The Convent of the Capuchos is one of the least visited monuments in the Cultural Landscape of Sintra, perhaps due to the fact that it’s not served by public transportation. But if you’re like me and you prefer to discover places with few people, then you really need to explore this former Franciscan convent!
Built with low environmental impact and in perfect harmony with the green landscape that surrounds it, the Convent of the Capuchos is the ideal place for outdoor lovers. And it’s incredible to think that in this same historic town, you can visit sumptuous palaces and then buildings like this one, which seems to have been sculpted by Mother Nature!
So, do you want to know How To Visit The Convent Of The Capuchos In 2023? Keep reading!
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- Brief History of the Convent of the Capuchos
- How to Get to the Convent of the Capuchos
- What to See at the Convent of the Capuchos
- More Posts about Portugal
- More Posts about Religious Temples
- More Posts about World Heritage
- What Photography Gear Do I Use?
Brief History of the Convent of the Capuchos
The Convent of the Holy Cross (better known as the Convent of the Capuchos or “Cork Convent”) was founded in 1560, at the request of D. Álvaro de Castro (State Councilor to King Sebastião). But the desire to build a humble temple dedicated to the reflection and observation of Nature already came from his father (D. João de Castro, 13th Governor and 4th Viceroy of the Portuguese State of India), who died before being able to fulfill this dream.
The convent house was built according to the ideals and principles of the Order of Friars Minor, which had been created by Saint Francis of Assisi and defended the simplicity of the way of life and total devotion to spirituality. Therefore, the materials used in the construction were reduced to those existing in the Sintra Mountains, namely granite and cork (hence its alternative nickname).
For almost three centuries, the Convent of the Capuchos was inhabited by a community of just eight Franciscan friars, one of whom was the famous Friar Honorius. Now, legend has it that this friar lived his last decades of life isolated in a cave, a place behind the convent and which nowadays is called “Cave of Friar Honorius”!
However, everything changed with the extinction of the Religious Orders in Portugal, in 1834. Like other convents and monasteries, the Convent of the Capuchos was left in disrepair, until it was bought by Sir Francis Cook (the founder of the Palace of Monserrate, also in Sintra), in 1873.
In 1949, the monument was acquired by the Portuguese State, already in an advanced state of degradation. At that time, some intervention works were carried out, although the real conservation, restoration, and requalification project only started in 2013, under the responsibility of Parques de Sintra.
Did you know that the Convent of the Capuchos was part of Portugal’s fourth set of inscriptions on the UNESCO World Heritage List? This 19th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in Berlin (Germany), between December 4th and 9th, 1995.
However, the Cultural Landscape of Sintra includes many other UNESCO World Heritage Sites besides the Convent of the Capuchos, such as the Chalet of the Countess of Edla, the Moorish Castle, the National Palace of Pena, the National Palace of Sintra, the Palace of Monserrate, the Quinta da Regaleira, and the Villa Sassetti, among others.
Nowadays, Portugal is the ninth country in Europe and the eighteenth country in the world with the most UNESCO sites, tied with Poland. It has seventeen heritage assets (both cultural and natural) inscribed on the world list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
In the meantime, I’ve already had the opportunity to visit fourteen of them:
- Alto Douro Wine Region (2001)
- Convent of Christ in Tomar (1983)
- Cultural Landscape of Sintra (1995) – Chalet of the Countess of Edla, Convent of the Capuchos, Moorish Castle, National Palace of Pena, National Palace of Sintra, Palace of Monserrate, Quinta da Regaleira, Villa Sassetti
- Garrison Border Town of Elvas and its Fortifications (2012)
- Historic Center of Évora (1986)
- Historic Center of Guimarães (2001)
- Historic Center of Porto, Luiz I Bridge, and Monastery of Serra do Pilar (1996)
- Monastery of Alcobaça (1989)
- Monastery of Batalha (1983)
- Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém in Lisbon (1983)
- Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley (1998, 2010)
- Royal Building of Mafra – Palace, Basilica, Convent, Cerco Garden, and Hunting Park (Tapada) (2019)
- Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Monte in Braga (2019)
- University of Coimbra – Alta and Sofia (2012)
How to Get to the Convent of the Capuchos
Okay, first of all, I have to be honest. Unlike all the other monuments I visited in Sintra, the Convent of the Capuchos is (by far) the most difficult in terms of access. Not only do you necessarily need a car (or taxi), but the convent is far from the historic center (almost 20 km) and the route is quite bumpy (after all, we’re talking about a mountain road).
So, to avoid detours, delays, or frustrations, plan your itinerary well before you start your trip. The Convent of the Capuchos was my last stop in Sintra and I ended up getting lost twice (even with GPS), having been forced to take an unnecessary tour through Cascais!
Opening Hours & Ticket Prices
The Convent of the Capuchos is open every day, from 9 am to 6 pm, being that the last entry is at 5 pm. As for tickets, they cost €7 (from 18 to 64 years old) or €5.5 (from 6 to 17 years old, and for over 65s). There’s also a family ticket (for two adults and two children) for €22.
TIP: If you already know the day and time you want to visit the Convent of the Capuchos (and/or if you want to visit more than one monument in Sintra), I recommend that you buy the entrances through the Parques de Sintra online ticket office. This way, you have access to an automatic 5% discount!
What to See at the Convent of the Capuchos
Courtyard of the Crosses
The first place of interest in this virtual visit to the Convent of the Capuchos is called Courtyard of the Crosses, a wide square that gives access to the convent house. It’s a few meters from the entrance to the venue (where the ticket office is located) and, along the way, you’ll pass by the Shop, Cafeteria, and Toilets.
The Courtyard of the Crosses owes its name to the three crosses that were installed in this place, alluding to Golgotha (or Calvary, the hill where Jesus Christ was crucified). From here, pilgrims had to choose one of two paths, marked by the two smaller crosses. Afterward, they arrived at the Boulder Gate and rang the bell, asking for permission to enter the convent.
The Fountain Courtyard is preceded by another square: the Courtyard of the Bell. And both were named after the only decorative element in the place: a stone fountain (in the first photograph) and a bell (the one in the Boulder Gate, which served to call the Guardian Friar, the doorman).
All pilgrims and other religious visitors who arrived at the Convent of the Capuchos were received at the Fountain Courtyard. As part of their welcoming, there was always a small snack distributed between the two stone tables (also in the first photo) and, of course, fresh water from the fountain itself.
After catching their breath and recovering their energy, pilgrims and guests headed to the Porch. And, as you can see, the covered entrance of the Convent of the Capuchos is one of the first spaces that denounces the abundant presence of granite and cork in its structures and finishings.
Other elements that clearly show the philosophy of life of these Franciscan friars are the absence of ostensible decoration and the cross in the background, made of wood and nothing else. From left to right, the Porch led to different spaces: the Church, the Vestibule, the Herbarium (the laboratory for medicinal plants), and the Chapel of the Passion of Christ.
Chapel of the Passion of Christ
The Chapel of the Passion of Christ is a tiny space, located to the right of the Porch. In fact, inside this small Catholic temple, there’s almost only space for the small niche carved into the wall!
Although not part of the initial construction project, the Chapel of the Passion of Christ is one of the most beautiful spots in the Convent of the Capuchos.
It was conceived in the 18th century, as can be seen from its blue and white tile covering, so characteristic of this architectural period in Portugal.
According to historical records, the altar niche (which you see in the photo) housed an image of the Lord of the Steps. And the decorative panels on the walls depict episodes of the Passion of Christ (hence the name).
The Church is, curiously, the only place in the Convent of the Capuchos where you can see some opulence. But this is because the altarpiece in polychrome marble was offered by D. Álvaro de Castro.
At that time, this was a common way for patrons to assert their power and wealth with the Church, the People, and the rest of the Nobility.
In this case, the Castro family also insisted on adding their coat of arms above the plaque evoking the foundation of the convent, both of which are made of marble.
Another curious detail is the wooden balustrade, which separated the “profane” from the “sacred”. In the latter, only the friars could enter, as they were the only ones who had refused the mundane pleasures!
The Choir is the stop that follows this itinerary through the interior of the Convent of the Capuchos.
With benches, shutters, and other finishings made of cork, it was a very welcoming space – at least when compared to other rooms of this monument!
During masses and other religious celebrations, the Choir welcomed the Franciscan friars, who sang liturgical songs while one or two of them led the ceremony.
Occasionally, it was used as a Sacristy, in order to receive visits from more distinguished figures. These could be members of the Royal Family (including the King himself) or relatives of D. Álvaro de Castro.
The Vestibule is the second door you see on the left when you’re on the Porch. It’s possible that, during your visit, you’ll leave this place for last (if you continue through the Choir, you’ll arrive at the Dormitory and the common spaces of the convent), but I decided to include it here because of its function.
This is because the Vestibule was, basically, the gateway to the Convent of the Capuchos. In fact, this same entrance was nicknamed the “Door of Death”, as it represented the act of “dying in a material world, to be reborn in a spiritual world”! And to reinforce this Franciscan philosophy, symbols were carved above this door, including two crosses (one on each side) and a skull over two crossed bones.
Dormitory (or Corridor of the Cells)
The Dormitory of the Convent of the Capuchos is a long and narrow corridor, composed of eight cells (one for each of the Franciscan friars who resided in this conventual house).
You may not be able to tell from the picture, but these cells have a really low entrance. And the reason is simple: to access their rooms, the friars were forced to kneel. Thus, they reinforced their vow of humility and obedience to God every day.
Inside each cell, furniture was equally sparse and poor. The Franciscan friars didn’t even have beds, as they slept on a straw mat or board made of cork on the floor!
If you go through the Dormitory (or Corridor of the Cells) and turn left, you’ll enter the Washroom, the sanitary facilities of the Convent of the Capuchos. This is not only one of the largest divisions of the monument but also one of the few with direct access to the outside!
The Washroom is modest, but it had the minimum conditions necessary for the personal hygiene of the friars: latrines (in the left photo), a cistern, and a water tank (both in the right photo). In addition, the Convent of the Capcuhos was supplied by a water channel almost half a kilometer long, coming from a mine located in the Sintra Mountains.
The Kitchen (and, by the way, the Refectory) are the two entrances on the right, coming from the Dormitory (or Corridor of the Cells).
Of considerable dimensions, it’s likely that the Kitchen was not this big when it was built. And its expansion may have to do with the fact that these Franciscan friars received many pilgrims, not to mention the poorest population of Sintra, who came here to ask for food.
However, the friars ate almost only vegetables and fruits, which were planted in the convent’s vegetable garden. Other food considered more “extravagant” (such as eggs, cheese, olive oil, or wine) was donated by kings or nobles, and the friars always insisted on sharing them with the people.
The Refectory is a hall adjacent to the Kitchen, where a huge stone slab stands out in the center.
As far as is known, this slab was offered by Cardinal-King Henrique (1578-1580) to the Franciscan friars of the Convent of the Capuchos, to serve as a dinner table.
As I mentioned earlier, the eight residents of this convent house didn’t have access to a wide variety of food, only those they could grow in their vegetable garden or those that were donated to them.
Even so, they had this large stone “table”, where they shared a few moments of conviviality.
The Chapter House is one of the most important rooms in the Convent of the Capuchos, as it was used as a meeting place for the Franciscan community.
However, its name isn’t exclusive to this conventual house. The “Chapter House” was an existing space in many convents and monasteries, such as the Monastery of Alcobaça, the Monastery of Batalha, or the Monastery of Tibães (in Braga).
It’s also important to mention the small niche excavated in the wall, which housed an image of Our Lady of Sorrows. And underneath, a panel of blue, white, and yellow tiles, probably from the 18th century (like those in the Chapel of the Passion of Christ) has survived to this day.
A curious detail that I haven’t even mentioned about the Convent of the Capuchos is the fact that its interior is so “labyrinthic”. It’s very easy to get lost with so many corridors, rooms, and stairs, so be careful!
I discovered the Penitential Cell almost by accident, but I confess that I didn’t have the courage to enter. And why is that? Because it’s a dark cell, without any windows or lights!
At that time, the friars frequented it to meditate. Today, it’s just a creepy place for those with claustrophobia or nyctophobia!
The next places of interest in this guide are outside, even though there are more interior divisions: several cells for visitors, the Library, and the Infirmaries (with cells for patients and a pharmacy)!
The Cloister was my favorite spot in the Convent of the Capuchos, perhaps because it’s so photogenic! It’s a large courtyard (albeit intimate) of the convent house, where the dense vegetation of the Sintra Mountains proliferates. And dozens of these plants provided the ingredients needed for the preparation of medicinal herbs in the nearby Herbolary!
To get to the Cloisters faster, you can exit through the door next to the Chapter House, or go straight through the Vestibule. Once outside, be sure to admire the stone fountain installed in the center of the courtyard, whose water came from the cistern in the Washroom. And from here, you also have wonderful views of the three buildings at the back: the Chapel of Our Lord in Gethsemane, the Barn, and the Bread Oven.
Chapel of Our Lord in Gethsemane
Sometimes called Hermitage of Our Lord in Gethsemane (due to its rustic construction and remote location), the Chapel of Our Lord in Gethsemane is a humble Catholic temple, but nicely decorated. Just as an example, on the main façade are represented two Franciscan friars, whose authorship is attributed to André Reinoso (an artist from the first half of the 17th century, who was considered the first Baroque painter in Portugal).
It seems difficult to decipher the two figures, already quite deteriorated by time, but they are Saint Francis of Assisi (visible by the stigmata on his hands, on the left) and Saint Anthony of Lisbon (or Saint Anthony of Padua, on the right). Inside the chapel, an altar covered in typical Portuguese tiles has survived.
The Barn was one of the last spaces in the Convent of the Capuchos to be restored by Parques de Sintra. The company’s idea now is to transform it into a “mini-museum”, where objects and pieces recovered in the different campaigns of archaeological excavations can be displayed.
According to historical records, this spacious warehouse doesn’t date from the initial construction project of the convent house. Hence, historians believe it was created when donations began to increase.
There’s a small staircase next to it, which takes you directly to the Former Vegetable Garden of the Convent and to the so-called Garden House (the current Interpretation Center of the Convent of the Capuchos).
The eight Franciscan friars of the Convent of the Capuchos kept the cereals they received from donations in the Barn, to later turn them into bread. And that same food was cooked in this Bread Oven, located behind the Chapel of Our Lord in Gethsemane.
The bread was mostly used in masses and other liturgical ceremonies and, of course, was shared with all pilgrims and poor people in the town. If you continue along the path you see in the first photo, you’ll arrive at the famous Cave of Friar Honorius, which is hidden in the middle of the vegetation!
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