I only went to São Vicente da Fora monastery because I’d heard it had a good viewpoint.
“It’s the best view of Lisbon,” promised the man on reception, “But before the view, there is all this to see,” he said, waving his hand towards a faded poster showing the highlights of the museum.
At this point, I was still only really interested in the view but set off with an open mind to explore the monastery.
The first thing to impress me was the grande baroque style entrance hall, still doing its job after hundreds of years. Panels of blue and white azulejos painted with full-length portraits of kings adorn the walls. The floor is a mosaic of coloured marble and the low vaulted ceiling is cleverly painted with a 3-D effect that creates an illusion of height.
There’s very little furniture in the entrance hall but this reliquary chest caught my eye. It contains the bones of several 16th century martyrs who were killed trying to spread Christianity in Morocco.
I spent very little time in the religious history section but if anyone’s interested in finding out about the history of the Catholic church in Portugal, there’s plenty of detail and artefacts here. Even though I didn’t linger, I couldn’t help noticing that the full set of priestly robes includes matching socks and booties.
Also worthy of note, in my opinion at least, is the Jesus doll which comes with 25 different outfits.
I passed through the cloisters, stopping occasionally to admire the scenes depicted in the azulejos that line its walls. Everything from rural life to royal events is covered in these paintings, providing a fascinating insight into life in 18th century Portugal.
Moving on, the pantheon holds some rather impressive royal tombs.
One of the highlights for me was the sacristy. Floor to ceiling coloured inlaid marble decorates the walls and the ceiling is a giant oil painting. The two beautiful wooden chests used to hold the vestments and the room served as the priests’ dressing room.
I paid scant attention to the collection of shells housed in a side room and offered a cursory glance at the fragments of cloth and ceramics on display.
Much more interesting is the display of 38 azulejo panels entitled Fábulas (Fables). Each panel illustrates a fable written by the French poet and philosopher Jean de la Fontaine. Originally commissioned in the late 18th century to decorate the monastery cloisters, the panels are now displayed alongside a copy of the original illustrations and the story it represents, in English, French and Portuguese. Here’s an example:
An old man and his children
An old man gathered his children around his deathbed and said, “My children, try to break this bundle of sticks without untying them.” Each of them tried, from the youngest to the oldest, but not one of them was able to break the bundle. Next, the old man untied the bundle and broke each stick individually. A very clever way of getting the message across that they should stick together (pardon the pun).
Once I’d had my fill of moral tales, I did what I originally came here for and climbed the stairs to the rooftop. The day I visited was stormy indeed so the view, whilst impressive, was not as far-reaching or clear as it might be. I battled the wind and grabbed some photos before huge splats of rain forced me back inside.
As you can see, there’s a lot more to the monastery than great views, especially if you like azulejos (hand painted tiles) and marble.
If you come on a Tuesday or Saturday, you could combine your trip with a nosey around the famous Feira da Ladra flea market which takes place behind the church. I’d also recommend going to the nearby National Pantheon for yet more amazing marble, noble tombs and stunning views.
São Vicente da Fora monastery is to the right of the church steps in Largo de São Vicente in Graça. Take tram 28 and get off at the Feira da Ladra (Flea market).
It’s open every day except Monday from 10 am to 6pm with last entry at 5pm.
Entry costs 4 euros with no discounts for Lisbon Card holders.