In the centre of Portugal, within 50kms of each other, are three monasteries with World Heritage status. Each has its own historical story and each has its own architectural glory. They are simply not to be missed.
I start with the Convent of Christ, built within the fortified wall of a Templar castle, on top of a hill overlooking the Nabao river and the town of Tomar. Construction began in 1160 and it was not long before the Knights Templar were defending their temple. In 1192 the Almohads attacked and the castle was besieged for 6 days, but not taken.
The design of the Temple, or Charola as it is known, is based on the Temple of the Rock in Jerusalem, Its octagonal sides are decorated with colourful 16th century canvases and 18 wooden sculptures of saints and doctors of the church. Seeing it for the first time was one of those jaw-dropping moments and no photos can really do it justice.
However, there is so much more to the Convent of Christ and it takes me almost two hours to explore the complete complex of 8 cloisters, lengthy dormitories, kitchens, stables and gardens. From the roof terrace of the Claustro Principal I get a good view of the Manueline Chapter House window. It is quite large and very decorative, with sea-faring details of ship’s masts entwined with seaweed, coral, ropes and anchor chains.
The next day, I drive 36kms west to the town of Batalha, which means battle. The battle took place on the 14th August 1385 when the Portuguese Army, commanded by Nun’ Alvares Pereira, defeated the Castillian troops using techniques learnt from the English Hundred Years War. There’s not much to see now of the battlefield at Aljubarrota. An ugly cement Interpretation Centre sits beside a busy main road, surrounded by fields of sheep. Even the Chapel of Sao Jorge has been defiled with graffiti.
Fortunately, most visitors are here to see the Monastery of Batalha which Dom Joao I promised to build if Portugal was victorious in the battle. The result was a church with one of the largest central naves in Portugal, 80m long and 32.5m high. Its gothic structure is simple and dignified, befitting to the Royalty that lies within it. The tomb of Joao I and Queen Filipa shows then lying hand-in-hand and is centrally placed in the Founders Chapel, along with their four sons, who include Henry the Navigator.
The main cloister of the monastery shows off the elegance of the Manueline style with its carved marble arcades, but contrasts drastically with the sombre Chapter House where two young army cadets stand guard over the tomb of the unknown soldier and a perpetual flame.
I have to leave the main monastery and re-enter to see the unfinished chapels. A project started in 1434 by King Duarte but which came to an end when he died in 1438, and was shortly followed by the death of the architect, Master Huguet. The king is entombed there, though he suffers greatly from the elements and the pigeons due to the lack of a roof.
Another 15kms to the south west is the town of Alcobaca where Dom Alfonso Henriques founded an abbey following his capture of Santarem from the moors. Building commenced in 1178 but very little remains of the original construction.
The church is grand and cavernous but the real items of interest are located in the side apses. The tombs of King Pedro I and Ines de Castro lie toe-to-toe. Each figure is supported by six angels and the sides of their tombs illustrate religious scenes and their own sad story.
Young Prince Pedro fell in love with the beautiful Ines de Castro, lady in waiting of his wife. However, his father, King Alfonso IV was not pleased with the match, first exiling Innes and later, on 7th Jan 1355, having here murdered. When Pedro succeeded his father, he had Ines’ body exhumed and ordered the nobility to come and kiss the decomposed hand of his dead “Queen”.
Luckily, there’s plenty more to see in order to distract me from this sad and morbid tale. The Kings’ Hall is lined with azulejo tiles depicting the foundation of the monastery and, standing on mantels, there are 19 larger-than-life clay statues of the Kings of Portugal. The Cloister of Silence features a beautiful washbasin and trees laden with fresh lemons. A food festival is being held over the next few days and so the large open spaces of the Monks Hall and Refectory are cluttered with stalls waiting to be filled with products. In between is the kitchen with its tiled walls, tall chimneys and fresh water tank (very unique features which demonstrate the complexity of the ancient design). The monks probably ate quite well despite their vows of silence and their otherwise seemingly humble lives.