Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Coimbra and Three Old Monasteries

Another town that has filled an important position in Portuguese history is Coimbra. A charming old place it is, built on a hill, the River Mondego flowing at its foot, and the University buildings crowning the summit. Its steep, narrow streets are full of picturesque peasants and of students clad in long black cloaks, of the selfsame pattern as the togas worn by the Romans of old.

This ancient city witnessed the days of the Gothic occupation; saw the Goths supplanted by the Moors, and the Moors by the Christians; was for many years the capital of Portugal; and ever since 1306, when King Diniz founded the University, it has with but short intermission been the seat of learning and culture.

The University buildings are grouped round a large quadrangle, at one side of which is a terrace commanding a view that may well have inspired the ardent souls of poets and scholars. Looking out over the town, the eye wanders up the silvery waters of the Mondego, and round the bends and turns of a beautiful and fertile valley to the blue mountains in the distance.

Monastery at Coimbra


Across the river stands the great white convent of Santa Clara, "once the glory of Coimbra and the cloister of Queens," but now used as a factory. Lower down are the ruins of another convent, in which the Porta de Rosa recalls the pretty legend of the miracle of the roses. St. Elizabeth, the wife of King Diniz, spent all her time and money in ministering to the poor, till at length her husband remonstrated with her and forbade her to continue her good works. The Queen was very unhappy; she was loath to disobey, but her kind heart bled for the hungry women and little children who would look in vain for her coming, and one day she again sallied out with a basketful of bread on her arm. As she was passing through a doorway, who should she meet but the King.

"What have you there?" cried he in anger.

"Roses," faltered the trembling Queen, not daring to tell the truth.

"Let me see them!" thundered the King, lifting the cover of the basket. And lo and behold! to the good St. Elizabeth's joy and wonder, it was full of beautiful roses.

This story is also told of her aunt, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, but I like to think it was true of the sweet Portuguese Queen.

To the right of the old convent lies the Quinta das Lagrimas—the Villa of Tears. The tragic history attached to this is no legend, but records the sad fate of a beautiful woman, Inez de Castro, who was a maid of honour at the Court of Portugal in the middle of the fourteenth century.

Dom Pedro, the King's son, was desperately in love with her; but his father and the nobles deemed her no fit mate for the heir to the throne, and at length, in their hatred, caused her to be foully murdered beside the waters of a deep spring which gushes out of the rock—"The Fountain of Love in the Garden of Tears," as it is called to this day.

Dom Pedro's grief was deep and bitter. He rebelled, and raised an army to fight against his father. Two years later, when the old King died, and Pedro in his turn came to the throne, he made a solemn declaration that he had been privately married to the fair Inez. To punish the haughty courtiers and nobles who had helped to bring about her death, he had her body removed from its grave, crowned, arrayed in royal robes, and placed on the throne. All had to vow fealty to her as to a Queen, kneeling and kissing her hand in homage. Loyal to the last, this most constant of royal lovers is buried in the old cathedral church of Alcobaca, and close by, in another beautifully carved tomb, lies his beloved and long-mourned wife.

The Monastery of Alcobaca was founded by King Alfonso Henriques in 1148, as a thank-offering for the capture of Santarem from the Moors. It grew to be one of the wealthiest in Europe, and the monks—all men of noble birth—ruled with kindly, despotic sway over the tenants and peasants who tilled their broad acres.

Though living in the greatest luxury, and entertaining exalted guests with more than royal splendour, they did not ignore the claims of charity, but dispensed food and clothing to hundreds of poor people at their gates.

The years passed by, war and desecration stripped the abbey of its magnificence, and now that the religious orders have been suppressed in Portugal, and their lands confiscated by the State, the monks and friars are to be seen no more. The church where the French soldiers stabled their horses is once more used for holy service; but only visitors and tourists now frequent the bare and deserted cloisters, and the remaining portion of the vast old building is used as a cavalry barrack.

Some fifteen miles from Alcobaca lies Batalha, another huge deserted monastery, the finest in Portugal, or perhaps in any other European country. The road from Alcobaca leads through vineyards and cultivated fields to the village of Aljubarrota, where in 1385 John the Great gained his famous victory over the Spaniards. The story is still told of a brave baker's wife who sallied forth during the fray armed only with her "oven-peel "—a sort of long wooden shovel—and slew seven Castilian soldiers with this homely weapon.

Farther on we reach a high, narrow ridge, where silvery-grey aloes grow in the sandy soil, and many high, weather-worn stone crosses stand by the way-side.

The road then passes through dark pine-forests, carpeted with heather, and down to the little hamlet of Batalha. In its midst rises the vast old abbey, a perfect dream-abbey of grandeur and beauty, with its glorious west front and its fretted pinnacles and spires. The church inside is severe in character, but the light which streams through the richly coloured windows, stains the grand, simple columns with many hues, and the wealth of carving in the chapels and cloisters is a revelation of grace and lightness in the airy delicacy of its exquisite tracery. If Alcobaca, with its great kitchen and hospitable traditions, carries one's thoughts back to the time when monks made merry there on the best of good cheer, Batalha, on the other hand, conjures up a vision of pious brethren living in sanctity and poverty, the dim aisles of their beautiful church echoing to the sound of holy chant and psalm.

It was Philippa of Lancaster, Portugal's English Queen, who first thought of building this beautiful monastery as a perpetual memorial of the victory of Aljubarrota. She and her husband, John the Great, are buried in the Founders Chapel, their stone figures lying hand in hand, beneath a canopy bearing the joint arms of England and Portugal.

The Convent of Mafra, built by John V. as a thank-offering for the birth of a son, is another great monument of the past. It is some twenty or thirty miles to the north of Lisbon, and is less remarkable for its beauty than for its immense size. Even after gazing at its long facade, and wandering for hours through its endless courts and halls, you find it difficult to realize how huge it is. It is said to contain 2,500 doors and 5,200 windows; it took thirteen years to build—from 1717 to 1730—and at one time as many as 45,000 workmen were employed on it.

Statues and busts adorn the building inside and out. Towers and pavilions rise above the roof, which is crowned by a dome, and the floors, walls and columns are of the most costly materials—rare marbles, porphyry, jasper, and other stones collected from all parts of the kingdom. It comprises a church, a monastery, a palace, and barracks, and cost over 4,000,000. This sum was raised by extra taxation, and put the final touch to the ruin and poverty of the country.

Mafra is no great distance from one portion of the celebrated lines of Torres Vedras, the double range of hills which runs from the town of Alhandra on the Tagus in a north-westerly direction to the sea, and which was fortified and held by Wellington to protect Lisbon from the French.

It was during the gradual retreat of the English and Portuguese army on this strong position that the Battle of Bussaco was fought. Bussaco is a name for English people to be proud of, for it was there that on September 27, 1810, Wellington defeated the French under Massena, "the spoilt child of victory," as Napoleon called him.

The British headquarters were at a little monastery hidden away in the heart of a beautiful forest on the side of a hill, where giant cedars and other trees and plants, collected from every corner of the globe, grew and flourished under the fostering care of the good Carmelite Fathers. Above the wood lies the battlefield, a steep, bare rock-strewn ridge, which was held by the English and their Portuguese allies against the much larger army of Massena. It was a desperate hand-to-hand struggle, beginning at break of day, and both sides fought with the utmost gallantry. At one moment the French actually gained the crest of the hill, but a timely bayonet charge drove them back again, and by midday the battle was over.