Portugal: Alcobaça

Facade of the Alcobaça complex.

Facade of the Alcobaça complex.

It was a pleasant drive to Alcobaça, a small town with a population of about 16.000. Alcobaça is home to Portugal’s largest church and the church was the main reason we came here. Just to the east of the church and monastery is a large car park with ample space to park your car. It is located on a hill and from this hill you can already see the apse of the church and the flying buttresses that are used to support the weight of the vault of the apse. We walked down the hill and into the Rua Dom Pedro V, named after King Pedro V, who was King of Portugal from 1853 to 1861. Here we found a lovely little pastry shop that sold us some delicious pork and beef pastries.

Alcobaça has always had a strong connection to the Kings and Queens of Portugal. While Pedro V (1853-1861) was one of Portugal’s last kings, it was Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques (1139-1185), who had a church built here that would make the town famous. Afonso had defeated the Moors and conquered their stronghold of Santarém in March of 1147. To commemorate his victory, the king ordered the construction of a church in Alcobaça. Construction began in 1153 and it took several decades before the church was finally completed. In 1178, work began on a monastery for the Cistercian Order of monks. The church of Alcobaça was at that time the largest church in Portugal and – quite amazing – it still is. The entire complex – church and monastery – became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1989. A decision that is entirely justified, for – as the UNESCO website states – “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”.

A closer look at the church

Nave of the church.

The facade of the church is a mix of styles. The portal and rose window were part of the original medieval church and are examples of Gothic architecture. The statues and towers are Portuguese Baroque and were added in the eighteenth century. On both sides of the main entrance are statues of Saints Benedictus and Bernardus. Benedictus of Nursia (480-543) wrote down the Benedictine Rule in the sixth century and Bernardus of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was an important reformer of the Cistercian Order, the order that has been present at the Alcobaça complex since its foundation. Cistercian churches and monasteries are usually quite sober and Alcobaça is no exception. Although the architecture is extraordinarily elegant, do not expect to find much decoration and many works of art inside.

Once inside, the visitor will immediately notice that the church is not very wide: a mere 17 metres. Yet the nave and aisles are each 20 metres high and it is some 106 metres from the main entrance at the front to the far end of the apse at the back. The light is beautiful, but the columns, walls and ceiling are completely undecorated. It is easy to feel tiny once inside the church.

In the transept, we find the tombs of King Pedro I of Portugal (1320-1367) and his mistress Dona Inês de Castro (1325-1355). Pedro was originally married to Castilian noblewoman Constanza Manuel of Villena and Dona Inês was one of her ladies-in-waiting. Although the marriage was consumed and Constanza gave birth to three children, it was Dona Inês who was Pedro’s one true love. When Constanza died in 1345, Pedro’s father, King Afonso IV, banished Dona Inês from his court. Pedro followed his mistress to Coimbra, where they lived happily together until Afonso had Dona Inês murdered in 1355. King Afonso died two years later, leaving the throne to his only surviving son Pedro. Pedro now had his revenge. He had two of the assassins arrested and ordered their hearts to be ripped out (perhaps that is why he is sometimes called Pedro the Cruel). Dona Inês was exhumed and her body was placed on a throne. Pedro then had her crowned as Queen of Portugal and ordered the members of his court to kiss her hand, which would have been in a pretty rotten state by then.

Tomb of Inês de Castro.

Tomb of King Pedro I.

Detail of King Pedro’s tomb.

Is there any truth in this popular story? Even though Pedro had another child by a common woman named Teresa Lourenço in 1357, Dona Inês had always been the love of his life. She had born him four children and they may have been married in secret after she had been banished from the royal court. Whether or not the grisly story about Pedro having his mistress or secret wife exhumed is true or not, the king did provide her with a magnificent final resting place. Both Dona Inês and King Pedro himself some ten years later were placed in beautifully decorated Gothic tombs. The two tombs are facing one another, so that the two lovers will always first see each other when they wake up on Judgment Day. Inês’ tomb is in the northern part of the transept, while Pedro’s tomb can be found to the south.

The tombs are masterpieces of Gothic sculpture. Inês’ tomb is supported by semi-human figures. It shows scenes from the life of Christ. Below her feet is a scene depicting the Last Judgment. The righteous are allowed to pass through the Gates of Heaven on the left, while the condemned descend into the pits of Hell on the right. Pedro’s tomb is supported by six lions. On his tomb are scenes from the lives of Saint Bartholomew, and of Pedro and Inês themselves. Effigies of the lovers are on the lids of the tombs and they are watched over by angels. You may notice that parts of the tombs are damaged. For instance, part of the relief on the right side of Inês’ tomb is gone. This is the regretful result of acts of vandalism perpetrated by French troops in 1810. They looted the monastery and hoped to find precious jewellery inside the tombs. They probably found nothing, but did destroy valuable cultural property.

Tomb of Queen Beatrix of Castile.

Just around the corner in the right part of the transept is the eighteenth century Royal Pantheon, where one can find the tombs of two Queens of Portugal, Urraca (1187-1220) and Beatrix of Castile (1244-1304). They were married to Kings Afonso II (reign: 1212-1223) and III (reign: 1248-1279) respectively, and these are also buried at Alcobaça. Their tombs are near the tomb of King Pedro in the southern part of the transept, in the Chapel of Saint Bernardus. This again demonstrates the close ties of the church and monastery to the early Kings and Queens of Portugal.

Cloisters and monastery

King Afonso III was succeeded by his son Dinis in 1279. King Dinis I would rule Portugal for the next 46 years, an exceptionally long reign for a medieval monarch. Dinis was responsible for adding the Cloister of Silence – Claustro do Silêncio – to the church in the early fourteenth century, replacing a previous cloister that had fallen into disrepair.

Construction started in 1308 under the auspices of the Portuguese architect Domingos Domingues. You can reach the cloister through the Sala dos Reis, the Room of the Kings. This room has clay statues of several of Portugal’s kings, made by the monks in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. The room is decorated with azulejos telling the story of Alcobaça’s history.

Claustro do Silêncio.

A second floor in Manueline style was added to the Claustro do Silêncio in the early sixteenth century. King Manuel I (reign: 1495-1521) was responsible for this project. A second cloister behind the first one was added to Alcobaça in the eighteenth century. Visitors can only admire it from above; we were not allowed to go in there. Other parts of the monastery are accessible to visitors. You can have a look at the chapter house, the refectory, the dormitory and the kitchen with its massive chimney. Keep in mind that the monastery is no longer used as such. All religious orders in Portugal were disbanded in 1834. Alcobaça is nowadays just a tourist attraction, but certainly one to be very proud of.

Second cloister.

Before our visit to Alcobaça, we had already seen a hill to the west of the complex with the ruins of some medieval structure on it. In the town, several signs pointed towards a “castelo” and we assumed this referred to the ruins high up on the hill. Although it was a hot day, we decided to climb the hill. It was very much worth our energy, as we got a wonderful panoramic view of the entire Alcobaça complex.

Panoramic view of the Alcobaça complex.

Panoramic view of the Alcobaça complex.

After admiring the view for several minutes and taking many pictures, we went down again and went to a lovely crêperie for some pancakes and ice-cream.


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