Alcobaça is a pleasant town with a jumble of medieval and modern architecture and a largely pedestrianized center, but its main attraction is undoubtedly Portugal’s first monastery, founded here by the country’s first king, Alfonso Henriques, in 1153. Today the magical Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria is UNESCO World Heritage-listed thanks to its peerless Gothic architecture – it was the first public building in Portugal to adopt the Gothic style.
Just to the left of the church doorway, the Hall of Kings is elaborately decorated with azulejo tiles depicting the history of the monastery up until the 18th century plus a cluster of royal statues in various states of repair. The massive Gothic church at the heart of the complex is an ocher-stone fantasia of flying buttresses, ornate roundels, lacy stone carving and statuary topped with two intricate bell towers.
The long wings that flank the church are much simpler in design, as is its barn-like interior, with unadorned pillars, a plain vaulted roof and bare walls. Simple it may be, but the nave is Portugal’s longest, at 330 feet (100 m). The pair of ornate tombs in the transept belong to King Pedro I and his murdered mistress Ines de Castro; other Portuguese monarchs buried here include kings Alfonso II and III, who are laid to rest in the Chapel of St Bernard, dedicated to the patron saint of the Cistercian order.
Access to the monastery from the church is through the vast three-tiered Cloister of Silence, which is planted with orange trees and contains an ancient fountain that once saw duty as washroom to the monks. It is one of three cloisters surrounded by the monks’ sparse refectory, dormitories and kitchens, which are decorated with traditional blue-and-white tiles.
Alcobaça is 80 minutes north of Lisbon up the A8
and N8-5. There is a large car park a 10-minute walk away from the
monastery on the edge of town. A visit can easily be combined with lunch
in one of the delightful fish restaurants at Nazaré, 20 minutes away on
the Atlantic coast.