If you’re looking to see what happens when you put monks in charge of education for over 700 years, you might want to pay a visit to Alcobaça, our neighbors 120km to the north. Those monks knew a thing or two about agriculture, shipping, and how to bake their arses off.
Located in the district of Leiria, Alcobaça sits on the shores of two rivers (the Alcoa and the Baça), from which the city derives its name. With its four ports, the city has very good access to the sea, which allows for easy transportation of agricultural produce to the rest of the country. It is a concelho (municipality) with 19 freguesias (parishes) and was originally occupied by Romans and Moors, as one can gather by the names of the adjacent territories (Alpedriz, Alfeizerão, Aljubarrota).
The monastery here is one of the many wonders of Portugal and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1989. The monks of the order of Cister had important social, cultural, and economic roles in Alcobaça, and were central to the development of the city’s farming and agriculture, since the first king of Portugal (D. Afonso Henriques) donated vast territories of fertile soil to them in the 10th century.
Also, the monks founded one of the first schools in the country offering public classes beginning in 1269, covering humanities, logic, and theology, along with innovative agricultural techniques. The monks administered the agricultural classes for almost 700 years, primarily focused on orchard and fruit farm agriculture, as well as wine farming and production. Their knowhow has since evolved to encompass textiles, ceramics, crystal, pottery, wicker, reeds, handkerchiefs, towels, tapestry, and cutlery.
There is a lot to see in the town other than the monastery. Check out the olive oil presses, the windmills, the castle, and the famous tombs of D. Pedro and D. Inês, masterpieces of Portuguese sculpture. Start your trip with a song and a prayer at Igreja da Misericórdia, get a little rosy at the Museum of Wine, and then steam it all out at the termas da Piedade. If you’re still up for a little adventuring, visit the beaches of São Martinho and Nazaré and the sprawling green of the Parque Natural da Serra de Aire e Candeeiros.
Along with architecture and agricultural landmarks, the religious presence also brought a rich pastry tradition, culminating each year with the Mostra Internacional de Doces e Licores Conventuais (International Demonstration of Conventional Sweets and Liqueurs). This show takes place in Alcobaça’s monastery annually from November 17 to 20 and showcases many local and international shops, bakeries, and cooking schools. It features contests for best conventional sweets, liqueurs and jams, with well-known Portuguese chefs serving as the jury.
At the showcase, the cold and austere architecture creates a mysterious ambiance, which typically dissolves in no time by the aromas of various mouth-watering products on display. The bakers and vendors wear typical conventual costumes (no one knows what kind of underwear they have on, however — they’re monks and nuns, people!) and, under the monastery’s high ceilings, take you back in time.
This year, the winners for both first prizes were from two Alcobaça establishments: one was for a kind of cake called Torrão Real from Pastelaria Alcôa and the other was for their traditional cherry liqueur, Ginjinha de Alcobaça. Both are worth sampling if you are in the area.
Before you go, you should keep in mind the traditional Portuguese song from the ’50s written by Silva Tavares and performed by Belo Marques, which could help explain why you might be having difficulty leaving. (No, it’s not because you had too many buttery pastries or chocolate-cup shots of ginjinha.)
“Quem passa por Alcobaça, não passa sem lá voltar
Por mais que tente e que faça, é lembrança que não passa porque não pode passar.”
“Those who pass through Alcobaça don’t come through without coming back,
Try as you might and do, it’s a memory that does not pass, because it can’t leave you.”
What’s Going on in Alcobaça
Confections and cherry liqueur aren’t the only thing happening in Alcobaça. There are plenty of other events to check out throughout the year:
Cistermusica: This is a classic music festival that usually occurs in the summer months.
São Bernardo Fair: Around August 20, over four days, Alcobaça hosts thousands of visitors at an event that focuses on traditional handicrafts, showcasing handmade items, activities, live music, sporting events like cycling, and, of course, the irresistible regional snacks and sweets.
Feira de artesanato, antiguidades e velharias: Every third Sunday of each month, this crafts, antiques, and old-fashioned trade fair takes place at the municipal market.
São Simão Fair: Usually running for three days, this traditional fair honoring São Simão goes back to the reign of D. Manuel I (1495-1521) and is held in the municipal market next to the Paços do Concelho. At this fair, traditional nuts, pastries, and other regional food products are sold alongside locally-made arts and crafts.
Places to Visit in the Alcobaça Municipality
Aljubarrota: This area is geographically important because of the battle that took place against the Castillians on August 14, 1385. It usually hosts a medieval fair in August for local handicrafts, sweets, food, and historically-themed recreation.
Granja de Cister: This farm fair promotes agriculture and produce with the sale of edibles as well as those brightly colored picnic baskets that you secretly want but don’t have (yet).
Beaches: São Martinho and Paredes de Vitória have won a blue flag award for abiding by criteria such as environmental management, education, information, quality of the water and services, and security of visitors and are sought by families and campers alike. For those who seek more quiet and tranquil beaches, the Falca, Gralha, Légua and Vale Furado are a must-see. Of course there are also the more famous beaches that are nearby like Água of Madeiros, Pedra of Ouro and, of course, Nazaré (also with blue flag award).
How to get to Alcobaça from Lisbon
By Car: Take the A8 for 120km (tolls may apply).
Where to stay