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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Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 2 – The Most Beautiful Sunset, Sibenik & Krka

After another 40 minutes on the lovely coach, I was back in Zadar. I jumped off at the bus station and began heading straight into town. It was just after 4pm and the sunset was due around 6:30. I made the short walk down the now familiar streets pretty swiftly, and arrived in the old town with more than an hour until the sunset started. I decided this might be a good time to have a look around at some of the narrow backstreets. Much of the city was destroyed during the civil war in the 90’s and the mixture of original and renovated stonework makes for some very interesting sights.

ImageImageImageHaving meandered for perhaps 45 minutes around the cramped alleyways of the old town, I decided to find myself a spot to have a beer and to read some of my book, while I waited for the sunset to arrive. I found the perfect location, diagonally opposite the southern corner of the harbour, well within the sound range of the sea organ. It provided a relaxing, whale call-like soundtrack, as I sat back in the sunshine and took a first sip of my Karlovačko. I picked up my book and found my page. Before I had chance to digest even a single word, someone had blocked out my sunshine. I looked up and there was an Asian girl. She asked me if I was travelling alone and if I felt like some company. I said that would be nice and we began to chat. She told me that she was a Chinese student, studying medicine in Germany, and that she had decided to spend her summer seeing Croatia. She also let on that she had been in Zadar for 3 days and that she was about to embark on a boat to some islands, nearby. I asked her about the sunset and she told me that I absolutely must see it and that I must also not miss the sun salutation, after the sun had gone down. I had no idea what she was on about – I only knew of the sun salutation from yoga. She explained all about it, and then left for her boat.

By this time, the small crowd of sunbathers near the sea organ had multiplied into something of a throng, looking out to the sea, where the sun had begun its descent and was already colouring the sky beautifully. I paid for my beverage and headed down to join them.

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I found a nice place to sit and, surrounded by at least a couple hundred more tourists, watch as the sun painted the sky in one palette after another. All the while, the gentle hum of the sea organ and the lapping of the Sea of Dalmatia provided a calming soundtrack.

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Finally the sun had retreated beneath the horizon. It honestly was the most spectacular, beautiful sunset I’ve ever seen. The atmosphere was charged all the more by all the people, of so many different ages and backgrounds, all gathered together to watch it. It was a magical time. Little did I know, that the magic was only just beginning. It was time for the sun salutation.

As I had been instructed, I had moved myself to the blue, electronic-circuit-hatched glass disc of the sun salutation as the sun was dipping below the horizon. I was told that, as soon as the last rays of the sun left the surface, it would light up. I sat down in the middle and waited. After around a minute of held breath on the part of me and many in the crowd, the first lights came on.

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The Sun Salutation is an art installation, made of dancing LED lights, designed to start working as soon as the sun has set. It creates a really amazing, atmospheric effect. The patterns appear to be quite random, with colours phasing from red to blue to purple and much more. It just adds to what is already an unforgettable experience.

ImageAfter almost an hour soaking up the atmosphere at the sun salutation, I decided it was time to head off. I stopped in a few bars on the way out of the city and met a few more travellers. the Garden and The Old Arsenal being particularly memorable. I decided to grab a swift bite to eat and get my head down, for in the morning I was off to Sibenik for a definite change of pace.

In the morning I was greeted, once again, by glorious sunshine and heat that permeated my hostel bed, in spite of the always-on air conditioning. I got myself up and quietly removed myself from the dorm, where everyone else was still sleeping. After a quick shower and, all importantly, putting on some sun block, I was back at the bus station, getting my ticket to Sibenik. It was a route I was very familiar with, as it was just an hour on from Beograd Na Moru, so I settled into my seat and took out my book. This time, I had chosen to sit on the mountain side of the bus, so that I could watch the rugged landscape, opposite the sea. What I didn’t expect, was that after we had passed Beograd and begun the route on the motorway down towards Sibenik, there would be small forest fires, dotted around. Huge plumes of smoke rose up into the cloudless sky, making for quite a dramatic effect. Imagine my excitement then, as I began to see two water planes, dipping down into the sea and dousing the flames. It was amazing watching the precise angles of the pilots and the whole process of putting out the fire. Time flew as I watched this display and, in no time, the bus pulled across the bridge over the stunning bay of Sibenik.

The bus station was a fairly dirty place but, mercifully, almost directly opposite my hostel. I walked up the steep steps and checked in. After ditching my bag, it was straight across the road to the harbour and the old town.

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As you walk around the curving harbourside, you see immediately, that Sibenik is one of these cities built into the cliffs opposite. Almost nothing is on ground level. Looking up, you can see the church for which the city is so famous (more on that later) and the enormous medieval fortress, still standing, in reasonably good condition, at the very top. Between it and the sea, was a maze of narrow alleyways and staircases. Time to explore, I thought.

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ImageAbout two thirds of the way up, I began to realise just how steep a climb this was (and perhaps just how unfit I was!). My calves were aching and I was short of breath. I guess the 35 degrees of close, warm sun did not really help. But I pressed on and when I reached the top of the city, just beneath the fortress, I immediately remarked to myself that it had been more than worth it. The views were simply stunning.

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It took me a full five minutes of staring in awe at the view over the harbour and sprawling old town below me, before I even glanced up at the gleaming white fortress, which defended the city in days gone by from the Turks and various other would-be invaders. Once I’d seen how solid a structure it remained though, I had to complete the climb and take a look. It clearly sustained very little damage in the bloody civil war of the 90s and one suspects the condition the fortress is in has not changed for some centuries. There is no roof, but the main external wall exists on 2 levels and you can walk around all of it, taking in an even more incredible view of the seascape and islands below. A solitary flag of St George smiting the dragon flies at the northmost tip of the castle.

DSC_0180 DSC_0172 DSC_0185After this, I began to realise how tiring such a steep climb, in such hot weather had been. Parched, I decided to descend and find a cafe. So back I went, this time taking a different route through the narrow, old stone streets. I quickly came upon a monastic garden, which had been converted into a cafe. It was beautifully tended and had a foutain right in the middle, sending a spray of fine mist into the air, which was cooling as soon as I walked in. I sat down for the very short time it took me to drain a litre of mineral water.

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My next, and final stop, on the way back to the hostel was the iconic church, in the heart of the old city. It was designed by one of the most famous architects in Croatia during the medieval period. Venetian lions can be spotted on the facade, evidencing the patronage of the great city state at this Dalmatian trading partner city of old. The roof, and shape of the building is very distinctive and, despite its small size, it makes a strong impression on you, the moment you see it.

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Finally, feeling like my 3 hours exploring had sucked most of the life out of me, I decided to go back to the hostel, grab my things and hit the beach to get some colour on my pale skin. Arriving back in the dorm, a tall fellow was sat on the bunk below. We introduced ourselves, and it turned out that Dave, as he was called, had just done a more or less identical whistle stop tour of the sights of Sibenik, and was also feeling like stretching out on the beach. So we each got changed, grabbed our towels and headed down to the really nicely designed purpose-built beach, at the end of the harbour. We laid on the beach as the afternoon sun roasted everyone and everything and had a long chat about where we were from, what we did, and what we were doing in Croatia. Dave, a Canadian/Lebanese physiotherapist who was about to go and retrain as a doctor, had the same plans as me for the next day – a trip to Krka national park.  We quickly agreed that dinner that night, followed by some beers, and the early morning bus to Krka was the plan.

We met some German Swiss girls in our hostel, after the sun had gone down and discussed possibly meeting them for a beer later, before heading to an awesome restaurant, right across from the hostel, on the edge of the old town. We went in and asked for the local specialty – shark, with salad and potatoes. It was delicious. The waiter also fetched us some excellent dark beer, quite different from the usual Croatian fare. Finally, he gave us a shot of a traditional Croat liqueur and asked us what we thought it was made from,. We drank it – it was delicious and I was quite sure it came from honey. He assured me, however, that it was made from snake’s urine. (This turned out not to be true and it was in fact honey – the cheeky monkey!) From here, we walked to the strip of clubs, where one of Croatia’s most famous punk/rock bands were giving a free outdoor concert. Their music was dire, so we crept away, discovered our Swiss German friends, and settled in by the water side for a couple of beers. Before long we were back in the hostel and off to sleep, ahead of the next day’s park trip.

The bus ride to the tourist-fuelled village which nestles alongside Krka were 20 of the sweatiest minutes of my life. Absolutely crammed in mid-August high season, and with primitive air-con, to be generous, my t-shirt was pretty moist before we arrived. We walked down to the harbour side, to wait for the boat to the main park area. The boat came quickly and then sailed steadily through the algae green water of the lake, surrounded by trees and small mountains. After arrival, we went to the ticket office and paid our outrageously cheap entry fee and we were in. From the first moment, you are struck by what a treasure the place is, as scores of people splash and swim amongst the stunning natural waterfalls.

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As you walk into the park proper, the beauty, not just of the water features themselves, but of the balance between light and shade and the different land and water life this promotes, is striking. Also of note is the amazing water turbine, set up by the great Tesla himself. Krka, it turns out, was the first place on earth to have a town with lights powered by hydroelectric power. The displaying of the original equipment is a really nice touch.

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At the end of the day, after walking around almost the entire lake complex, we went for a swim in the beautiful fresh water, amongst the fish, at the bottom of the lowest waterfall. It was an incredible experience, and I can honestly say I’ve never swum anywhere so atmospheric, even with so many people around. We walked back to our bus stop and got a slightly less sweaty bus back to the city. Once we were back at the hostel, we realised that the staff were having a party, so Dave and myself, along with 2 Croat girls who were really funny, hung out with the guys, and chatted about everything and nothing, while emptying too many bottles of beer. The next day, Dave was heading to Zadar, as was I, to take the ferry across to Istria and the industrial port of Pula, with its extensive Roman remains!