– magnificent architecture
Alcobaça’s most striking feature is its magnificent gothic abbey, Portugal’s largest church and a building so important it is one of the country’s seven Unesco World Heritage sites.
Work on the Mosteiro de Santa Maria started in the 12th century when the king, Dom Afonso Henriques, ordered it to be built to give thanks for winning a battle against the Moors at Santarém. It took over 100 years to complete and is now regarded as the finest – and largest – example of Cistercian architecture in Europe.
At its height the abbey was home to close on a thousand monks who had a profound effect on Portuguese culture and agriculture. The area in which they farmed is still one of the most productive in the country thanks to the improvements they introduced. The monks also established Portugal’s first public school and provided much of the money and materials for the establishment of Lisbon university, which later moved to Coimbra.
One of the most memorable parts of the building are the tombs of Dom Pedro and Inês de Castro, two lovers whose story is among the most famous and romantic in Portugal (see below).
The buildings include five cloisters, one of which is the austere and forbidding Cloister of Silence, seven dormitories, a library and a huge kitchen. As well as a fireplace big enough to roast an ox in the monks also had a stream that was diverted to flow through the kitchen and provide both fresh water and fish.
The town itself is quiet with around 15,000 inhabitants. The local economy is mostly agricultural with fruit and pig farms being among the most prominent. There is also a strong crafts tradition and this is a good area to buy pottery, ceramics, woven baskets and embroidered textiles.
The best view of the town and the abbey is from the ruins of Alcobaça castle, once the site of Visigoth defences but now reduced to rubble. From here there are fine views of the town, surrounding hills and the coastline at São Martinho de Porto.
Pedro and Inêz
The story of Dom Pedro and his lover Inêz de Castro is one of Portugal’s most enduring love stories, an episode from history which matches Romeo and Juliet for drama and tragedy.
Dom Pedro was just 16 when he was forced by his father King Afonso IV to marry Constança, the princess of Castile. When his bride finally arrived in Portugal in 1340, Pedro’s love fell not on her but on one of the ladies in waiting, a beautiful blonde girl called Inêz de Castro.
They soon began an affair which scandalised the court and Inêz was sent into exile in a convent in Coimbra. Pedro was undeterred and continued the affair, sending notes into the convent on small wooden boats that he floated down a water duct. When his wife died five years later Pedro moved his lover into a palace where they spent the next ten years together and where their four children were born. His repeated requests for permission to marry her were turned down by his father and the Royal Court, who for political reasons wanted Inêz out of the way.
In 1355, while Pedro was away on a hunting trip, his father authorised her assassination. Three Royal Councillors went to Coimbra, found her beside her a fountain on the estate and decapitated her in front of one of the children. Pedro waited until his father died and he became King to exact his revenge.
Two of the assassins were tracked down and brought to him and he watched as they were killed by having their hearts pulled out of their living bodies. He then ordered the body of Inêz to be exhumed and brought to the Alcobaça Abbey for her posthumous coronation as queen. It is said that members of Court were forced to kiss her decomposed hand
She was laid in a tomb in the abbey and when Pedro died in 1367 he was placed opposite her with their feet towards each other so that when they awoke on judgement day they would be facing each other. On both tombs is the inscription Até ao fim do mundo (until the end of the world).