Reaching for Heaven

We traveled outside of Nazaré today to see two medieval towns each known for their great monasteries, and the celebration of two great royal marriages.

The town of Batalha is the Portuguese version of Battle in England. It commemorates the 1385 fight in which King João I of Portugal defeated the Spanish forces and sent them running back to Castile. The king built a new church and monastery in thanks. The style is late Gothic with lots of Manueline ornamentation inside. While the church suffered much damage in the 1755 earthquake, it was restored and looks quite complete today.

The inside of the church has a classic Gothic simplicity. Center stage is the Founders’ Chapel with the tomb of João I and his English queen, Philippa. They had an enlightened and harmonious reign, and are holding hands for eternity, surrounded by their sons, among them Prince Henry the Navigator (shown with a church for a hat).

The Royal Cloister is more ornamental, with wonderful stone tracery surrounding the courtyard.

In the monastery’s Chapter Room lies Portugal’s Unknown Soldier, under a mutilated crucifix which accompanied Portuguese soldiers into battle during WWI. The tomb is guarded at all times in this awe-inspiring setting.

Last, we saw the Unfinished Chapel, a room with seven niches for tombs, intended to be the home of more dead royals. However, King Manuel lost interest in the project after Vasco da Gama got back from India, channeling his money into the Jerónimos Monastery in Belém we saw earlier in our trip. But one couple made it into the chapel, King Duarte (1391 – 1438) and his wife, Leonor. They were also lovebirds, and lie hand-in-hand in one of the niches, watching the clouds go by. The setting is lovely, even without a roof. It’s hard to believe that the ornamentation on the doorway is actually carved in stone.

Our next stop was the town of Alcobaça, also famous for its church and monastery, begun in 1178 after a victory over the Moors. While its exterior seems quite Baroque, the church is considered the best Gothic building in Portugal, and it is also the largest church in the country.

The tombs of note here contain Dom Pedro and Inês, a 14th century tragic couple who rest feet to feet, one in each transcept, so that when they rise on Judgement Day, they will be facing each other. Theirs was a great love affair, which was cut short when Inês was beheaded by royal enemies. Dom Pedro got his revenge in a nasty way, and the lovers live on in legend.

The Hall of Kings features terra-cotta statues of most of Portugal’s kings. Some of them retain their color and all of them project lots of kingly bravura.

The cloister of this church is also quite striking. Can’t imagine spending my life here in silence, as the Cistercian monks did, but at least they had a lovely setting. There were up to 999 of them at full capacity, which is why the kitchen is so huge. It could roast seven oxen at once – or one husband. And talk about an island with counter space! I was so jealous.

And for some natural beauty, here is the view of the sunset and the sunrise views from our hotel balcony, both quite heavenly.


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