Medieval hermits and Franciscan monks certainly picked some attractive spots to settle in Portugal. Clinging to the slopes and carved out of the Arrábida mountains just south of Lisbon, Convento da Arrábida gazes out across green hills, turquoise waters and strips and swirls of white sandy beaches.
As Mike and I wandered around the convent, peering into different cells and communal spaces, I imagined monks doing inner battle with cell envy as the rooms vary in size and the views they offer.
I quite fancied #17 and the one right at the top of the complex next to a water fountain in the oldest part of the complex.
The monastery was founded in 1542 by the Franciscan Friar Martinho of Santa Maria. He was soon joined by Diogo of Lisbon, Francisco Pedraita and St. Peter of Alcántara, all of whom spent the first two years living in cells hewn from the limestone rocks.
From these humble beginnings, the complex gradually expanded down the hillside to form a higgledy piggledy collection of cells, corridors and communal spaces. The monastic community remained here until the 19th century.
Decorative features at Convento da Arrábida
As with many monasteries, the values of simplicity and austerity are evident here, particularly in the creative use of available materials to adorn the shared spaces.
Broken crockery, pebbles and shells were used to pretty up fountains and niches and I particularly like the use of brown and green glass to make trees.
The most striking decorative features are the azulejo panels depicting various celebrated monks in the entrance hall, presumably donated by wealthy patrons. The founding friars are depicted in this corridor but I’m not sure who the skulls belong to.
Since we were roaming freely without a guide, the significance of certain elements remain a mystery. I am left to wonder who the woman in the niche and behind bars might be and why one piece of wood deserves its own niche.
Practicalities for visiting the Arrábida Monastery
The convent is only open to visitors on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and you need to make a reservation well in advance by email.
There was a slight confusion over our booking and we turned up a little earlier than expected but it worked out well for us. We didn’t get to go on a guided tour so the significance of some items remains a mystery and we didn’t find out much about its history. We did, however, enjoy wandering around the little ‘village’ discovering its nooks and crannies.
It may be possible to incorporate include a visit to the convent into a private guided tour of the natural park but otherwise, you’ll need your own vehicle to get there.
You can visit Arrábida if you’re based in Lisbon, on this private tour through one of my trusted partners. They specialize in off the beaten track destinations and offer the opportunity to meet local producers and craftspeople. It you’re interested complete this enquiry form.
For more information, see the foundation’s website.
Tip: Even if you can’t get to see the convent, the Arrábida Natural Park makes a great day trip from Lisbon – more about that in this post.