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UNESCO World Heritage Site - Alcobaca


This imposing monument dominates Alcobaça, a small town situated roughly 100 km to the North of Lisbon in a fertile agricultural region dotted here and there with gentle hills. Two rivers, the Alcoa and the Baça, (a tributary of the Alcoa runs through the monastery's kitchen) gave the town its name of Alcobaca.

Is one of the few European monuments that has managed to preserve intact an entire group of mediaeval buildings and its church is the largest early Gothic construction in Portugal. The history of its foundation in 1153 recounted in the eighteenth century azulejo panels that line the walls of the Sala dos Reis (Kings' Hall). As we ''read'' the story of these panels, we learn that D. Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal, promised St. Bernard his lands in Alcobaca if he managed to capture Santarem from the Moors, which did in fact happen in 1147. The statues of the Kings of Portugal - from D. Afonso Henriques to D. Jose I (in the eighteenth century) - stand on baroque consoles around the walls of the room. In the centre is a cauldron that is said, according to legend, to have been taken from the Castilians at the Battle of Aljubarrota.

The building of the monastery began in 1178, as did the building of the abbey of Clairvaux, the headquarters of the Cistercian Order in France. Alcobaca is thus connected to the great civilising project that the white- habited monks began there: the public school, which was begun in 1269, and the use of the land for farming purposes, providing a genuine agricultural training ground, the fruits of which are still visible today.

The monastery's sturdy looking facade is an eighteenth century reconstruction in the Baroque style. All that remains from the original Gothic front is the main doorway. Above this is a narrow Renaissance balcony added in the sixteenth century, which supports the statues of the four cardinal virtues - Fortitude, Justice, Prudence and Temperance.

On each side of the doorway are two statues, one of St. Benedict and the other of St. Bernard, standing on consoles and covered with profusely carved canopies. These lend a certain lightness to the building, contrasting with the heaviness of the baroque decoration of the facade and bell towers. The feeling that the visitor gains from looking at the monastery's exterior is one of an imposing grandeur that has been gradually added on by time and other ideals and contradicts the profound simplicity that marked the rules of the Cistercian Order.

This is quite different from the emotions that you will feel on entering the church. Here, the huge space, devoid of any ornamentation, will envelop you in a feeling of spirituality. Notice how the columns and pilasters have been cut away at a certain height, a feature which is typical of Cistercian churches, allowing the three choirs - the monks, the sick and the lay brethren - to occupy the nave more comfortably. In the spacious north transept is the extremely beautiful and profusely carved tomb of Ines de Castro, on which lies the reclining figure of the dead Queen.


UNESCO World Heritage Site - Alcobaca
This is matched in the south transept by the tomb of her beloved, D. Pedro I. The rose at the head of the tomb tells the story of the love that this king bore for Ines de Castro, a young and beautiful lady-in-waiting to his wife. D. Pedro and D. Ines had several children and these represented a threat to the independence of the Portuguese crown, since the only son of Pedro and Constanza, who was the legitimate heir to the throne, was of frail health. D. Pedro's king and father, Afonso IV, therefore ordered Ines to be killed and his son would later wreak the cruelest of vengeance upon her murderers.

To the right of the tomb is a chapel-altar which houses a beautiful terra-cotta tableau, made in the seventeenth century by the monks of Alcobaca and depicting the death of St. Bernard. On the opposite side is the royal pantheon, built in the eighteenth century and housing the tombs of a number of queens and princes from the first dynasty.

The chancel is surrounded by an elegant ambulatory with nine chapels. The tenth of these is now the entrance to the sacristy, which is reached through a beautiful door framed with Manueline-Renaissance motifs carved into the stone and attributed to the sculptor Joao de Castilho. Rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake, the sacristy ends in an octagonal chapel-reliquary, containing numerous relics from the baroque period in Alcobaca.

Returning to the nave, there is a door on the left, which the monks used to enter the cloister that is named D. Dinis. The beautiful garden of the cloister is surrounded by four galleries supported by Romanesque-Gothic arches surmounted by tracery circles, each one with a different pattern. The second storey was built in the reign of D. Manuel I in the sixteenth century.

The first gallery in the Cloister of D. Dinis contains the door to the Chapter House. After this comes the parlour, one of the few rooms in the monastery where the monks could talk, which led to the large mediaeval dormitory and the cells of the Abbot and Prior. The next room, also known as the Monk's Room, was used in the last few centuries as the monastic storeroom and wine cellar. This space provided access to the huge eighteenth century kitchen, into which the river had been diverted.

Returning once more to the cloister, you will find the Renaissance Lavabo that served the spacious Refectory, itself a magnificent example of architectural planning, whose most distinctive feature is the staircase leading to the pulpit.

From the square in front of the monastery, off which lead three staircases decorated with original baroque pinnacles, there is a view of the old castle, that vigilant and watchful sentry that stood guard over the immense estates of the monastery of Alcobaca.

Text provided by the Portuguese Tourist Office

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