Alcobaça - Portugal

Located 120 km (about an hour’s drive) due north of Lisbon, the church and adjacent monastery of Alcobaça are the earliest examples of truly Gothic architecture in Portugal.

Founded in 1152, this ancient religious complex took over a hundred years to construct, but the first Cistercian monks (for whom it was built) were able to move in some thirty years prior to its completion.

The impressive Gothic porch is framed by two striking towers and to the left extend the monastery buildings, gleaming white beneath their roof of bright red tiles.

Vast, deep and quite overwhelming in its simplicity, the church’s Cistercian austerity confronts us as we stand on the threshold of the bare, threefold nave, without either an ornament or a side-chapel to distract us.

With its eerie, echoing corridors paved with tombstones, its huge dimension was achieved through supporting the beams on solid pillars and engaged columns, with the cross-ribbed vaulting greatly increasing the overall impression of space.

Still retaining its authenticity, the Monastery of Alcobaça has been spared any major alterations in almost 900 years of existence. And in the words of UNESCO (who declared the building a World Heritage Site in 1989), ‘its size, the purity of its architectural style, the beauty of the materials and the care with which it was built make this a masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art’.

In the north transept, nothing disturbs the sleep of Inês de Castro in her sarcophagus, whose stone is so finely carved that it might be precious metal. Beloved of King Pedro I, she was done to death by order of King Afonso IV, but when Pedro took the throne he inflicted a furious vengeance on those who had carried out the murder and took the corpse of Inês from its tomb to do it honour.

Pedro then had her remains moved here, his favourite monastery, and watched intently as the stonemasons carved a splendid memorial to the woman who became his ‘queen after death’, resting in close proximity to his equally splendid tomb to this day.

Located in the midst of an abundant fruit and wine producing region, the town of Alcobaça (located on the Google map below) is a small, unassuming place set at the confluence of two small rivers – the Alcoa and the Baça – hence its name.

It began as an estate in the 9th century, and remained under Moorish occupation until it was conquered by Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, in his monumental campaign of 1147. He donated the land to the Clairvaux Monks of the Cistercian Order in fulfilment of a vow made to Saint Bernard after the capture of Santarém from the Moors.

Built in a light-coloured stones as delicate as biscuit work, the monastery was once the most powerful church in the kingdom of Portugal, with its abbot ruling over thirteen towns, three ports and two castles.

Its former importance is evident from the size of the kitchen which stands sixty metres high and has a stream running through it (a tributary of the River Alcoa) to provide a constant source of water. Prompted by the huge fireplace capable of roasting half dozen oxen at once, novelist William Beckford described it as the ‘most distinguished temple of gluttony in all Europe’ when he visited in 1794.

Built in the early 14th century, the aptly-named Cloister of Silence is worth seeing for its fine vaulted ceiling supported by a series of graceful columns. And in a chapel off the south transept, don’t miss the tombs of King Afonso II (3rd king of Portugal) and King Afonso III (5th king of Portugal) and their respective queens, Urraca and Brites.