Tomar – Inside the Mysterious Walls of the Templar Castle

We are on Republic Square. Black and white stones of limestone are precisely arranged in the chessboard form. It starts raining, rain drops are falling down on the paving stones creating their own patterns. Walking on the square we did not realize yet which figure on this chessboard is the main one. There is a statue of a man in the middle of the square but we did not have any idea who it might be yet.


We meet António and he takes us to a small tavern for lunch. It has a pretty suspicious name: Casa das Ratas – House of Rats. It is a small, narrow room, tables are arranged in one row. On one side, there are racks of bottles with wine and on the other side old wine casks painted red.

There is also rustic décor, simple wooden stools without backs. Two groups of local people are already enjoying their lunch here. The menu – very Portuguese. As is customary, we start with cheese, olives and bread. And of course a jug of a local delicious red table wine must not be missing. The waitress brings us clay plates and bowls with traditional Portuguese dishes: fried vegetables in dough, white beans with shrimps, liver in sauce, scrambled eggs with the typical sausage chouriço… We want to try everything! And it is the same when they bring us the desserts. All of them remind us of the solid, home-made dishes which we remember from our childhood – rice pudding, egg cream with a layer of hard caramel… we are not able to resist. At the same moment we think we cannot eat anything more, a bowl of purple pears lands on our table. I am still so sorry that I took only a pinch but I simply could not anymore. The pears were excellent because they swam in Port wine! At least I decided to share the recipe for this delicious dessert with you. You will find it here.

After this hearty lunch, we are not very happy about exploring some medieval walls on the hill over the town. It stopped raining, pigeons were fluttering about on the chessboard of the square, the boldest one sitting on the head of the statue. We would like to sit in the near café with the view on the church of Saint John the Baptist with the beautiful Gothic portal and the 8-side tower of Manueline style, sipping a strong Portuguese coffee and enjoying the calm Portuguese pulse of life where there is no place for stress.

However, our guide urges to move and shows us the trees on the hill with deep pink blossoms. They are called Judas trees because it is believed that Judas hanged himself from a tree of this species after his betrayal of Jesus.

Stronghold of the Portuguese Templar Knights
The more we are nearing the top of the hill the more we understand that we are approaching something majestic, mysterious and unique. Have a look at this map from Wikipedia, there are the residences of Templar Grand Masters in Europe in 1300. The Knights Templar were concentrated mostly in France, if you move your finger more to the left, the marks are becoming less and less until you reach Tomar. It means that what seemed to us like an ordinary medieval building in fact was the convent and castle Cristo Convento – the headquarters of the Portuguese Templar Knights for 500 years!

We enter the monument and what first catches my attention are the orange trees fully covered in blossoms and fruits. I remembered the relation between oranges and Portugal. You do not know what I mean? Never mind, go on with reading…

The foundation stone was placed by the Grand Master Gualdim Pais in 1160. That is the man whose statue is standing on the square where pigeons are flying and fluttering around…
After the dissolution of the Templar Order in the beginning of the 14th century, following the request of the King Denis of Portugal the seat of the former Knights Templar was converted into the seat of the new Order of Christ. Step by step we discover all seven courtyards, one decorated with typical blue-and-white azulejos tiles, the other one embellished with a fountain, then again there are some more orange trees in the other one… we admire beautiful cloisters, ribbed vaultings, elegant helicoidal stairways. Our steps rustle on the stone floor on which shadows of tall columns are falling. A mystic atmosphere is blowing from everywhere. I would not be surprised if a piece of a white habit with a red Templar cross would flash behind a column. Who knows what could happen because the knights of the order were not allowed to meet women and look at their faces. And what if the walls are still hiding the Ark of the Covenant, a lost Templar treasure or even the Holy Grail? Or some secret maps from the time before America was discovered? There are many speculations that the Templar Knights possessed such important maps. Many famous navigators were members of the order or were supported by it. By the way, Columbus used to have the Templar cross as an important symbol on the sails of his caravels as well…


The original church – charola – is the heart of the whole castle. It is an amazing 16-side polygonal structure which really astonished us. It was like entering a totally different world – a colourful one because the whole interior is magnificently decorated with frescos, paintings, sculptures and other ornaments richly embellished with gold. The church is covered with a Byzantine cupola. The ground plan of the internal church has an octagonal shape reminding of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem because the Knights Templar believed that the Dome was the site of the Temple of Solomon.

The most famous window of Portugal
Look at the map of Portugal. It is like an elongated crackling in the very far western part of Europe – where the earth ends and the sea begins. The neighbour on the right side is Spain, but there have always been complicated relations between the two countries, on the left side there is the ocean. No wonder that Portuguese people prefered to turn to that direction. Sea brought them both fame and wealth. The period when Portugal became a world’s power thanks to the voyages of exploration of its navigators is called „Século de ouro“ – golden age. The headquarters of these voyages, sponsored by the Order of Christ, was Tomar. The spirit of belief and the spirit of adventure influenced not only the soul of the nation but also a new style of art – called Manueline style after King Manuel I. It is a combination of the late Gothic and rich embellishment.

Several elements appear regularly: royal elements (coat of arms), national: the cross of the Order of Christ, caduceus – a winged stick with two winding snakes, but mostly – the armillary sphere which can be found really everywhere. It is a navigational instrument used for determination of the positions of stars. Knights, kings or even angels are holding this instrument on the historical buildings in Portugal and you can find it also on the national flag. Symbols of Christianity (rosary, angels, grape leaves) are also typical for the Manueline style as well as botanical motifs: trees, corals, algae, acorns and oak bark. But if you watch carefully you will also find such elements which look like forgotten props from “Pirates of the Caribbean” or even better – like equipment from sunken ships because there is a layer reminding of rust and old brown algae: anchors, chains, buoys, shells, swords, ropes and cables, sailor knots, belts with big clips, nets, etc. The best example of this style is the famous window on the western wall of the convent church – Janela Manuelina. This is the most popular window in Portugal and you will find it on every postcard from Tomar!

Portugal – The land of discoverers
There is a saying in Portugal: Romans conquered the limited sea while we conquered the infinite one. I wish to go back in time and peep inside the rooms of the Templar castle in the moment when they were discussing voyages of discovery which were supported by the order or after that, when cavaleiros navegantes were coming to report about discoveries of unknown worlds… Portugal can boast about such names we know from geography or history schoolbooks: Vasco de Gama – the first European who sailed around Africa and reached India by sea, Pedro Álvares Cabral – the discoverer of Brazil, Gil Eanes – he circled Cape Bojador, an impassable cape with dangerous streams, Bartolomeo Diaz – he helped to find a southeastern sea route between Western Europe and Asia and discovered the Cape of Good Hope, Fernao de Magalhaes – known for the first circumnavigation of the Earth, but he also discovered the Philippines and gave name to the Pacific Ocean, João Gonçalves Zarco – the settler of the Archipelago of Madeira or Antão Gonçalves who brought not only gold dust and ostrich eggs from the West African coast but he was the first European to buy Africans as slaves from black slave traders. The most important supporter of these voyages of discovery was Henry the Navigator. He was appointed as the Great Master of the Order of Christ on May 25, 1420. He not only sponsored the voyages, but also inspired and organized them. The name “Navigator” was given him much later because of his enthusiasm about sea voyages although he had never sailed anywhere… The red cross of his order can still be seen on the sails of the ships of the Portuguese Naval School and on the planes of the national military air force.

We leave the Templar headquarters fascinated by its history and ask António to make a short stop at the church of Santa Maria do Olival from the second half of the 12th century. This was actually the first Templar church in Tomar and a home sanctuary of Portuguese navigators. It is said that a secret underground corridor leads to the Templar castle on the hill. The current church is mostly the result of reconstructions but there is still a beautiful rose window and a Gothic portal. It is the burial place for the Knights Templar of Tomar, including Gualdim Pais, the founder of the order.

And what about the oranges?
Thanks to the voyages of exploration the Portuguese imported spices and other food to Europe. I mentioned some of them in the article about Portuguese pastries. Wild orange trees had grown in southern Europe since the 11th century but their fruits were bitter. Only in the 15th century sweet oranges were brought by Portuguese traders from India to Europe. Because of that in many languages the orange was named after Portugal – in Greek portokali, in Bulgarian portokal, in Persian porteghal, in Turkish portakal, in Arabic al-burtuqal, etc.

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  1. Pingback: Opité hrušky vo víne (Portugalsko) – travel potpourri

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