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.

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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.

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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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Adventure in Malbork: A Really, Really Big Castle

So Easter and Spring were upon us, so it was time to don T-shirts and short trousers and head out for another adventure. Ah, but wait, in Poland, sadly, Spring has been lost for some time. Missing posters were up everywhere, while my winter coat was increasing its value for money score daily. But the Easter holidays were here all the same, which meant that we could not be held back – another adventure had to be had!

Once again, many of my colleagues & friends had disappeared off somewhere – this time to Vienna – so it was just Pam and myself that ventured off to the train station and onward thence to Malbork! Before the station, we visited Bydgoszcz’s finest purveyor of sandwiches in Canapa, where we feasted on baguettes, panninis and decent Italian coffee. After this, we were prepared and made our way along Dworcowa, to buy tickets.

A small few moments and ticket & provision purchases later and we were aboard the train on platform 3. Our compartment mates on the TLK InterCity express were some giggly, but seemingly pleasant, teenage girls. We stashed our coats and other belongings and stretched out in the warmth of the train cabin. Then, just as the clock hands were about to show our departure time of 10:13, the door slid silently open and in walked a penguin. I mean, of course, a nun – not a real penguin. As with all religious entities, I felt a tightening in my throat and a general sense of unease, as I offered to help her stow her bags. She accepted my kind offer and sat down with no sign of fright at my heavy metal band t-shirt or surprise at my Jesus-esque features. Perhaps this would not have any effect on proceedings at all, I mused to myself. The train set off on its journey out into the snow covered countryside of Kujawsko-Pomorskie and we all continued our light hearted chatter while sister whatever-her-name-was maintained her vow of silence. After a few minutes though, she began to make cross actions in the air, fairly wildly, muttering under her breath the Hail Mary in Latin and then fidgeting with her rosary beads, accompanied by Our Fathers. Travelling in the presence of a fruitcake – can’t beat it! Needless to say, I ratcheted up my casual swearing and looked out the window at the pretty snowscapes, so as not to catch her creepy gaze.

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Relief came when we arrived at Tczew (non Poles – try saying that one!). This was where we changed for the onward journey to Malbork. We jumped off the train and went for a refreshment break and to stretch our legs. It looked like a pretty nice place, with a cute little shopping centre and a reasonably smart station, complete with a far-too-tempting-smelling bakery!

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It was a good thing we had decided to stretch our legs as, when we returned to the platform for our connecting train, it was packed. So we all piled in to the overcrowded Malbork train, and had to stand in a very sweaty, cramped area. Luckily, we were getting off at the first stop, after just 22 minutes. So, after wobbling about for a bit, here we were:

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The first thing that strikes you about Malbork, is that this place is going to be pretty grand. Right from the buildings at the train station itself, everything screams “look at me!”

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After marvelling at the ornate station building, we took the short walk over to the main event, the castle itself. The town/village of Malbork itself is essentially one shopping street, with a number of cafes and restaurants and a Pepco (who sold me a new set of sunglasses for 10 Zloty & which I’m sure I will have broken before Spring properly arrives).

Just after the shopping street there are 3 interesting things to see. First there is a lifesize statue of some king or other, on horseback, with a scepter, a sheathed sword and (typically) a powerful moustache! Next is a strange underground river waterfall-weir-thing. Secondly, there is a really nice scale model of the castle itself, complete with a helpful plaque explaining the significance of the Virgin Mary on the eastern facade. Lovely.

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In the background, you could already see the castle, which absolutely dominates the town. As you can see, the model is a really good job. From here, we took the short walk around to the church opposite the castle. The church has some really interesting, very modern stained glass which sadly didn’t photograph well at all, without a flash. It of course came complete with the customary JPII statue outside and had some really interesting architecture, being as it was made almost entirely of red brick, to match the castle, except for a quite beautiful, wooden bell tower.

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From here, we walked around the dry moat walls, slightly awestruck by the scale of the fortress. Malbork is Europe’s biggest brick castle and you really get the sense of this as you walk around it.

ImageWe walked around, staring at some of the details of the facade, until we came to the ticket office, where we paid a very small sum of 19 Zloty for a winter, post 13:00 ticket and went in to the castle, over the wooden gate bridge.

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Once across the gated bridge, you are faced with the enormity of the wall of the castle itself. Not only is it colossal, it’s also armed with 2 sharp-toothed portcullises and any number of solid metal gates, with guard doors so small that Pam was suited to them. Not an easy place to burgle then.

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ImageAfter all this, one might be forgiven for thinking that you were in the castle. But no, this is the beginning of the citadel. The initial fortified area, where castle staff and the like lived. Here, we found a number of places where you can get food or drink, an amber workshop (the main trading commodity of note in this part of Poland in the middle ages) and various defensive units, such as cannon! This is also the area of the castle where I befriended a cute little feline. First he buried himself in my huge winter coat to protect himself from the wind. Then, when I went to put him down, he claw-poked my chin, before climbing onto my shoulder and perching himself there for a good 5 minutes. As you can see from the photo, I really didn’t mind!

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From the citadel, we walked across another gated bridge, this time made from stone and brick, into the central castle complex itself. Here, we found an ornate central courtyard with a beautiful carved bird, atop a huge well. This was surrounded by 5 stories of corridors, leading into individual chambers, kitchens, storehouses, chapels, alehouses and so on. It’s a really stunning place.

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After looking around all of the intricate rooms (besides the armoury, which was unfortunately closed for renovation), we decided we ought to pay a visit to the architecturally ingenious toilet. In Teutonic castles, these were wooden seats, over an open hole which dropped all of people’s… “stuff” directly down into the wet moat. It meant no-one had to deal with the human waste and made the wet moat even less appealing for would-be attackers.

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ImageFrom here, we realised that the castle was soon closing, so we decided to return to the outer citadel, where there was a restaurant, which sold food based on traditional recipes from the time of the Teutonic knights. We arrived and were quickly told by the head waiter, in excellent English, that the mushroom soup was all that was left. So we ordered one each. When the mushroom soup arrived, it was well stocked with mushrooms of different kinds, as you’d expect in Poland, but also with chicken and chicken bones, which we found a little more surprising. It then became apparent that, in those days, there were no vegetarian soups. My kind of era! The soup was delicious and provided exactly the warmth and energy required on such a cold day. We also received rather excellent crowns!

ImageAfter this light appetiser, we were still feeling pretty famished, and so elected to find somewhere else to eat something more substantial. We went quickly to the souvenir shop to acquire some postcards and then walked around the sprawling perimeter of the castle, towards the river. When we arrived at the river bank, we saw our lunch-based saviour in the shape of a floating pub/restaurant. Readers of my previous stupid adventure blog will remember how much excitement this generated in Gdynia. So, we took a couple of snaps of the castle walls and hurried across the (very bouncy) bridge to inspect the eatery.

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When we got inside, we were confronted by a waiter who closely resembled Prince Adam from the original He-Man cartoon. With biceps as thick as my waist and an unimaginably deep voice (not to mention a severe-looking pudding basin haircut!), he showed us to the seating area and then came along to take our orders. As he did so he stood well within my half metre of British-culturally-acceptable distance. There was something macho-camp about the whole episode. I ordered the schabowy, which came in such a huge size that it required its own plate (there were boiled potatoes buried underneath) and my fried cabbage and surowka were each served on small side plates. This was my kind of meal. Pam ordered a very exciting looking zapiekanka ziemniaczana (a kind of oven baked potato dish, involving most of a chicken carcass, veggies, mushrooms and half a kilo of cheese). We staggered through our meals, aided somewhat by the cold beer and the imposing view of the castle across the river. Occasionally we were interrupted by the grunting of our burly waiter, but it was, in all, a great meal, good value and – all importantly – on a boat.

Once the meal was gone, we decided to be on our way back to the station and a small bar that we had heard good things about and whose sign promised a huge selection of local beers – always a good thing. Time for one last shot of the castle, from across the river then.

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We arrived at the charming Spizarnia and were immediately taken with the place. It was like the living room in a fun old aunt’s house. Nothing really matched, there was wicker furniture mixed in with dark wood, doilies on everything, huge pumpkins adorning the windows. Then there was the bar. On it were stacked tens of bottles of the many different types of beer they sold in this tiny establishment. Pam and myself pulled some chairs at a table in the corner and began to inspect the myriad beer menus that they had. As we did so, we noted that there were English, German and Polish speakers, all dotted around in this quirky little place. We regiestered too, that there was a genuine familiarity and fondness between the clients and the straightforward looking man in the overalls, behind the bar. I went over to him and ordered a dark beer for myself and an unpasteurised light beer for Pam. The barman asked me, very politely if we might speak in English (I always try, at least, with my Polish). He told me that he had a better light unpasteurised beer than the one I had ordered, that it was from just 4km up the road in the next town and that it was cheaper, to boot. As any of those criteria might well have sold me, I inevitably gave in. Pam confirmed it was a fine brew. We sunk into our chairs and enjoyed the gentle soul, blues and jazz music that came from the old record player in the atmospheric bar and began to understand why the place had received such high praise.

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It was then that I decided, finally, to look for when our next train was, as we had regrettably missed the one we had initially intended to catch, even before coming to this place. Then we realised it was a four hour wait. Drat.

So we decided to drink up and take ourselves back to Tczew, where we might find a bar in which we could relax and wait for the 2 to 3 hours before the train home to Bydgoszcz. After some kerfuffle with the ticket office, we had our tickets and boarded the slow train. We jumped off at Tczew and made our way out to the “town”. Beyond the shopping centre, seemingly, there was nothing. And we were stuck here for 2 and a half hours. It didn’t look good. I quickly consulted google maps, which gave me a choice of 2 local bars. As the name reminded us of the fine hotel of our hometown, we chose Pod Orłem. We found it, opposite this unfortunately named supermarket:

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Once inside the bar, we noted that A) we might be the first ever tourists in the place and B) that the guy behind the bar was a decent bloke who was only too happy to serve us beer. Fact C,  that the table next to us was full of insanely drunk tramp-people only came to light later when they tried to walk. Pub Pod Orłem proved to be a fine place to sit and chew the fat, at the end of a long day, over pints costing less than a quid in the Queen’s money. After that we headed to the train and slumped in the corridor, reflecting on a fine day’s adventuring!