The Monastery of Alcobaça, formerly known as the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Alcobaça (in Portuguese, Mosteiro de Alcobaça or Real Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça, respectively), was the first major structure in Gothic architecture to be built in Portugal. The works began in the year 1178 and were carried out by the monks of the Order of Cistercians.
The Monastery of Alcobaça is also the resting place of King Pedro I and Inês de Castro, the protagonists of the most famous (and tragic) Portuguese love story. Located in the south and north wings of the Church’s transept, their tombs are true masterpieces of Gothic sculpture!
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- Brief History of the Monastery of Alcobaça
- How to Get to the Monastery of Alcobaça
- What to See at the Monastery of Alcobaça
Brief History of the Monastery of Alcobaça
The history of the Monastery of Alcobaça dates back to the beginnings of Portugal as a sovereign and independent kingdom, ie, in the mid-twelfth century. In reality, it was in 1153 that King Afonso Henriques donated 40,000 hectares of border lands to Bernard of Clairvaux or Saint Bernard (the French abbot who reformed the Order of Cistercians).
Therefore, the Monastery of Alcobaça was established on his territory, in a very fertile valley between the Alcoa and Baça rivers. And as I mentioned earlier, the first stone was laid in 1178 – and in 1223, the Cistercian abbey was already inhabited by monks!
Did you know that the Monastery of Alcobaça was part of Portugal’s third set of inscriptions on the UNESCO World Heritage List? This 13th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in Paris (France), between December 11th and 13th, 1989.
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 Monastery of Alcobaça
The Monastery of Alcobaça is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Portugal, not only for its unique architecture but also for its important historical context. Therefore, it’s only natural that this monument receives almost 100,000 annual visitors and is one of the most frequented cultural spaces in the country!
In my opinion, the best way to visit the Monastery of Alcobaça (and the city of Alcobaça) is on a day trip from Lisbon. And to get there from the Portuguese capital, you have two options: travel by car (about 110 km) or by public transportation (1h45-2h by bus).
However, Alcobaça is also an excellent stop on a road trip through the Leiria district! In that case, I suggest you explore other destinations in the vicinity: Nazaré (15 km), Porto de Mós (19 km), Batalha (20 km), Caldas da Rainha (27 km), Marinha Grande (29 km), Leiria (32 km), or Óbidos (37 km).
Opening Hours & Ticket Prices
The Monastery of Alcobaça is open every day, from 9 am to 6 pm (from October to March) or from 9 am to 7 pm (from April to September), with the last entry taking place at 5:30 pm and 6:30 pm, respectively. The monument closes on January 1st, Easter Sunday, May 1st, August 20th (Saint Bernard’s Day), and December 25th.
As far as tickets are concerned, the Church of Saint Mary of Alcobaça is free to enter. On the other hand, the Monastery of Alcobaça requires entry with a ticket, which costs €6 (normal fare) or €3 (reduced rate for people over 65 and holders of a Student Card or Youth Card), while children up to 12 years old don’t pay admission.
TIP: Like the other monuments and museums managed by the Directorate-General for Cultural Heritage, the Monastery of Alcobaça is free on Sundays until 2 pm, for all residents in Portugal!
What to See at the Monastery of Alcobaça
The Kings’ Hall of the Monastery of Alcobaça (in Portuguese, Sala dos Reis) was named after the polychrome terracotta sculptures that decorate the walls. If you look closely, these are representations of the kings of Portugal – including the allegory to the coronation of King Afonso Henriques, by Pope Alexander III and by São Bernardo!
These statues were created by the so-called “clay monks”, as it’s believed that there were workshops inside the Monastery of Alcobaça itself. Another decorative element worth mentioning in this former hall chapel is the cladding of the walls with 18th-century tile panels, which depict the legend of the monastic foundation.
Cloister of King Dinis or Cloister of Silence
The Cloister of King Dinis or Cloister of Silence (in Portuguese, Claustro de D. Dinis ou Claustro do Silêncio) is the “heart” of the Monastery of Alcobaça, as it gave access to the main common spaces of the monastery: the Refectory, the Kitchen, the Monks’ Hall, the Parlatory, the Chapter House, the Church, and the Dormitory (the latter, situated on the upper floor).
The Cloister of King Dinis was designed by Domingo Domingues at the request of King Dinis – hence the name – and its ground floor was completed in 1311. On the other hand, its upper floor was only added between the years 1505 and 1519, by João de Castilho and Nicolau Pires.
Like other Portuguese monasteries (such as the Monastery of Batalha), the Refectory of the Monastery of Alcobaça (in Portuguese, Refeitório) was preceded by a Basin, where the Cistercian monks performed their ritual of washing their hands before the meal. This richly carved stone fountain is located in the center of the north gallery of the Cloister of King Dinis.
The Refectory is a room with three naves of considerable dimensions, equipped with windows on the north and east walls. And on the west wall, a staircase carved into the wall ends in a stone pulpit, where readings from the sacred texts were given during meals.
A very curious detail of this Refectory that makes the Monastery of Alcobaça a unique monument is an opening in the same wall, just 50 centimeters wide. Legend has it that the “Catches Fat Door” or “Fat Men’s Door” (in Portuguese, “Porta Pega Gordo” or “Porta dos Gordos”) served to prevent obese monks from reaching the Kitchen! But the most obvious explanation is that it was used to transfer meals from the Kitchen to the Refectory (and vice versa), like the modern “passe-plat”.
Although the primitive Kitchen of the Monastery of Alcobaça hasn’t reached the present day, it’s possible to admire this new Kitchen (in Portuguese, Cozinha) from the 18th century. Built on the site of the old Calefactory – the room where the monks warmed themselves – it had an entrance to the Refectory and a staircase leading directly to the Dormitory.
The Kitchen chimney impresses both for its height and for its structure based on eight cast iron columns. As for the running water tank, it was supplied thanks to a complex hydraulic system, designed specifically for the Monastery of Alcobaça.
The Monks’ Hall of the Monastery of Alcobaça (in Portuguese, Sala dos Monges) is a rectangular space that has assumed different functions over the centuries. For example, it served as dormitories for the novices between the end of the 15th century and the end of the 16th century, when they moved to the Novices’ Cloister or Cardinal’s Cloister (hence the name).
After the novitiate was transferred, the Monks’ Hall was transformed into a working room and a living room. And with the completion of the new Kitchen in the second half of the 18th century, it was adapted as a cellar and storage of essential provisions for monastic life.
It’s time to go up to the top floor of the Monastery of Alcobaça to visit the Dormitory (in Portuguese, Dormitório). Directly connected to the High Choir of the Church – which allowed the monks to participate in the liturgical services of morning and evening prayer – this imposing rectangular room had a single individual cell for the abbot, initially.
However, in the 16th and 17th centuries, new dormitories were designed and this space ended up being entirely reformulated. In addition to the apartments of the general abbot, the Royal Archives, the Registry, the Old Manuscript Library, and the Common General Library started to function here.
Novices’ Cloister or Cardinal’s Cloister
The work campaign for the Novices’ Cloister or Cardinal’s Cloister (in Portuguese, Claustro dos Noviços or Claustro do Cardeal) began at the end of the 16th century and lasted until the beginning of the 17th century.
The main objective of this second and new cloister was to house the novices, as they no longer had space in the Monks’ Hall.
The alternative name of Cardinal’s Cloister is a tribute to Cardinal-Prince Henry the Navigator, who became the monastic administrator after the foundation of the Portuguese Autonomous Congregation of the Cistercian Order, in 1567.
Currently, the Novices’ Cloister or Cardinal’s Cloister is converted into a formal garden!
Did you know that the Parlatory (in Portuguese, Parlatório) was the only place in the Monastery of Alcobaça where Cistercian monks could break their vow of silence and speak to their superiors?
This excluded the Church of Saint Mary of Alcobaça and other spaces for prayer, reading of sacred texts, and singing liturgical songs.
The small room was installed between the Monks’ Hall and the Chapter House, at the northeast end of the Cloister of King Dinis or Cloister of Silence.
In the Parlatory, various types of subjects related to the monastic community were discussed and the daily tasks of each monk and novice were distributed!
The Chapter House is a hall present in almost all monasteries, convents, and collegiate churches, where meetings were held between monks, nuns, or canons and their superiors (abbots/abbesses, priors, deans, etc.). In Portugal, some of the most extraordinary chapter houses are found in the Monastery of Batalha, Jerónimos Monastery (in Lisbon), Monastery of Tibães (in Braga), and Convent of the Capuchos (in Sintra).
For that reason, the Chapter House of the Monastery of Alcobaça (in Portuguese, Sala do Capítulo) was the place where the monks listened to the daily reading of a chapter of the monastic rules, voted on relevant issues, and confessed. On the ground, it’s still possible to observe the graves of some abbots.
The Church of Santa Maria de Alcobaça (in Portuguese, Igreja de Santa Maria de Alcobaça) is composed of three naves (one central and two lateral ones) and a transept – besides an ambulatory, which surrounds the Chancel and gives access to the New Sacristy and the Reliquary Chapel. As far as is known, this religious temple was consecrated on October 20th, 1253.
Like other Cistercian abbeys, the Church of Saint Mary of Alcobaça (and the respective monastery) has austere architecture, stripped of decorative elements. Other stylistic characteristics of this religious order are the use of local materials and the predominance of white – in this case, achieved thanks to limestone.
The Church of Saint Mary of Alcobaça is over 100 meters long and has an average width of over 20 meters (the transept is over 50 meters). As for the naves, they reach a height of about 20 meters! In the ambulatory, there are nine radial chapels, while the transept has another four.
Tomb of King Pedro
Pedro I was King of Portugal and the Algarves from 1357 until his death in 1367. And his tomb occupies the center of the south wing of the transept of the Church of Saint Mary of Alcobaça.
In the History of Portugal, the monarch is known for having been the protagonist of a forbidden affair with D. Inês de Castro, one of his wife’s handmaids.
Pedro I and D. Inês de Castro married in secret and had four children (D. Afonso, D. Beatriz, D. João, and D. Dinis).
Interestingly, the legitimation of this marriage and its offspring was only made public on June 12th, 1360, in the Declaration of Cantanhede!
Tomb of Dona Inês de Castro
D. Inês de Castro was a Galician noblewoman, who arrived at the Portuguese court as aia to D. Constança Manuel, the wife of D. Pedro I.
Legend has it that the relationship between D. Pedro I and D. Inês de Castro began shortly after the marriage of the future king of Portugal to D. Constança Manuel.
Due to D. Inês de Castro’s foreign origin, the then King Afonso IV was always against his son’s relationship. He even had D. Inês de Castro exiled in 1344, in Albuquerque Castle (on the border with the Kingdom of Castile)!
After years of conflict with his son, King Afonso IV ordered three of his royal advisers to assassinate D. Inês de Castro in 1355!
Did you know that the Monastery of Alcobaça was the second royal pantheon to be established in Portugal, after the Monastery of Santa Cruz in Coimbra? Apart from the tombs of King Pedro and D. Inês de Castro, the monument is the burial place of the kings Afonso II and Afonso III, and the queens Urraca of Castile and Beatrice of Castile!
Completed in 1782 at the request of Friar Manuel de Mendonça, the Royal Pantheon was the first neo-Gothic work carried out in the country. Nevertheless, a primitive pantheon already existed since the first half of the 13th century. At that time, it was located on the galilee that existed at the entrance to the Church of Saint Mary of Alcobaça – now disappeared.
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