Tomar – The Last Templar City

When my friend told me he was visiting from Poland for a weekend, at the beginning of March, I was delighted. When he went on to tell me that he would be spending a day and a half of the 4 day visit at a teaching conference and that I would have to entertain his girlfriend -not like that! – I felt inspired to think of something interesting for us to do. So, after a bit of brain work, and remembering that she is from a wonderful medieval city, in which I used to live, Torun, Poland, I decided it would be pretty nice to take us off to one of Portugal’s many well-preserved medieval cities, Tomar.

So, with the sun blazing in the sky and the clock moving gently towards 10:00am, we found ourselves gazing out along the tracks at Lisboa Oriente station, waiting for the train to Tomar.

Lisboa Oriente

Within a few minutes, we were comfortably sat inside one of the large carriages of the inter cidades train and heading north, along the banks of the Tejo, upstream and out of the Lisboa region into the area called Ribatejo. We passed a number of towns I’d heard of, but was unsure of the location of, such as Vila Franca de Xira and Santarem. And lots and lots of agricultural land. A relatively short hour and fifty minutes later and we rolled gently in to the tiny station at Tomar.

Tomar Station

Looking around the station, it looked pretty unremarkable. Like any other sleepy small town, bathed in sunshine on such a nice day. There were cafés and cake shops, as per any Portuguese high street, but no signs of the rich history I was anticipating. Luckily, the moment we walked around the side of the station building, we caught a glimpse of what awaited us. The palely coloured stone walls of the castle gleaming down from high on the hill above the town. It was time to investigate!

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We crossed the road and then made our way along the gently inclined, dusty streets and past the match museum (at the time I thought it was strange, but matches were a nationalised and protected industry in Portugal until the 70s!). As our path snaked around to the left, we found ourselves at a small roundabout. To our right were 2 different paths, one leading up to the castle and one leading in to the heart of the old town below. But we decided to take the gate to our left. Here there was a beautifully topiaried park, guarded by a bronze statue of one of the prior rulers of the area. We decided to go inside and take a look around.

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The park had a real air of spring about it and we took a walk along side the hedged area to the next enclosure, where we spotted a route to the right, climbing up the hill which, we suspected, might lead us to the castle. It also had a sign saying “fonte de sangue” – fountain of blood – which was sure to be interesting. So we set off along the dirt track, between the trees on one side and lower ground to our right. We began to feel very pleased with ourselves when we came up to the castle walls and we continued walking alongside them, waiting for the entrance to appear.

Tomar wall

Except it didn’t. Instead, we found ourselves at a dead end and needing to find a way to cut across from the raised castle mount, down in to the old town. Defeated, at least for now, we decided to have lunch first and then make a renewed attack on the fortress after lunch.

So, descending the tree covered track to the road, we wove between the higgledy-piggledy old buildings until we came to the main market square of the old town. there were cafés and restaurants scattered around, but first, we had to take a look at the old church. It was a quite stunning building, with a very interesting clock.

We ran into this little fellow on the way down to the square
We ran into this little fellow on the way down to the square

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Coming out of the church, we couldn’t help but be struck by the impressive and overbearing view of the castle, high above the town square. So it was time for one more picture and then to try out the medieval restaurant.

Tomar Square

I’d read some reviews of the Taverna Antiqua restaurant and, it seemed they were producing local food in alignment with medieval recipes from the region, in a medieval themed restaurant. As this was a thoroughly medieval day out, we decided to give it a go. Arriving and finding that the weekday lunch menu costed only 8 euros for olives & bread, a main course, a drink and a coffee, we were happy with our decision. Everything was served in earthenware and the staff were very helpful, and even assisted me with some Portuguese phrases. We ate açorda with fish. It’s a dish that’s very traditional to the region – and Alicja was very keen to try local specialties – where bread is torn and reduced to a thick liquid-ish kind of thing. Vinegar and coriander are added, along with the meat or, in this case, fish. It’s very much a love it or hate it dish. I love it and, fortunately, so did she!

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With the caffeine rush of a café pingado invigorating our minds after lunch, we decided it was time to make the climb up the castle mount and to take a look at this, the last home of the templars, before they were declared heretics by the Vatican and unceremoniously removed.

The whole town has an atmospheric feeling about it, with narrow streets, orange trees adorning even the most modest gardens and terraces and stone stairs, unevenly cut, acting as cut-throughs from one level to the next. Within a few minutes, we were most of the way up to the castle track.

Tomar Stairs Tomar Castle Entrance

Walking through the gate, we found ourselves in the front courtyard. A wide, open space of gravel, with the stern wall of the first battlements to our right, broken up only by a single orange tree and then a pattern of elegantly cut trees to our left. Tiled benches were dotted around, adding to the decoration and providing a spot to enjoy the gardens and the first spring flowers were blooming along the line of the wall, overlooking the lower level with defensive features, to protect the castle from attacks from the south west.

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From here, we walked down to the pentagonal tower, where the entrance to the castle is now situated. We paid our very reasonable 6 euros to get in and began to look around. Almost around the first corner, just after the laundry courtyard, we were confronted by a wall of tiled arches, in absolutely perfect symmetry, the afternoon sun shining in between them. This was followed by an interesting burial stone, marking the tomb of one of the great people to have lived here in the castle.

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After this, we turned back inwards, towards the heart of the castle and the holy area, known as the “Convent of Christ”. Amongst the Templar knights, guarding the castle and it’s treasures, lived a whole order of monks, with two entire floors of dormitory rooms, for different levels of status. The main worship area was the Convent of Christ. Even as an atheist, it was hard not to be impressed by the fine artwork at the heart of this place. First you walk into a hall, full of calm, and from there, around into the throne room, where the highest ranking knight in the castle would have sat with his lady and then, directly opposite, was the immaculately painted and sculpted, pillared image of the crucifixion, surrounded by saints and with kings and nobles around the outside. All this set below some truly spectacular vaulted ceilings. It’s certainly one of the finest examples of Christian art I’ve seen on my travels.

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After this, we walked out on to the roof area, where we could glimpse the famous madeline window and the views from the castle roof, as well as the extraordinary detail on the roofing and towers.

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From here, we made our way to the exit, stopping at the castle’s café for coffee and cakes and then we made our way down the curved hill to the centre of town. We stopped for a brief moment to see the hermitage, which was once a particularly isolated part of the castle community. It seemed quite isolated in one sense, but held perhaps the best view out over the town. From here, looking down over the city, we decided to head to the park and to take in the last remnants of the sunshine with a cold beer. So we strolled down, found a supermarket and made ourselves comfortable on a bench.

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After a beer and a good chat in the park, and after the sun had finally gone down, we decided to take a final stroll along the old medieval bridge, and then back through the old town to the train station, where we picked up a pao de chouricou for the journey and jumped on to the train. It was a really worthwhile day out and definitely somewhere I’d recommend seeing if you find yourself with time in the Lisboa or Ribatejo regions of Portugal.

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Adventures in Greece – Part 1 – Athens (Piraeus) via Warsaw

Just hours after arriving back in Poland from a 4 week stint at an international summer school, I was packing my things again and heading off to the cradle of our civilisation – Athens, in Greece. This time with my girlfriend in tow, I was really excited about this, as well as a little apprehensive, after hearing of a few pretty serious horror stories about Greece’s ancient capital in recent times.

Waking up at a leisurely 8:30am, after my first sleep in my new flat, I trudged around like a zombie, preparing myself for the fun of the Polskibus to Warsaw at 11:20. Polskibus is a relatively new venture in Poland and is ran by a Polish fellow, who has spent a fair bit of time working in transport companies in the UK. The result is a fleet of brand new, clean, comfortable buses, with free Wi-Fi(!) toilets and extremely low prices. In a country where some long distance buses are close to my age, it is a very welcome thing. So, after 4 hours of cruising Polish highways, ducking to use the hobbit-sized toilet and consuming a nutritious road diet of lemon ice tea and Cheetos pizzerinis, we arrived into Warsaw’s Młociny bus station.

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The brilliant thing about arriving at Młociny, is that it is right next to the metro station. Getting to Warsaw’s Frederic Chopin airport is (theoretically) easy, as you can travel by bus, train, or SKM (fast urban train). We asked the lady at the information kiosk, and she told us the best way was to go to the central rail station by Metro and then onward by bus No. 175. Ania and I remarked to ourselves about how helpful and easy this had all been (having been hugely frustrated by using public transport in Warsaw before). We boarded the metro and off we went. Then after 4 stops, the wheels came off. Not literally, thankfully. Due to the work on laying the track for the new second line of the Warsaw Metro, the Metro would miss not just our stop, but a stop or two either side, as well. Nice of the info lady NOT to tell us. We followed the signs for diverted passengers and ended up on a tram. After waiting just a couple of minutes the tram sped us to Centrum and we disembarked and headed across the park beneath the majestic Palace of Science and Culture to the main train station.

Walking inside the station, we found the usual scene in Warsaw. Scores of people queuing for the woefully insufficient one person in the ticket office and no information points open. Signposts to the airport trains, buses and so on were all lacking, aside for the mention of a slow train, leaving in almost an hour’s time. We asked a few people and finally an old lady from the train company pointed us to the area where we could find the bus. Feeling a little stressed, and with time left to check in ticking away, we hurried into the subway, looking for signs to the airport bus. Naturally, there were none. Finally finding our stop, via the wrong side of the huge road, we then went to the ticket machine. It advised me that it was not accepting change and then proceeded to spit out my pristine 10 Zloty note, like it was a used tissue. Beginning to suffer from serious rage by this point, I jumped onto the bus and pleaded with the driver to sell me some tickets to the airport. Thankfully, he was merciful and 2 child tickets each were issued. We stood, squished into a corner of the bus, for 25 minutes, relieved that another completely haphazard transport experience in Warsaw was all but over!

Arriving at Wawa’s airport, I was struck, right away, by the feeling that a bit of money has been spent here, on modernising. With a towering glass facade at the departures entrance and cloudy daylight pouring in from above, it was a lovely place. We joined a queue crammed with Polish-Greek couples at the Aegean airlines desk. After a short few minutes we were checked in, given window seats near the emergency exits – hello legroom! – and my rucksack, almost always sent to oversized baggage, was allowed straight into the hold on the conveyor belt. I was positively delighted and the endeavour required to survive Warsaw’s information-deprivation scheme was all but forgotten. After a quick sandwich and a last swig of the ice tea, we headed for security. Also mercifully efficient, we were sat looking at the nose of our plane with more than 30 minutes before boarding was due to begin.

Resisting the temptation to go and try on all 100 or so of the designer watches in the boutique opposite our gate, instead I waited patiently for boarding. When the time came, we filed on and took our seats.

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Being, as we were, on a flag carrier for the first time in ages, I was looking forward to free food and beers. My seat was pretty comfy, I could stretch my legs in front of me, and we got settled pretty quickly. We took off into the greying skies. Food was soon served. Now, while I never anticipate gourmet cuisine on an aircraft, the infants’ portion of dried pasta with meatballs the size of ball bearings was not inspired. Luckily the accompanying bread, crackers, chocolate bar and beer were far more palatable. After the rubbish had been cleared away, dusk began to wash over the sky, as we drank our coffee. Later thunderstorms ripped through the night sky below us to the right. It was quite a show.

ImageAt just after 10, local time, we cruised over the Greek peninsula and marvelled at the orange dotted pathway of what we later learned was the Athenian central highway. The plane descended gently and landed with barely a bump. Ania and I were first off the plane and set off to find our baggage. Once we gathered our things, we immediately headed for an ATM – I hadn’t had any time to get currency sorted, post summer school. We drew some cash, picked up a bottle of water and were directed by highly efficient signs to the X96 express bus to Piraeus. With a fair number of others from our flight, we ditched our luggage and watched the dark city streets go by as we sped through night time Athens. It was fairly quiet and the bus barely stopped at all. After around 40 minutes, we realised that we didn’t really know exactly where we were supposed to get off. The people from our hotel had sent a map, but hadn’t been clear about whether it was from the last stop or some other, beforehand. So, when a huge German family (seriously – there were about 10 of them!) decided to get off the bus on one of the many busy streets in Piraeus, we jumped off too. Immediately we began to regret our decision. None of the streets from the map were near us and, with the clock already well past midnight, we were feeling pretty fed up. Then, as we were starting to despair, we saw a small souvlaki place, “Gr… Eat” (see what they did there?), and so I wandered in to find out whether anyone spoke English and whether they knew where our hotel was.

The chef, who was unoccupied, came straight over to me and asked if he could help (in Greek). “Do you speak English?” I asked. “Yes,” he replied. By which he meant that someone else in his restaurant did, as he looked blankly at me, while I pointed to places on my map and asked if he knew where they were. Finally his colleague, a very enthusiastic waiter, and a slightly less enthusiastic waitress led me to a huge map mounted on the wall and began arguing with each other about the best way to get to our hotel.

Quite the contrary from this being irritating though, they were all just so keen to help us find our way. I was pretty touched. After we established the best route, they shouted after us “You’re Italian?” I confirmed that I was in fact British, but it’s nice not to be recognised as a British tourist. We made a mental note to return here to eat, later on in our visit, which we did, and enjoyed it immensely. After a few minutes more of walking and a quick check in a different hotel, that we were on the right track, we finally came to the Hotel Phidias/Piraeus Inn which turned out to be a superb & quite bargain-priced place to stay. The receptionist was bright and cheery, in spite of the late hour and told us, quite unexpectedly, that we had breakfast included. I’m a big fan of breakfast. We jumped into the lift and headed to our room for some much needed sleep.

Waking up in the morning and stepping on to our balcony, we couldn’t decide, in the shade, whether it was actually all that warm. Just moments after breakfast though, stepping down to the street and into the full glare of the sun, it quickly became apparent that it was roasting. We decided to take a walk around the marina, which was just a few steps from our hotel, down one of the many steep streets. The place is a hive of activity, with cafes, bars, restaurants, fishing boats and a variety of shops, combined with the considerable traffic ferrying people from the port to the city and airport.

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After following the curve of the marina to it’s limit, passing under numerous cafe parasols, we found ourselves at another steep hill, this time curving around to a recreation area and a crowded, small beach. The water was positively glinting in the morning sun and we decided to head down and dip our feet in the water. It was surprisingly cold and I began to make sounds like a young girl, pretty swiftly. Once we had enjoyed a little paddle, it was time to continue round the path, past some intriguing buildings (and obligatory churches) to find somewhere to get one of these cappucino freddo things that every man and his dog – no really – seemed to be drinking. We happened upon Riva cafe, a delightful place, with comfy sofas, a view of the marina, complimentary water and delicious cake and first class cold coffees.

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So now, refreshed after the gentle pace of the morning and the fabulously brutal nature of Greek coffee, we were feeling ready to move on to the next stage of the adventure – to the Acropolis!