If cultural UNESCO sites are your thing, then mainland Portugal has much to offer. Central Portugal offers you three, all within easy reach of each other. The UNESCO sites are the monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha and the Convent of Christ at Tomar. It’s only a one hour drive between them all but you’re likely to be a ruin yourself if you try and see them all in one day. Instead, far better to break it up across a couple of days. I visited them whilst on a road trip around Portugal. Each building costs €6 to visit although you can buy a ticket to see all three for €15.
Whilst you are in the area there are plenty of other things to see as well, so take the time to stop and explore. Why not stop at the medieval walled town of Obidos, the Roman ruins of Conímbriga or the religious pilgrimage site of Fatima?
Church and Monastery
Alcobaça is a town that feels like the only reason it exists is because of the monastery. To be fair it is an impressive monastery. The first king of Portugal, Afonso I, established it in 1153 but it took nearly 100 years to build the church. If you know your architectural forms, which I am far from an expert in, it is predominantly Gothic with additional Baroque features added much later.
The inside of the church is surprisingly bare of decoration, apparently a theme of the Cistercian Order. I’m more familiar with excessive gold leaf, oversized statues and huge paintings frequently found in Catholic churches. In this case, they would detract from the spectacle. The height of the roof (20m) and the length of the church (100m) make it feel immense. A photo really fails to do it justice.
The Cloister of Silence
The monastery cloister is a large open area, filled with orange trees, small hedges and verdant grass lawns. Surrounding it are two storeys of archways, supported by intricately carved columns. Life may have been hard for the monks in the monastery but their surroundings were certainly far better than most commoners could expect.
The Tombs of King Pedro & Inês de Castro
As a reflection of the importance of the church and monastery, there are several royal tombs inside the church. Most notably, those of Pedro I and his mistress Inês de Castro. The latter was assassinated on the orders of Pedro I’s father. This didn’t go down too well with the future king who, when he caught 2 of the assassins, ripped out their hearts in a public execution. Even more grisly, legend has it that when he was crowned king, her body was exhumed and the court forced to swear allegiance to her. You can find an even grislier account of events and more information here.
Somewhere to stay
If you are looking for somewhere to stay in town then the Santa Maria Hotel is a great place to stay. It is across the square from the monastery and so has some fantastic views from the rooms. They also have car parking available.
Somewhere to eat
When it comes to food I had the best meal of my whole trip to Portugal in Alcobaça. You need to check out
Church and Monastery
A 30-minute drive from Alcobaça is the town of Batalha. The monastery here was for Dominican monks as opposed to the Cistercians in Alcobaça. Construction started in 1386, following the Battle of Aljubarota, but was never really completed. The unfinished chapels pay testament to this.
Constructed in a Late Gothic and Manueline style, the monastery shares many similarities with Alcobaça. Both have long, narrow churches, contain royal tombs and have elaborate cloisters. In fact, you’ll find the decoration is far more intricate here in Batalha.
You’ll find the tombs in the Founders Chapel. The dominant one belongs to John I and his English wife, Philippa of Lancaster. It is ornately carved and lies in the centre of the chapel, where coloured light streams through the stained glass windows, dancing across the statues.
If you are interested in the history of European exploration you can also find the tomb of their son, Henry, here. Many years after his death he became known as Henry the Navigator for his role in sponsoring Portuguese expeditions and was a key individual in the Age of Discovery.
The Royal Cloister is an excellent area for quiet contemplation. The open square is filled with tall evergreens, short hedges and grassy lawns. Surrounding these are arcades with graceful arches and sophisticated screens above them.
King Edward started building these chapels for himself and his descendants, but they were never completed. The only tomb belongs to him and his wife. The chapels stand apart from the main building, accessible only from the outside and have no roof. There are carvings on the arches that are intricate and exquisitely detailed combining ropes, trees and many other objects.
Tomar is roughly a 45km drive from Batalha and takes around 40 minutes. Once you get there you will see the Convent of Christ overlooking the town. Whilst it used to be a Roman Catholic convent it has a far more interesting past. Constructed in 1160, for over 150 years it was a stronghold and headquarters for the Knights Templar. In its early days, most residents of Tomar lived within its walls.
The Rotunda or Charola is said to be the oldest part and is believed to be modelled on either the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Dome of the Rock, both in Jerusalem. Externally it is a 16-sided tower, reinforced by buttresses. It has more of the appearance of a castle keep, rather than a church. Inside this, there is a round church that in its centre contains an 8-sided structure, all of them highly decorated.
The convent has eight cloisters built over nearly 200 years. The last to be constructed was the Cloister of John III, pictured below. A walk through them all illustrates how architecture and ornamentation changed over this time. There is a lot less in the way of decorative motifs compared to Batalha and Alcobaça.
Chapter House Window
Make sure you see the window to the Chapter House on your visit. This huge window frame is in the Manueline style. This style is rich in intricate designs with other examples in the portal of Batalha’s Unfinished Chapels and the Tower of Belém in Lisbon.
Other Nearby Sites
As well as the UNESCO sites there are many other interesting and beautiful places that cry out to be visited. Here are three that are easily doable if you are visiting the sites mentioned above. Historically they cover a period of over 2000 years and so offer further insight into Portugal’s historical past.
If you are on the road from Lisbon, 30km south of Alcobaca, I strongly suggest stopping off in Óbidos. I only needed a couple of hours to explore although I suggest you arrive early as it soon fills up with tourists. It is a gorgeous, medieval, walled town with narrow streets, small squares and a castle. There is also an old aqueduct on the way into town that dates back to the 16th Century and
If you’re heading north from central Portugal less than an hours drive you can visit the Roman ruins of Conímbriga. If you’re interested in Roman history they are well worth visiting. It is the largest Roman settlement excavated in Portugal and there are the remains of many old buildings including the baths and forum. Some reconstruction work has also been undertaken to give you an idea of how things may have looked.
Possibly the most attractive part of the site is the House of Fountains. It was only discovered in 1939 and contains some excellent examples of mosaic flooring. The picture below shows Perseus gruesomly decapitating Medusa.
There is an excellent guide to what you can see at the site here.
Around 30 minutes from Batalha, off the road from Tomar, is the town of Fátima. In 1917, three young shepherds were said to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Now, over six million religious pilgrims visit the site every year. If you want to avoid the crowds then don’t go around the 13th of May or October when up to a million people descend on the area. Not liking crowds, and my visit coinciding with May 13th means sadly, I have no photos of the shrines in the town.
Once you’ve finished with Central Portugal there are wonders to see both north and south. I shall post soon about what there is to see and do in both of these beautiful areas.
If you’re heading south to Lisbon then see this post here for more information on the great things you can see and do in Lisbon and Sintra.
Alternatively, if you want to head into Northern Portugal and are looking for inspiration then this post here will give you some ideas for what you can see in and around the Porto and Douro Valley area.