Portugal’s tragic royal lovers

news: Portugal’s tragic royal lovers

AUGUST is a good time to get away for a day and explore more of Portugal. Why not pay a visit to the beautiful, ancient town of Alcobaça? This picturesque and sleepy town, located 130 kilometres north of Lisbon and wedged between Batalha and Leiria, is famous for two things: the magnificent early Gothic monastery and one of the greatest tragic love stories in European history – one that easily rivals that of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

I am, of course, talking about the doomed match between the heir to the Portuguese throne, Dom Pedro – later Peter I 1357-67 – and the unfortunate yet beautiful Castilian lady-in-waiting, Inês de Castro.

All sorts of myths and legends have grown up about the murdered Inês, most of them untrue. For example, there is no evidence that on her assassination by nobles, King Pedro I had her disinterred, crowned and forced all his nobles and the clergy to kiss her skeletal hand! What we do know is that she bore him four children, but his father Afonso IV had her banished from court because she was not of royal blood.

When Pedro’s wife Constance died in 1345, he set up home with Inês in Coimbra and the nobles, who hated the influence her family had on the heir, had her murdered. When Pedro became king, he hunted them down and had them killed. It is said he never got over her death.

You can see the beautiful white marble tombs of both Inês and Pedro in the striking, high vaulted, early Gothic church, which dominates the monastery in the centre of the town.

Unfortunately, the towering stone structure, which resembles a cathedral and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was badly damaged by the marauding French during the Napoleonic wars, who, it is said, were looking for the Holy Grail, which they believed was in Portugal.

The convent, or more accurately the Monastery of Santa Maria d’Alcobaça, has a striking cloister and, for the modest fee of 4.50 euros, you can also tour the medieval kitchens.

It was founded in the 12th century by King Afonso I and its size and purity of its architectural style make this a masterpiece of Cistercian Gothic art. The monastic buildings, which form a square measuring 220 metres across, with its huge, conical chimney rising above them, was founded in 1148 and completed in 1222.

During the Middle Ages, it rivalled the greatest European abbeys in size and wealth and was supplied with water by a tributary of the River Alcoa, which still flows through the kitchen. Its abbot ranked with the highest Portuguese nobles and, according to tradition, 999 monks continued the celebration of mass without intermission throughout the year.

If you still have time, you might want to scale the heights of the old ruined fort above the town, where you will get a breathtaking view of the monastery and town square.

Getting to Alcobaça by car is easy. Take the A8 from Lisbon or the A2 from the Algarve and head north-west. The journey takes around an hour-and-a-half from Lisbon or four hours from the Algarve. Once you arrive, you can easily find the tourism bureau in the town’s main square to the right of the monastic complex. Parking is tricky because of the current extensive road works. There are two reasonably priced hotels – Hotel Santa Maria and the three-star Hotel das Termas da Piedade. You can easily use the town as a base to visit nearby Batalha and Leiria. For more information, call 800 296 296.

By Chris Graeme