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.