It’s a rare thing for Harri and I to go off sight-seeing together; however, with the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaça just a twenty-minute drive north we couldn’t resist finding out what all the fuss was about.
We arrived in glorious sunshine and our immediate impression was positive. There’s a surprisingly alpine feel to this ancient city, voted one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal in 2009. A huge free car park keeps Alcobaça relatively free of traffic, which is a huge plus and its concise size means it’s easy to see everything in a few hours.
I have to admit this was another of my ‘love at first sight’ places … I was waxing lyrically about the architecture and scenery from the moment we stepped out of the car and I haven’t stopped since. It was Easter Saturday and, on the road to Alcobaça, we’d passed many of the now-familiar pilgrims walking with their staffs. On the way, we’d briefly wondered if we should have chosen another time to visit, if the city would be heaving with tourists and pilgrims alike, but the car park was barely a quarter full.
For once, we didn’t have a plan or even a tourist map (we rectified this at the end of the day), so we just walked in the general direction of the monastery (believe me, it’s hard to miss). The first building that caught our eye was the elegant pale blue Centro do Bem Infantil. Built between 1891 and 1892 as the family home of a farmer José Pereira da Silva Rino, Chalet Rino, as it was then known, is an example of the romantic residential architecture that makes Alcobaça so unforgettable. This beautiful property was bequeathed to a religious order after the death of its owner and, in 1975, it became a kindergarten, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
We joined a riverside promenade lined with very contrasting sculptures, accompanied by poems, to commemorate the illicit lovers Pedro and Inês. It didn’t take long for us to realise that Alcobaça is a city dedicated to the memory of the tragic couple. I’ll keep it brief but the story goes something like this. As Crown Prince, Pedro I was obliged to marry Constanza; however, after his wedding he fell passionately in love with her lady-in-waiting Inês de Castro. At first, the couple met secretly, but when Constanza died in 1345, they declared their love and lived openly as man and wife together in Coimbra (another Central Portugal city well worth visiting). Their actions did not go down well with Pedro’s father King Afonso IV, who was under constant pressure to put an end to the relationship by the Royal Court. In January 1355, he ordered the murder of Inês. Deranged with sorrow, Pedro led an uprising against his father and, when he became king two years later, he ordered that his lover’s murderers should have their hearts torn out.
Pedro swore the couple had secretly married and demanded that Inês was posthumously recognised as his queen. It all gets a bit macabre and Hammer horror after that. In April 1360, the now King Pedro ordered that Inês’ body be exhumed and that her corpse be crowned. His revenge on the Royal Court? He compelled his courtiers to kneel at his queen’s feet and kiss her decomposed hand. Yuk!
The theme of love and romance – though thankfully not decaying limbs – continues in the riverside Jardim do Amor, where everything is heart-shaped, including a metal sculpture and a wooden pergola. Wooden benches have been designed to encircle the trees and they too boast heart-shaped carvings. In front of the sculpture, two limestone thrones ‘symbolise the immortal love of Pedro and Inês‘.
Even the city’s twin rivers are accorded a charming tale of passion. Legend explains how Baca and Alcoa were madly in love until one day Alcoa was visited by a stranger who dramatically changed his personality and made Alcoa extremely ambitious. He abandoned the heartbroken Baça and her bitter tears formed a river. Hearing of the heartache of his former lover, Alcoa was filled with remorse and returned begging forgiveness. Now it was his tears that fell endlessly, until a second river was created. You’ll find the confluence of these two rivers, the Baça and the Alcoa, at the far end of the Jardim do Amor (after which the river becomes the Alcoa on its 12km journey to the Atlantic Ocean).
All this talk of passion was going to my head. Every corner revealed another aspect of Alcobaça and gave me something else to adore about this city. I can imagine it must get overrun with tourists during the summer months, but in the middle of April it was as perfect as any city can be. There was even a cat colony living below ground where the river once ran.
Having decided to postpone the monastery until after lunch, we headed uphill to the castle ruins. I think it’s far to say that this twelfth century defence is not quite as big an attraction as the monastery itself. This might be because there’s very little left except the thick outer walls, but I suspect the steep climb also plays its part in keeping visitors to a minimum. I think the exertion was well worth the effort, if only for the bird’s eye view of the monastery and city … and the abundance of wild poppies.
By now we’d wandered away from the main tourist area and into the part of the city where people actually live and work. It came as a surprise then, to see how beautifully landscaped the area was with stone pathways and lots of water features. The combination of large shallow pools and cascading water made it feel like we’d inadvertently wandered into an aqua park. It wasn’t clear whether the pools were there to be used by families on hot summer days or whether they were simply decorative. If I’d been impressed with Alcobaça’s historic architecture, then I was equally bowled over by the thought and attention which had gone into creating its modern features.
Having sought recommendations for reasonably priced places to eat in the city, we then ignored everyone’s advice and allowed ourselves to be seduced by magnificent spectacle of the church and monastery. The food prices at these front line establishments seemed reasonable (although lunch menus were considerably pricier than most places in the Algarve); however, we hadn’t factored in the high price of the drinks (these were mysteriously absent from the menu). Thanks to a demanding group on a nearby table, our chicken peri-peri took forever to arrive, by which time we were ready for our second drink. When the bill arrived, we were horrified to learn that half a pint of Portuguese beer (just a bog standard lager) cost 3,50 euros … we’d racked up a bill of 14 euros on beer alone! Note to self: avoid anywhere with a monastery view on our next visit.
I’d read that Alcobaca’s monastery attracts more than 250,000 visitors a year, but apart from several groups of pilgrims the main square was surprisingly quiet on this Easter weekend … and delightfully devoid of traffic. I was surprised to learn this wasn’t always the case. The current traffic-free zone only came about after the authorities recognised the detrimental impact of increasing air pollution on the historic monuments.
The church and monastery occupy the same site and were the first Gothic buildings to be built in Portugal. Established in 1153 by the country’s first king Afonso Henriques, the monastery was one of the most important in Portugal for several centuries and its history is closely entwined with the royal family. (NB The monarchy in Portugal was overthrown in 1910.)
It’s free to enter Igreja da Misericórdia, but six euros each to go into the monastery. With two sets of visitors due in the next month, we decided to postpone our tour of the monastery until our next visit. Whatever your religious beliefs, it’s impossible not to feel awestruck by the vastness of its interior, both in terms of its height (twenty metres) and length (106 metres). After 800 years – construction began in 1178 – it remains the largest church in Portugal.
For me, the highlight of our visit was viewing the intricately carved crypts of Pedro and Inês (yes, those two again). I could hear a guide telling a couple about their tragic story, and wondered how many times a day she must repeat those same sad words.
By the way, if you’re interested in crypts, you don’t need to come to Central Portugal. There are some amazing ones at St Mary’s Priory in Abergavenny.
Eventually, we left the medieval church and rejoined modernity. Armed with our newly acquired map of the city, we followed a second riverside walkway and eventually emerged opposite the brand new Parque Verde de Alcobaça, which opened on World Tree Day in March. This 60,000 square metre site on the banks of the Alcoa River is a brilliant example of how EU investment can transform a landscape for the benefit of everyone. There are walkways, cycle paths, a skate park, playing fields, children’s play areas (with more water features), a cafe, wooded areas (essential in a hot climate) and an amphitheatre for outdoor productions. Public greenhouses with educational facilities are planned, plus an exhibition of archaeological findings discovered during the park’s construction. It was clear the park was already proving extremely popular with local people.
We loved Alcobaça and can’t recommend it highly enough. Just be careful of those monastery-facing restaurants … if you’re thirsty, that is!