A convent in Alentejo

It is hard to believe that there’s a monastery larger than Lisbon’s Rossio plaza in the middle of Alentejo. Driving on the winding roads of the d’Ossa mountain, we almost lost faith. But we were climbing, and that is always a good omen. Convents often occupy mountain tops so that monks can be closer to heaven.

The first glimpse of the building is easy to miss. The sprawling monastery hides behind 600 hectares of olive trees, pines, oaks, ashes, and oleanders. After a few more twists and turns, we arrived at the Convent of São Paulo.

Marília Nanitas came out to greet us. She works for the foundation that manages the hotel. “Can you tell us the story of this place?” we asked with curiosity.  “I can tell you a good lie, which is better than a half-truth,” she replied teasingly. Then, she lent us a book about the history of the convent. 

What we learned from this tome is that it took centuries to build this monastery. The first edifice was a hermitage erected in the year 315. In 446, an earthquake partially destroyed the structure. When in 715 the Arabs invaded the region, the hermits abandoned the sanctuary.

The second king of Portugal, Sancho I, decided in 1182 to rebuild the hermitage as a monastery. In 1372, Dona Brites, the daughter of King Dom Pedro I and Inês de Castro, donated her lands near the convent to the monks. The royal family provided steady support, financing the glorious collection of cobalt blue tiles installed between 1710 and 1725. 

After the state abolished religious orders in 1834, the convent was disputed for 37 years by two municipalities, Estremoz and Redondo. Before leaving the monastery, the monks protected the tiles with plaster walls. It is thanks to their ingenuity that more than 50,000 tiles have survived to this day.

When the government auctioned the convent and the surrounding lands, Henriqueta Leotte Tavares purchased it with her dowery. It was a dream to own a place like this. But also a burden, a responsibility to history. Over the next two centuries, Henriquetta’s family used their income from agriculture to restore the convent. The first generation built a factory that made tiles to repair the roof. The second generation hired carpenters to rebuild the doors and windows. 

Henrique Lotte Tavares, a chemical engineer, belongs to the third generation. He has no descendants, so he decided to turn the convent into a hotel to preserve it for posterity. Between 1989 and 2009, Henrique oversaw countless renovations.  In 1993, he created a foundation to manage the hotel and continue the restoration work.

How was life in the monastery? The Latin word “silentio” inscribed in the tiles reminded the monks of their vow of silence. There are many fountains, perhaps because the sound of flowing water makes silences feel less awkward. The monks could talk only on their way to lunch or dinner. To make the most out of these convivial moments, the friars walked slowly through the corridor that leads to the dining room, which became known as “passos perdidos” (lost steps).

We too walked slowly on the long corridors of the convent to savor the moments spent in this beautiful place so far from the hurries of modern life, so close to the tranquility of heaven.

The Convento de São Paulo is located at Aldeia da Serra d’Ossa in Redondo, Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

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