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.

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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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Évora – History, Bones and Gastronomy

The end of my first full month in Portugal had arrived and with it, my first pay cheque. Time then, for an adventure. One of the great things about living in the heart of Lisbon, is that it’s so very easy to get out of the city, via one of its many transport hubs. Thanks to some of the spending that went on in the 2000’s, the Portuguese rail network is a fast, clean and broadly efficient one, meaning that the 100 or so kilometres to Évora is quickly and easily traversed in no small degree of comfort and, all importantly, at very little cost.

Something terribly exciting about that is that this presented me with my first opportunity to cross the Tejo on the mighty 25th April bridge. Sadly, many of the photos didn’t come out as well as they might have, due to the huge girders that make up the bridge, but you can still get a sense of the scale of the Tejo estuary and the spectacular views of it from the bridge, here. Not to mention the great figure of Jesus, overlooking the city from Almada.

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Leaving at 5pm after the clocks had changed for daylight saving to Western European Time meant that, as the train rolled in to Évora at 6:30 or so, it was quite dark. The first thing we noticed after Lisbon was the quiet. Évora is a small city and, compared to the nation’s capital, there was an almost eerie silence as we edged away from the train station. We followed my google map to our hotel and dumped our stuff, before heading out for a look at the city by night. As I’m told is often the case here, there was a throng of students in the centre, chanting and generally having fun. We walked down a side street to a sprawling, vaulted bar in one of the old buildings called Bar Amoeda. It’s a really nice place, with interesting, locally carved furniture in the shape of livestock. Odd, but it had a really nice atmosphere and was playing decent music. They also sold Sagres preta – the South of Portugal’s only black beer and a very good one.

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After a drink here and a walk around the old town, we stopped in a café for a quick bite to eat and, as the city seemed to be winding down, we headed back to the hotel for a sleep. In the morning, we woke up to this view:

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The Hotel Dom Fernando is a 1970s-built hotel which, at the time, was probably a very grand place indeed. Before booking it, I noted a lot of guests complaining on Trip Advisor about its style, harking back as it does to former days of splendour, while seeming a little bit run down in modern terms. This was absolutely what appealed to me and you really had this sense of the hotel in its heyday and, at the same time, far less “sterility” than you might have in one of today’s foremost hotels. The pool looked lovely, but it was far too cold to go in. Breakfast was also top notch – a very important feature of any lodging. Do look it up if you’re in Évora.

With breakfast demolished, it was time to get a look at this historic city by day. As it was opposite, the Parque de Liberdade seemed like a good place to start. Essentially a palatial garden on the edge of the medieval city wall, it was still alive with flowers, even on the first weekend in November. How spectacular it must be in summer. But the thing that really strikes you is the style of the architecture. Évora had been a stronghold during the period of Moorish occupation in Portugal and it was in evidence right from the off in the obvious influence the Arabs had on the architecture here. The band stand, the park office, both bearing classic Arabic style.

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But for the crosses etched into the balcony facade, this would be equally at home in Tunis.

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Walking round from here towards the northern edge of the park, you come to a partially collapsed fortification from the times when the city walls were more about defence than tourism. While looking at this crumbling structure though, I was taken aback to find at least 4 pairs of peacocks just going about their business in the park and, beside their play area, a full-to-busting lemon tree. This was one of those moments where the difference in the climate in my new home country really makes itself abundantly clear.

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Out of the park and across an entirely unspectacular car park, I found myself under the archess of the quite incredible church of St Sebastiao. Disappointingly it was undergoing intensive renovation (which will likely take some years) but from this one side, you could get a decent glimpse of the splendour underneath the covers.

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From here we wound our way through the maze of narrow streets, through the sprawling town square – formerly the place where more people were publicly executed than anywhere else in all of Portugal in the middle ages (yuk!) – and on to the Temple of Diana, as it’s called.

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Al fresco dining: more appealing than hangings.
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Very bright, old, quaint post boxes.

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Before the temple though, the imposing sandstone structure of the cathedral greets you. It’s a curious sensation wandering out of one of a sequence of narrow residential streets, with their small town white-with-yellow-trim colour scheme and suddenly being met by a small square and a 100m+ tall edifice, battlements creeping away to one side. In front of it stands a testament to the medieval past of the city in the form of a well, complete with an original bronze seal.

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Around the corner and you come to another square, with a magnificent walled garden, looking over the Alentejan countryside. In front of it stands the temple of Diana. It’s called this because the city was indeed home to a small cult of Diana during the roman period. The origins of the temple are murky though and rumours abound about it actually being dedicated to the emperor at the time or Jupiter, or both. Regardless, it is quite a building and the pillars, in particular are in remarkable condition.

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Just peeking out from behind the temple, as you look here, is the top of a very ornate church. While we chose not to enter, we did climb the tower of the neighbouring Palacio and the view was quite remarkable. The position is at the very edge of the city wall and, at the tower’s summit, you are stationed around 40 metres above the ground beyond the city walls. Thus you end up with vistas like this:

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All this walking, looking and photographing was making me hungry, so it was time for a snack. In Portugal, a snack almost always means cake. This time was to be no different, and we decided we ought to try a few Alentejan specialties. When in Rome and all that. So, walking down one of the many narrow streets, we happened upon a little café with some outside tables, ordering a curd cheese cake, an almond and egg bite (with what seemed to be near-raw egg inside) and a slice of caramel(ish) tart, with layered orchard fruits inside. Washed down with a couple of galaos (milky long coffees), they were all quite delicious.

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After our short break, it was time for more strolling, but this time with a little more purpose, we were off to the bone chapel. So we meandered through the streets in the general direction of the cathedral, where our day had more or less started.

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No trip is complete without meeting a cat

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The Chapel of Bones is a very different kind of place to anywhere I’ve been before. Constructed in the 16th century by the monks who used the church of Sao Sebastiao as their place of worship, the idea of the room is as a commentary on the human condition, mortality and more. The plaque as you enter, in Latin, advises you that “We, the bones that lie here, await yours.” It seems like grim reading, but you can in a sense appreciate what they were trying to say about human existence. It’s a very powerful and, in a way, even a beautiful structure. The morbidity is contrasted with the golden altar at the heart of the chapel and the ornate tiling of the perimeters. I won’t say more about it, but this place is really worth visiting if you’re in the area.

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Perversely, perhaps, I left the chapel feeling intensely hungry. So it was off to my first of two quite excellent meals on my full day in Évora. Having eaten really well far too much the previous day, we didn’t want anything too heavy and so, opposite the café where we’d enjoyed our cake earlier, we remember a small, boutique tapas – or petiscos – restaurant.

Disappointingly, I can’t remember the name and nor can I find it on google maps, but it had the most wonderfully unpushy staff and, despite being really nothing more than a small room with a few tables outside, the menu was super. The waiter made some recommendations based on our need for something not too filling and we ended up with roasted sheep’s cheese with fresh oregano leaves, cod (not bacalhau!) sliced thinly, battered and fried and a mixture of scrambled egg and thistle, which was very accurately described as tasting like a more intense asparagus. He brought out two white wines for us to try and the birthday girl selected a quite stunning Chardonnay. The wine and food, we were reliably informed, all came from within a 30 km radius. And it was all excellent. And it cost less than 40 euros in total. A bargain.

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After a quick trip back to the Dom Fernando to freshen up, all that was left was a dusk/night time walk around the city before dinner.

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The city wall is really quite imposing at night and you can easily see why it’s ranked as a UNESCO heritage site. After our walk, it was time for one more meal at Momentos restaurant. This was one I’d read about before we began our visit, where the chef is famous for his use of all local, all organic ingredients and working with blending flavours. First he brought out a trial plate for each of us, of a shot glass of his special recipe tomato soup, accompanied by a poached quail egg on mini toast. It was all terribly indulgent. We once again were presented with a couple of white wines to try and settled on a great one (though not as fabulous as the afternoon’s Chardonnay) and my main course, which exemplified perfectly the owner’s philosophy – a fresh anchovy and grilled pear salad, with strawberries, spinach and rocket. It was stunning.

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After our meal, it was a gentle walk back to the hotel, accompanied by a friendly stray dog. I felt terrible leaving him outside the hotel, but there was nothing we could do for him. With an early start beckoning, we retired for the night. In the morning, after an early breakfast, we made the short walk back to the train station and wove our way through the countryside back to Lisbon.

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Finally, Évora is a charming place, with history in abundance and an immense amount of delightful gastronomy. We wondered whether it might be a lot busier in the summer months, as it did seem there was not too much going on in the evenings, besides for students. Nevertheless, it was an appetising first taste of the Alentejo and it is certainly a region we will return to.