Probably, you have often seen toy home decorations such as tiny fountains. Each one has its plot: a little bit of mountains, a little bit of bushes, a tiny home or a mill with a small waterfall, or something similar. They are like bonsai, and they have one thing in common: they all seem to be from a fairytale. Maybe this is one of the reasons why we love them. Which of you did not love to listen to fairytales in your childhood? Please, raise your hand. Not one hand. I knew it.
These small home fountains are part of our childhood. Now, imagine such a home decoration in full size, like a real house. That is the concept of the Convent of the Capuchos in Sintra, Portugal, or Convento de Santa Cruz da Serra da Sintra.
One more digression. Some people just live in their house because they must live somewhere, but others want to live in unusual houses: on the water, on a tree, on a ship, or underground. The last houses are called troll houses. Once again, these houses are from fairytales, from childhood. It seems, a few Capuchins who came to Sintra from the Convent of Arrábida to build a monastery, were fond of troll houses, because that is precisely what they have built—a house of trolls for several persons.
OK, OK, I hear you saying that they were economical and strict in funds. Maybe, but it is a boring version, so let me to continue.
Earlier, coming up to any monastery, we saw its size from a distance. Every time, it was an enormous construction clearly distinguished from the surrounding nature. Quite another matter is the Convent of the Capuchos. You know you are in the monastery only when you are already in the monastery, and that picturesque shaft of mossy boulders you just passed was a fence.
The convent is fully integrated into the surrounding vegetation. A moment ago, you were walking through the forest and saw the stones overgrown by moss, and—oops: you have found yourself in the middle of the monastery’s inner yard in front of a tiny fountain similar to those from a home goods store. But this toy is very old. Capuchins came here in the 16th century to live in poverty and isolation.
The only handmade decoration used in the living area of the convent was of cork, the traditional material for this part of Portugal. Monks decorated doors, jambs, shutters, and benches with it, so the second name of the monastery is “Cork Convent.” A convent must be poor, and this one is poor to no end. It was visited by some kings, and one of them said that he adored two things in his kingdom: El Escorial [the king’s residence in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial] for being so rich, and the Convent of the Holy Cross for being so poor.
Inside the living space, all made for trolls (if you remember, trolls were not tall), all the things are very small: passages, cells, kitchen, chapels, windows, doors…. The ceiling is also very low. Usually, eight monks lived in the monastery, and I am sure they managed to co-habit easily in spite of the cramped quarters.
There was one more advantage to living in poverty: for the first time for its 450-year history, the Convent of the Capuchos was robbed in the 1920s. Robbers stole the images of Santo António and São Francisco, and two candelabras. Although, wait a minute, there was one more case of robbery of the convent, in the 19th century, when Portugal disbanded all the monasteries. At that time, the convent’s library was lost forever.
After visiting the Convento de Santa Cruz da Serra da Sintra, I had a desire to pack it carefully to take with me and unpack at home, for example, in a winter garden to enjoy this work of art every day.
To get to the Capuchos Convent we took a taxi in Sintra (€10 in 2014), and in 15 minutes, we were near the entrance to the nature park, buying tickets. Since it was January, we met only two guards at the entrance and one salesgirl in the souvenir shop during the whole excursion. Thus, we had the rare opportunity to explore this tiny miracle in solitude. However, if you come here in the high season, in summer, be ready to soak up the atmosphere of poverty and isolation in the narrow passages of the convent in the company of 50 other explorers.
After the visit, we left the park and waited for a bus. It was raining. After 30 minutes, I asked a guard, will a bus arrive at all? Yes, it will arrive, but the exact time is unknown; about once an hour. When a pretty red bus stopped in front of us, we were very cold, wet, and glad to see it. Tickets cost €30 for two (?!)
It was the tourist bus which traveled a circuit, stopping near every attraction around Sintra. The ticket is valid 24 hours from the validation moment. It is very comfortable for those wanting to visit several (or all of the 14) attractions of Sintra, but not for us who wanted only one thing: to return to our Lawrence’s Hotel with its hot cozy fireplace.
The take-home message: If you want to visit only one place, castle, or palace around Sintra, and you don’t have a car:
- take a taxi in the center of Sintra and ask a driver to wait to drive you back (the more expensive choice);
- take a taxi in the center of Sintra and ask a driver to pick you up, for example, after two hours (or take his mobile number to call him when you are ready). This is the cheaper choice.
The cheapest and healthiest way of returning is hiking. It is about eight kilometers from the convent to Sintra along the wonderful, fairytale forest with unique trees and fresh air. However, be careful, there is no footpath, only an automobile road.
The Convent of the Capuchos is open from 9.30 a.m. till 20.00 p.m.
Ticket for adults (18–64 years): 6,50 Euros
Ticket for youths (6–17 years): 5 Euros
Ticket for seniors (over 65 years): 5,50 Euros