1834 – from prison and barracks to school and nursing home – and today it’s effectively a museum, owned and run by the state.
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). The monarchs in question are those who ruled Portugal for its first six hundred years, from founder Afonso Henrique to Dom José I, who died in 1777 and under whom the final additions and alterations were made to the monastery. Their statues are all on display, along with vivid eighteenth-century azulejos that tell the story of the founding of the monastery.
Claustro do Silencio
From the Sala dos Reis you enter the heart of the monastery, the Claustro do Silencio (Cloister of Silence), off which are located the wider monastic quarters. It was built in the reign of Dom Dinis (probably finished in around 1311) and is a beautiful space – indeed, it’s one of the largest cloisters in Europe. In the sixteenth century a Manueline upper storey was added by notable architect João de Castilho, giving the medieval Gothic cloister a renewed grace and elegance. There’s also a beautiful hexagonal lavabo with Renaissance fountain, which was where the monks washed before entering the refectory.
Refectory and kitchen
The monks took their meals in the refectory, but the celebrated feasting at Alcobaça came with an attached duty – as they ate, the Scriptures were read to the assembled brothers from the elegant stone pulpit. The medieval kitchen was lost to renovations in the seventeenth century. By the time awed travellers were enjoying monastic hospitality a century later, the food was prepared in the vast, arcaded “new” eighteenth-century kitchen, whose scale still retains the power to impress. An enormous central chimney rests on wrought-iron legs, with water brought into the building via a hydraulic canal system – the size of the water-basin set into the floor gives you an idea of just how much pot-boiling and pan-scrubbing went on here.
Dom Pedro and Dona Inês de Castro
Dom Pedro and Dona Inês de Castro
The two extraordinary, carved, fourteenth-century tombs in the abbey church at Alcobaça shine a light on a doomed medieval romance. Prince Pedro (1320–1367), son of Afonso IV and heir to the Portuguese throne, was married to Constance of Castile, but fell in love with her maid, Inês de Castro (1320–1355), who was from a noble Galician (ie Spanish) family. The two continued an affair, despite the disapproval of the king, who feared a creeping Spanish influence in the Portuguese court. Following Constance’s death in 1345, Afonso IV banished Inês and forbade her marriage to Pedro, but the pair wed in secret in Bragança in the far north of the country. With Inês’s brothers and other Spanish nobles favoured by Pedro, and Afonso in danger of losing control of his court, the king moved to more radical measures, and ordered his daughter-in-law’s murder. She was killed in Coimbra in 1355, sparking a revolt by Pedro against his own father. Afonso died two years later, and when Pedro succeeded to the throne in 1357 he assuaged his grief with the commissioning of two elaborate tombs, which he placed foot to foot in the abbey church – allegedly, so that they could see each other when they rose again. Inês’ corpse was transferred here from Coimbra and ceremonially reinterred – not before, according to gory legend, Pedro placed her rotting body on the throne and insisted the court honour his lost queen by kissing her hand.