The Great Monasteries of Portugal’s Heartland
In the heart of Portugal, north of Lisbon lies the Estremadura and Ribatejo regions. The area is known for having historical villages, fertile farmland and of course, castles! But, with such a limited time in the country, we decided to head to the region to visit 3 highly accessible UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the monasteries of Alcobaca, Batalha and Tomar.
At only 100 km north of Lisbon, the town of Alcobaca is an excellent choice for a day trip from Lisbon. The prime reason for our visit was to ooh and ahh at the town’s magnificent gothic monastery, the aptly named Alcobaca Monastery or Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaca. The monastery was commissioned by King Afonso, the first king of Portugal, in 1138AD to commemorate his victory of Santarem from Moorish control. It was completed in 1223AD.
During 17th and 18th centuries, the original Gothic facade was altered such that only the doorway and rose window were part of the original concept. Additionally, at this time, wings were added. Today it holds a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation and is Portugal’s largest gothic church.
Tip: For those that do not want to drive or rent a car, it is possible to get to Alcobaca from Lisbon bus.
Interior of Alcobaca Monastery
Upon entering the church the first thing I noticed were the very large pillars that lined the nave. At 106 m in length and 23 m in width, it is very long.
Tombs of Dom Pedro and Dona Ines
We headed further into the church and then I saw it. The Tombs of Dom Pedro and Dona Ines laying foot to foot. The love story of Dom Pedro and Dona Ines is a tragic one. They were lovers who married in secret as Dom Pedro’s father, who was the ruling king at the time, thought that Ines would not be a good choice politically. In fact, he was so worried about their potential union and it affects on the crown, that he had her assassinated. According to legend, Dom Pedro chose at his time of death for them to be laid in such way so that when they arose in the afterlife they would see each other.
The tombs were every bit as intricately carved as I had read. I could clearly discern the Last Judgement scene at the foot of Ines’ tomb and the Wheel of Fortune at the head of Dom Pedro’s tomb.
Kitchen and Refectory
We finally bid adieu to Dom Pedro and Ines and wandered to the massive kitchen in the Monastery. It’s hard to imagine the need for such a large kitchen. But at its peak, there were almost 1000 monks in the Monastery. No wonder there were seven dormitories and a library on site. Adjacent to the kitchen is the refectory where the monks enjoyed their meals in silence.
Cloister of Silence (Claustro do Silencio)
Next, we headed to the Cloister of Silence. The two story cloister was every bit as beautiful in person as I had previously seen in pictures. We walked among the orange trees in the lower level to get a 360° view of the intricate design. Also, we wandered around the upper level. The Manueline style really stood out as it is quite different from the rest of the Monastery.
The second monastery to visit on our list was in the town Batalha, which is only 3o mins from Alcobaca by car. The Batalha Monastery (Mosterio de Santa Maria da Vitoria) really stands out amongst the modern town of Batalha. It is a Dominican Abbey built over several years in the 1430s in gothic style with strong Manueline accents. Its great architectural value and historical significance led to the building being classified as World Heritage in 1983.
The exterior of Batalha Monastery illustrates why the church took two centuries to be completed. The limestone building, now in an ochre hue due to time, has pinnacles, parapets, and flying buttresses. I could have stared at the intricately carved windows and doorway for hours.
Interior of Batalha Monastery
Surprisingly at first glance, the Monastery of Batalha looked very similar to the Monastery of Alcobaca. Both have vast but narrow naves and rather plain interiors dominated by several large columns. We did arrive in the afternoon though just as the sun was shining through the beautiful stained glass windows. It gave the church a very warm glow we did not see in Alcobaca.
Claustro Real (Royal Cloisters)
The Royal Cloisters were originally gothic designed in Gothic style by Afonso Domingues in the late 1380s. But the Manueline additions by Diogo de Boitac really make the area. And boy, did it ever take our breath away.
It was made even more striking when compared to the very plain Claustro de Dom Afonso V which is also on site.
Capelas Imperfeitas (Unfinished Chapels)
The open-air unfinished Chapels in the eastern end of the Abbey was the last spot we visited in the Monastery of Batalha. To reach the octagonal mausoleum, you must actually exit the Abbey. As with other aspects of this site, it is the Manueline additions, this time by Mateus Fernandes, that truly makes the site extravagant.
The Convent of Christ (Convento do Cristo)
The third and final monastery on our list was in the town of Tomar, which is roughly 40 minutes east of Batalha on highway IC9. Placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1983, the Convento do Cristo is impossible to miss when driving into the small city of Tomar. This Knights Templar headquarters is on a hill and rises above its wooded surroundings.
We started our tour at the Charola. The 16-sided Templar church is sometimes called the Rotunda. Inside was an octagonal altar similar in design to the Holy Sepulchre altar in Jerusalem. Legend has it that the church was circular in design to enable the Knights to attend church while still on horseback. Whatever the reason, it remains one of the most striking altars I have ever seen. It was very ornate with paintings, frescoes, and gilded accents.
Connected to the Charola by an archway is the Manueline Church. The church has two levels. A striking feature is the ornate ribbed vaulting on the ceiling in the upper choir. However, the most popular feature of the church is an ornate window found on the exterior better known as The Manueline window.
The Great Cloister
From the church, we explored the many cloisters within the monastery. The Convento do Cristo had no less than 5 cloisters. The most picturesque was the Great Cloister. Concealed spiral staircases could be found in the corners of the Great Cloister leading to the Terrace of Wax. The terrace was so named as it is where honeycombs were left to dry.
The other 4 cloisters were: 1) Cloister of the Crows; 2) Bread Cloister; 3) Cemetery Cloister; and 4) The Washing Cloister.
At the end of our self-guided tour, we visited the Templar Castle. Built in 1160, the former royal quarters now lay in ruins. But, the castle Keep is still very much intact.
Tips for Visiting the Monasteries of Alcobaca, Batalha and Tomar
For interesting day tour options from Lisbon definitely consider visiting the towns of Alcobaca, Batalha and Tomar to experience 3 architecturally inspiring sites. Although it is possible to visit all three sites in one day, we do not suggest it. Instead, pick two sites and leave the third site for the next day. You can also expand your tour of Portugal’s heartland by also visiting the miraculous area around Fatima and/or the prehistoric fields of dinosaur footprints in Ourem.
After visiting Tomar, on the drive back towards Lisbon, the GPS prompted us to a castle that was nearby. After visiting the castles in Sintra, we definitely wanted to see more of Portugal’s castles. So, we stopped to visit the Castelo de Almourol. The castle is on an island and unfortunately, the last boat to the castle had just made its last run for the day. We later found out that the castle was originally built in the 1st century BC. While the exact origin is uncertain, it has evidence of Romans, Knights Templar, and medieval influences. We were so glad to have stopped by. What a great way to end our day. What are your favorite sites in Portugal?
Having experienced over 20 countries across 4 continents Christina is well versed at travel planning and thrives on sharing that information with others with the hopes of encouraging more families to experience this incredible world that we live in.