We began our short trip around Portugal’s UNESCO world heritage Monastic ensemble of Alcobaca, Tomar and Batalha with a visit to Alcobaca. We parked Buzz in a nice free aire in a park behind a tennis club on the edge of the town centre, having the added bonus of free electric hook-up, something we haven’t had in a while.
The Mosteiro de Alcobaba, Monastery of Alcobaca came into existence due to a vow made by King Alfonso Henriques to Bernard de Clairvaux after his conquest of Santarem in 1147 at the dawn of a new powerful Portugal, the beginning of the eventual removal of the Moors from the country. The monastery was actually founded in 1153 by Cistercian Monks, going on to be the wealthiest and most powerful monastery in Portugal over the next 200 years, with around 1,000 monks and laymen in situ at the height of its powers. The Monastery eventually ceased to be after the dissolution of Portuguese monasteries in 1834.
What does that mean for us? It means we had the opportunity to visit this huge building, we can only wonder at the sheer devotion, hard work and determination that went into building it over the centuries. With its additions, extensions and alterations eventually leaving a legacy for Portugal and indeed the wider world. There are tales of lavish excess and wealthy living enjoyed by the monks as their wealth grew, as well as the tale of illicit love, intrigue, murder and revenge (more of that later).
The Monastery is massive with much of it in a state of disrepair and undergoing renovation, a slow laborious process. However there is plenty for us to visit and enjoy for now. As part of the Monastic triangle we visited the largest of the 3 monasteries/convents first, where the building dominates the small old quarter of Alcobaca and really being the main reason to visit in the first place. There are some nice buildings in the old part of the town with a strong tilt towards the ceramics industry, first established by the monks. Although strolling around the old quarter we were surprised by the number of rotting empty buildings just one street back from the main commercial centre giving that part of the town a sad, forgotten and neglected feel to it. All that said, there were also some really nice areas and buildings.
The monastery itself, at least the bits you can visit at present are impressive. Entering the Abbey Church (free to enter) from a large square with a line of nice cafes and restaurants along one street, you are immediately struck by the size of it and having been in many religious buildings over the last 9 months just how stark the interior is compared to most we have seen. As you walk down the church you come to the tombs of D Pedro and his lover and 2nd wife D Innes de Castro, Pedro being the crown Prince and married, Ines de Castro being his wife’s maid who he fell in love with. After his wife’s death, his father king Alfonso IV ordered him to cease the affair but he married her instead. Alfonso order her to be killed, causing Pedro to revolt. When he succeeded to the throne 2 years later he exacted his revenge on those that carried out the dirty deed and had 2 elaborate tombs made and placed foot to foot so they would be together forever and so they are.
From the church you can visit the remainder of the monastery at a cost of 6euro or 15 which includes entrance to both the Convento de Christo at Tomar and the monastery at Batalha. As you enter the convent you come into the Hall of Kings, lined with decorative tiles and life size ceramic statues of Portugal’s Kings. Although most are a bit careworn you can see how impressive the room would have looked when at its best.
I won’t go into much detail as that will be for you to do should you visit the monastery, I will however mention the kitchen as it is both unusual and very impressive. Being fully tiled when you first walk in it is hard to get the layout as the first thing you see is this huge chimney stood on 8 cast iron column legs stretching up into the building. It is an incredible sight as is the enormous stone preparation table and main sink, there is a second large chimney as well as several additional large sinks. You can imagine dozens of monks fussing around preparing and cooking vast quantities of food for the residents who were renowned for their lavish feasts and numerous visitors who were fed equally well.
Of course the monks with their excessive consumption and lavish lifestyle are long gone but we have the pleasure of seeing just what their endeavour achieved and the kitchen in particular is testament to their generosity to guests and travellers. The sadness is that the monastery was allowed to fall into a bad state, which is now being rectified but it is definitely worth the time and effort to visit if you are in the area.