I’m slowly driving my way north through Portugal, staying in small towns and stopping along the way whenever something catches my eye. After departing Óbidos, the next town to explore was Tomar.
I drove near the coastal town of Nazaré and it didn’t take me long to find a hill with an impressive view. Although beach season was over in Portugal, the sand and water still looked inviting.
Alas, Tomar was not located on the ocean. But it boasted a mystical draw. The town was originally inside the walls of the Convento de Cristo, constructed by the mysterious Knights Templar in the late 1100s.
The Knights Templar was a Catholic military order, one of the most wealthy and popular military organizations in Western Christianity. They existed for nearly two centuries during the Middle Ages.
Basically, they were an elite fighting force, sanctioned by the Pope during the Crusades to help liberate Jerusalem and its surrounding area from Islamic rule.
But the Knights were much more than fighters. They were a favored charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. The secretive Order developed a large economic infrastructure which eventually brought about their downfall.
King Philip IV of France, deeply in debt to the Order, pressured Pope Clement to have many of the members arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and then burned at the stake.
The Portuguese King however spared the Knights’ lives by negotiating the transfer of the Order’s possessions and personnel to a newly created (and less threatening) Order of Christ. Thus, the Knight’s castle in Tomar was transitioned into a convent.
This complex was situated dramatically on a hill overlooking the modern town of Tomar. After hiking up to the front gate, I spent several hours wandering the grounds. The distinctive cross of the Knights Templar was chiseled in stone throughout the castle and convent.
I eventually stood awestruck inside the charola, the round church. The interior was magnificently decorated with late gothic sculpture and paintings.
I was also vastly impressed by the elegant stone stairways that spiraled up the corners of the main cloister. I climbed several steps up and then leaned over to view straight down the center. Look at how the design and workmanship of the 1500s created a perfect geometric spiral!
The castle and convent were full of fascinating details including elaborate decorations of ceramic tile, called Azulejos in Portuguese. As a sea power, Portugal’s merchants traded with Holland and came to admire Dutch “Delft blue” ceramic goods. The colors represented power and wealth. Perhaps that’s why you still see blue and white tile used across the country today.
Back down in town, the streets lit up as the sky darkened. As I mentioned, Christmas markets are underway across Europe and Tomar’s decorated main square was full of parents towing wide-eyed children.
Stay tuned as I head further north, this time to the university town of Coimbra…
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