The Story of Santarém and St. Irene

Santarém, one of the more interesting cities of central Portugal.

Santarém is one of the more interesting towns in central Portugal due to the legend associated with it. It starts with the story of a beautiful nun named Irene from the nearby city of Tomar. It so happened that one day, her tutor (a monk actually) approached her with an indecent proposal. Rejecting him, the tutor got angry, quit his job and spread lies and rumors about Irene, claiming in one of them that she was pregnant. There was a nobleman named Britald who already had been in love with her and upon hearing these lies, became enraged and hired an assassin to kill her. The assassin snuck up on her when she was returning from helping an elderly cripple and killed her with his sword.

The Murder of Irene, lithography by Manuel Macedo and Alfredo Roque Gameiro, c. 1904.

He then threw her body into the Nabão River, from which it floated into the Tejo and the town of Scalabis. There, a group of Benedictine monks found the body in a miraculously uncorrupted form. Her uncle, who was also an abbot, received a vision from God of the true story of what really happened to Irene. He then cleared her name to the point that she began to have a following among the local people who more or less started a cult dedicated to her.

Long story short, Irene became a saint and the town of Scalabis was renamed Santarém in her honor (after Santa Iria or St. Irene or Tomar). It’s an interesting story indeed.

Historically speaking, the city that we now know as Santarém has been continuously inhabited by many peoples over the ages, starting with the indigenous Lusitanians and later Greek colonists, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and of course the Portuguese. The town is best known for its many beautiful churches and is an important bullfighting center.

Sites of Santarém


The two most famous landmarks in Santarém are actually old churches. At the center of the city in Praça Sá da Bandeira is the Igreja do Seminário, a large Baroque-style church built for the Jesuits by King João IV. The other is the 12th-century Igreja de Marvila, well-known for its diamond-patterned azulejo tiles.

Jardim das Portas do Sol

These are beautiful gardens built on the site of an old Moorish castle and surrounded by the city’s medieval walls. From the site’s terrace, one can see a spectacular view of the Tejo River Valley and its beautiful rolling hills in the distance.

Museu Arqueológico

Formerly the Church of São João de Alporão, it now is the city’s main archaeology museum and houses local archaeological artifacts dating from Roman, Visigoth and Moorish periods.

Torre das Cabaças

An old clock tower, this 22-meter structure is now the Núcleo Museológical do Tempo, a museum dedicated to clocks and telling time.

Igreja da Graça

This is a 14th-century church that is known for its rose window carved out of a single stone. It is also the place where Pedro Álves Cabral, the man who discovered Brazil, Brazil, was buried. In the late 1800s, his body was exhumed and reburied in Brazil, where he is today considered a national hero.

Igreja do Santíssimo Milagre

This is a 15th-centural Renaissance-era church that is said to contain a crystal flask with the blood of Jesus Christ. The museum is also known for its beautiful azulejo tiles.


During the first ten days of June, Santarém is the host of the Feira Nacional de Agricultura, the largest agricultural fair in the country. Portugal’s largest gastronomy fair, which showcases and provides samples of the Portugal’s best food from all over the country, is also held here during the months of October and November.

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