By Carrie Gress
I've just returned from a brief trip to Portugal. While there, I was given a fantastic tour of a town near Lisbon by a local. Sintra is known for the Royal Pena Palace, a summer residence, hunting grounds, and gardens built by King Ferdinand II in the mid-1800s.
But off the beaten path, tucked up high into the hills is an old and uninhabited Capuchin monastery, known as the Convent of the Holy Cross.
The monastery is nestled literally into the rolling hills, in a remote spot, perched high above the Atlantic coast near the western most point of Portugal (and continental Europe). The monastery is dug into the ground, terraced in accord with the rising slope of the hill.
My traveling companion, Montse Alvarado from EWTN News.
The local landscape is punctuated by enormous boulders that are rounded, free of any jagged edges, worn by time, water, and wind. Seemingly tossed around the hillsides, many of these giant boulders were used in the monastery's construction.
Our guide knew the monastery as a child, before it became a museum with an entrance fee. Over grown and wild, the monastery is the stuff that ignites a child's imagination, providing our guide with days of inexpensive and inspiring entertainment.
A tiny chapel, lit by the sun.
It has the feel of a child's imagination, with chapels and other necessary buildings constructed into the landscape - a courtyard here, a chapel there. It has a "bathroom" and a kitchen, eight small cells with low doors to keep out the heat or the cold; a dining room, a library, and humble chapter room. Some typical blue tile work remains. Seashells have been used in plaster to make crosses, and there are a few statues and frescos of St. Francis. Locally grown cork was used on doors and windows for insulation.
The Dining Room Table
The site was first populated by eight Franciscan monks in 1560. It experienced growth in numbers and in chapels and buildings over the centuries, but was required to close in 1834 when the Portuguese government aggressively eliminated all religious orders in the country.
King Philip I of Portugal said of the monastery in 1581, "Of all my kingdoms, there are two places I estimate especially, El Escorial for being so rich, and the Convent of the Holy Cross for being so poor."
During the 1900s, the site fell into deep disrepair and many of its statues and images were stolen by vandals. In 1995, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is now protected and maintained for visitors.
The Convent of the Holy Cross stands in humble contrast to the many sumptuous sites near by that are also on the World Heritage Site list, but is a great reminder that holiness grows everywhere, limited only by our imaginations.