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. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1989, 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.