08 June, 2018

Convent of the Capuchos (Sintra)

The last wishes of an illustrious noble with a brilliant career in the Orient were to build a Franciscan convent at the very heart of the Sintra hills, in direct contact with nature and in keeping with a philosophy of extreme architectural and decorative simplicity.

The Capuchos Convent, also known as the “Cork Convent”, was founded in 1560 by Dom Álvaro de Castro, a State Councillor to King Sebastião, with the name of Convento de Santa Cruz da Serra de Sintra, and was placed in the hands of Franciscan friars in fulfilment of a vow that he had made to his father, Dom João de Castro, the fourth viceroy of India.

The convent is remarkable for the extreme poverty of its construction and the extensive use of cork in the protection and decoration of its tiny spaces, thus embodying the ideals of the Order of St. Francis of Assisi: the search for spiritual perfection by removing oneself from the world and renouncing the pleasures associated with earthly life. The extremely small convent was built in respect for harmony between the human construction and the pre-existing natural elements: the divine construction. Its rustic appearance and great austerity are indissociable from the surrounding vegetation since the building is completely integrated into the natural environment, to the extent that enormous granite boulders have been incorporated into its construction

For several centuries, the woodland surrounding the building was cared for and maintained by the monks who lived in the convent, so that it survived the gradual deforestation of the Sintra hills. It, therefore, constitutes a remarkable example of the region’s original forest and the composition of its flora can be easily identified by visitors who follow the botanical route that is proposed for their enjoyment. Because of the rarity, state of conservation and size of some of the examples that can be found here, this wood represents a significant natural heritage that urgently needs to be safeguarded.

The convent’s extremely small cells, corridors and doors, the humility that one feels when faced with the intimacy and bare simplicity of the place, the penumbra in which these monks conducted their daily lives and the beautiful views that can be enjoyed from here over the Sintra hills, are unique experiences that have left a profound impression on all those who come here to visit the site.

In 1581, King Filipe I of Portugal (Filipe II of Spain) visited the hermitage, making at that time his famous statement that, in all of his kingdoms, the two places that he most appreciated were El Escorial, because of its wealth, and the Capuchos Convent, because of its poverty:

In all of my kingdoms, there are two things I have that greatly please me, El Escorial because it is so rich and the Convent of Santa Cruz because it is so poor.

The convent was abandoned in 1834, when the liberal regime ordered the suppression of the religious orders, and was subsequently bought, in 1873, by Francis Cook, the first Viscount of Monserrate, and, in 1949, by the Portuguese State.

The Capuchos Convent forms part of the Cultural Landscape of Sintra, classified by UNESCO as World Heritage since 1995.

The Convento dos Capuchos is an austere Franciscan monastery that is set amidst the dense forests and giant granite boulders of the Serra da Sintra National Park. The monastery was constructed to have minimal impact on natural surroundings and this simplistic design was far removed from the opulence and grandeur of Sintra.

Capuchos provided the monks who resided there a quiet and reflective atmosphere and this peaceful ambience awaits visitors who make the effort to travel to this isolated location. Capuchos is far from the common tourist routes but those who know Sintra regard it as one of the best historical monuments of the region.

The Convento dos Capuchos was a harsh and isolated religious monastery that is situated within the Serra de Sintra National Park. The remote location of the religious complex allowed the residents complete segregation from the outside world while providing them with the most meagre comforts. The 8 small monk quarters resemble cells rather than places of meditation or reflection, with stone beds and little protection from the cold winters.

The collection of small chapels, retreats, quarters and kitchens are all connected by narrow cave-like passages while the landscape of giant boulders and dense forest all adds to the sombre atmosphere. The unique monastery of Convento dos Capuchos is a highly recommended attraction of Sintra and is set at odds to the wild extravagance exhibited elsewhere in the region.

The most famous monks who lived in the Convento dos Capuchos was Friar Honório who spent 15 of his years in isolation and penance but lived to the grand age of 100. The complex reached a maximum of occupancy of 8 monks but the entire site was abandoned after religious orders were abolished from Portugal in 1830s.

Hidden in the woods is this bewitchingly hobbit-hole-like convent, which was originally built in 1560 to house friars who lived in incredibly cramped conditions, in tiny cells with low, narrow doors.

It’s often nicknamed the Cork Convent, as its minuscule cells are lined with cork. Visiting here is an Alice in Wonderland experience, as you squeeze through to explore the warren of cells, chapels, kitchen and cavern. The monks lived a simple, touchingly well-ordered life in this idyllic yet spartan place, hiding up until 1834 when it was abandoned after all religious orders were abolished.

You can walk here – the monastery is 7.3km from Sintra-Vila (5.1km from the turn-off to Parque da Pena) along a remote, wooded road. There is no bus connection to the convent.

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