Tomar to the edge of Europe

Friday 3rd April 2009, Tomar, Portugal
Yesterday we'd never heard of Tomar, yet today we have spent a fascinating and highly enjoyable day discovering this gem of a town. That's one of the really delightful things about travelling at our own pace. Just sometimes we find something very special completely by chance.

The campsite lies in the countryside about eight kilometres to the north of Tomar. Nearby is a reservoir or barragem, so first we drove to look at it. We passed through a typical Portuguese village along a cobbled street of whitewashed houses with pretty gardens and roses already blooming in the warm spring sunshine. Around the village people were working on their vegetable plots and there were vines, lemons, oranges and olive groves. The surrounding hillsides were clothed with eucalyptus trees while the sunlight sparkled on the surface of the reservoir. Around the water's edge were all sorts of colourful spring flowers. Apart from a few fish leaping, a bird of prey gliding past and lots of lizards we had the place entirely to ourselves.

Barragem near Tomar

Flowers growing at the barragem, Tomar

Tomar is large enough to have a full range of shops and supermarkets and small and intimate enough to be able to walk across the centre of the town in comfort. Above the town stands a huge and impressive, fortified castle, the Convento de Cristo, once the administrative centre of the Knights Templars while beneath lies the picturesque old part of Tomar, laid out on a grid system of cobbled streets and small, interesting shops and buildings. The town has several museums and numerous churches, the most interesting of which flanks one side of the very attractive, 17th century main square, Praça de Republica, the centre of which is dominated by a statue of the first grand master of the order of the Knights Templars, Gualdim Paes (died 1195).

Bridge into the old town, Tomar

Praça de Republica, Tomar

Praça de Republica showing the church of St. John the Baptist, Tomar

Manueline entrance porch to the church of St. John the Baptist, Tomar

Deciding to get the climb out of the way before the day became too hot we struggled up the steep and broken footpath to the fortress. Back in the 9th century, when the Moors had overrun the Iberian Peninsula and the Asturian King Pelayo was just starting the Christian reconquest, there was a Moorish settlement here at Tomar. The Knights Templars were a religious order of crusading monks established in Portugal in the 1160s and here they conducted what amounted to a holy Jihad to free Portugal from the infidel and restore Christianity. The fortress at Tomar became their headquarters. In common with all their churches, this one was round, following the design of that at Jerusalem which the order was originally established to guard.

Circular church of the Nights Templars, Tomar

The Knights Templars met with great success, gradually forcing the Moors right back to the very south of the peninsula. For this they were well rewarded and became powerful landowners, their strength eventually becoming so great that they became a threat to the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms. Banned and persecuted in France and Spain in the early 14th century, in Portugal they were formed into a different order, the Order of Christ, more heavily under the control of the kings, but they kept many of their possessions. They were finally disbanded as recently as the 19th century.

The Infante Henriques, known as Henry the Navigator, was Grand Master of the order from 1417 to 1460 and lived in Tomar for over twenty years. Later Dom Manuel became Grand Master. Under him there was much new building in a late gothic style flamboyantly decorated in an over-exuberant almost baroque manner, known as the Manueline style. The elegant restraint of the Renaissance is out; instead there are carvings of geometric shapes, armillary spheres, ropes, unidentifiable plants and such idiosyncrasies as huge carved buckles holding columns in place!

Manueline window, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Detail in main church built during Manueline period 1510-1515, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Detail of Manueline decoration on main church, showing buckle around pillar, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

On our arrival we walked through the fortress gateway to find ourselves in pretty, peaceful, slightly neglected formal gardens with box hedges and orange and lemon trees. Wisteria hung in mauve swathes from the walls of the ramparts while from the walkway along the top there were excellent views down onto the town and out across the wooded hills of the surrounding countryside.

View from the gardens of the Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Gardens of the Convento de Cristo, Tomar

View over the town of Tomar from the battlements of the fortress

We don't go into every interesting building, exhibition or museum that we see. Travelling constantly our budget wouldn't take it, but this was something we just had to explore. We expected a few courtyards and a round church with cloisters. What we got was a huge complex of at least seven cloisters, most of them two stories high, and the living quarters for the entire order. There were long corridors with cells leading off where the monks would sleep, There was a cloister devoted to lavatories, another for burying the monks and yet another where they washed their habits. There was a huge kitchen complex with storage rooms, council chambers, a refectory, chapels and religious buildings as well as the central, circular church. Many of the rooms and cloisters were lined with old patterned Portuguese tiles. Three hours later we still hadn't finished. We'd climbed up and down so many staircases and walked through so many cloisters we were quite disorientated. Chancing eventually on the exit we left, though there was probably yet more to see.

Laundry cloister built 1426-1453, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Cemetery cloister built when Henty the Navigator was Grand Master, 1420-1460, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Raven's cloister, designed by João de Castilho 1537-1546, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Hostelry cloister, built in 1541-1542, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Portocarreiros chapel, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

New sacristry built in the late 16th century on the site of the former chapterhouse, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Charola, original Romanesque Templar church c.1160, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Pilaster in main church, Tomar

Charola, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Staircase in main cloister, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Refectory, built in 1535-1536, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Knight of the Order of Christ, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

The main cloister of the fortress dates from the 16th century. There is a marked difference in architectural style. Gone is Gothic, gone is Manueline. Here we could believe ourselves in the heart of Italy with its classic Renaissance architecture.

Main cloister built by João de Castilho 1530-1533, a masterpiece of the European Renaissance, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Main Renaissance cloister with Manueline church behind, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

During the 17th century fresh water was brought directly into the fortress via a high stone aquaduct that crosses a neighbouring valley.

End of six kilometre long aquaduct, late 17th century, Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Walking down to the town was easier than climbing up had been. We were hungry and thirsty though as the promised cafeteria in the fortress only opens in the high season. In a little pasteleria we were served soup and fish rolls. The place was small enough to seem crowded with seven or eight people in there. None seemed to be customers. People would arrive, kiss the staff and sit down to read the paper or chat. It was obviously far more than a baker's shop and played an important role in the social life of that part of the old town.

Very much in contrast to the morning, in the convent of St. Francis we discovered a match-box museum! It claims, almost certainly correctly, to be the largest collection in Europe. Ian was delighted, as only a fervent collector of manhole covers could be! Inside we found eight rooms lined with over 40,000 matchboxes from all around the world! This free museum is run by the local council. We wonder just how delighted they may or may not have been to discover they had been left this legacy when the owner, João de Deus, died!

British matchboxes, Tomar

Memories of childhood for our Hungarian friends. Matchboxes in the museum at Tomar

Finally we found the public library, huge for the size of the town and very modern. The only requirement for using the internet was letting them know our ages!?

So we have returned to the same campsite as last night. It's a very pleasant place and there are still several things we want to see in this delightful little town tomorrow so we may be here a little longer than we expected.

Saturday 4th April 2009, Tomar, Portugal
We've returned to the same campsite for a third night, so much have we enjoyed Tomar and the peaceful countryside surrounding it. It has been a completely relaxing day, pottering around the town, leaning over the bridge watching a seething mass of fish being fed stale bread by local children and wandering through two of the towns' leafy parks keeping on the shady side of the paths.

First we took our computers into the award winning public library to update our antivirus programmes, read our emails and post up another blog. The library really is a splendid building for a town of less than 20,000 inhabitants but did not seem to be particularly well used for a Saturday morning.

Once the library closed at 1pm we drove up the steep road towards the fortress, turning off to the charming, isolated 16th century chapel of Our Lady of the Conception, intended as João III's mortuary chapel. Built in creamy sandstone, standing amidst the pink flowering Judas trees and surrounded by a parvis of white cobbles, it slept in the sunshine. The surrounding green wooded hillsides and several cypress trees conspired to convince us we were in Italy rather than Portugal.
Being completely alone and the chapel no longer in active use, we took out our picnic tables and chairs and sat against its warm walls with rolls and coffee. Overlooking us were the fortified walls of the fortress while we in turn overlooked the town of Tomar spread out at the foot of the hillside.

16th century chapel, Tomar

Looking down on the town of Tomar

Lunch finished we returned to the town to seek out the Jewish synagogue. Our curiosity had been aroused as to how and why there was a synagogue surviving in a town that had been the stronghold of Christian crusaders. When we eventually discovered it in a tiny side street of residential houses, we realised that it is actually the building that has survived rather than the Jewish faith. We struggled to understand the curator as she explained that there are only a couple of Jewish families living in Tomar now. The Jews had been forced out of Portugal around 1496 and the synagogue, built between 1430 and 1460 here in Tomar, had been used for a variety of purposes since then, including serving as the town's prison. It eventually passed into private hands and finally was given to the town on the understanding that it would be used as a Luso-Hebraic museum also reflecting the lives of Jews around the world. Inside, the room was furnished with grave stones, inscriptions and texts, vestments, candelabras and other items associated with the Jewish religion and its customs. The interesting thing though was that everything had been donated. Visitors, mainly from Israel, Australia and the United States had seen and understood the aims of the museum. On returning home they had sent appropriate gifts to help create the museum. It was all very touching but also very sad to see how little remains of the Jewish heritage of Portugal.

Inside the synagogue of Tomar

Side street in which we found the synagogue, Tomar

Returning to Modestine we discovered yet another museum. This one was devoted to contemporary art, superbly displayed in a lavishly renovated building. The exhibits though did nothing for us. On our opinion they were a waste of good wall space and the curator's Saturday afternoon. On one floor we never did work out whether it was a fuse cupboard or an exhibit we were looking at. The toilet facilities though were greatly appreciated.

It was still early but we returned to the campsite, left Modestine and took a walk to the little village up the hill to investigate the source of the clanking bell that had been irritating us night and morning with its tuneless rendition of Ave Maria. It turned out, of course, to be at the village church and we were accompanied there and back by a grubby white poodle who seemed to be generally in charge of the village. The only other sign of activity was a lady sitting in the street crocheting while she watched the wide screen TV through the door of her home. Peeping in we realised it was just one room with no windows and a galvanised metal door. Had she been inside with the door shut we'd not even have recognised it as a house! Once we realised, we became aware that many other buildings in the village we had presumed were for storage, were almost certainly living accommodation.

We are the only ones here on the campsite tonight. When we went to pay, the campsite owner gave us a litre bottle of Portuguese wine so we could spend a happy evening sitting in the sunshine enjoying the silence of the countryside. It really is such a pleasant place though we will need to move on tomorrow.

Sunday 5th April 2009, Guincho, near Cascais, Portugal
Tonight we are falling of the western edge of mainland Europe. Just a few kilometres north of here is Cabo da Roca, Europe's most westerly point. We were rather disappointed when darkness fell around 8.45 this evening. Inland, over the border with Spain, it would have fallen nearly an hour later. Such are the vagaries of Greenwich Mean Time, used by Portugal, and Standard European Time used by Spain.

Europe's most westerly point, Cabo da Roca, Portugal

We made a leisurely start from our delightful rural campsite near Tomar, and headed south west keeping well away from motorways. Several times we became lost in the rural byways, passing through charming, red-tiled, whitewashed villages where seemingly the entire population was clustered in groups in the village square or on the terrace of the bar-cum-restaurant-cum-social hub of the community. Anywhere there was a place to sit we'd be sure to see ladies dressed entirely in black, including a headscarf, or elderly men with their walking sticks and flat hats. In the heart of such a village we'd see a sign for Lisbõa which would lead us out along further byways before dropping us completely. Somehow though, we made reasonable progress and even stopped for a coffee and a stroll around the town of Rio Maior. Later we pulled off for a picnic lunch on the edge of one of the quintas or vineyards. People passing hooted and waved cheerfully. Doubtless they are unfamiliar with such a sight. Being Sunday, most Portuguese were joining friends and family for lunch in one of the thousands of local restaurants or cafeterias. Never have we seen a country with quite so many agreeable looking places to eat or drink, and they are all well frequented.

Inland Portugal is very peaceful and pleasant. The fir trees so prevalent along the sandy coast are replaced by olive trees that occupy every spare corner. There are also vines, oranges and lemons to be found in most rural gardens while around each village there are neat fields of vegetables starting to grow. The landscape is very hilly and the roads tortuous. In many ways it is like Greece but Portugal, long and narrow and facing onto the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean, receives far more moisture and the fields and countryside are bright, green and fertile. Already grapes and olives are forming, there are swathes of purple flowers smudged across the green fields and the roadside is bright with poppies and wild marigolds.

We passed through the town of Torres Vedras. On the hills above the town we noticed a few scattered stumps of old stone towers. They originally formed a chain of over 150 and are a relic of the Peninsula war, erected on the orders of the future Duke of Wellington in 1810, to keep the French at bay and defend Lisbon and its port. Wellington and his army retired behind the defensive lines, British supplies were easily received by sea and their position was impregnable. Meanwhile the French contended with impossibly long supply lines and were cut off by the mountains from their forces in Spain. They were obliged to retreat northwards back to Spain, pursued by Wellington's army, thus freeing Portugal - and making a national hero of Wellington along the way.

We passed through Sintra. Along with Lisbon it is the reason for us choosing to come here and we will explore it over the coming days. Fifteen kilometres further along the coast we reached the lighthouse of the Cabo da Roca high on a cliff top above the surging waves of the Atlantic. Even on this sunny Sunday the wind blowing across was brisk and chilly. The cliff top was smothered in hottentot figs. They are not native to the coasts of Europe but thrive here, overtaking the natural vegetation. They are however very beautiful, their yellow and pink aster-like flowers scattered right across the headland.

Lighthouse at the Cabo da Roca with flowering hotentot figs

Cliffs at the Cabo da Roca

Impossible to go any further in Europe, so we turned back and a short while later we found the campsite we were seeking. Ian worked out that it is conveniently situated for visiting both Sintra and Lisbon. We also discovered that as we are over 60 we are entitled to a 20% discount on the price, reducing our bill to 11 euros a day. The site is nowhere near as charming as Tomar but it is pleasant enough. It is sheltered from the Atlantic by huge rolling sand dunes and from the sun by a dense canopy of low pine trees.