Seriously, this is like the coolest town in Central Portugal.
If you’re like me and fascinated with all things medieval, then you’ll love exploring the city of Tomar, Portugal. Seriously, you’ll feel as if you’ve gone back in time once you enter this really well-preserved Templar town.
History of Tomar
Though a Roman settlement during its earliest of days, Tomar’s history really begins with a warrior from the famed Knights Templar named Gauldim Pais. For those of you who may not know, the Knights Templar were a Catholic monastic military order that was founded and fought during that messy period of history known as the Crusades. Initially, their stated purpose was to protect Christian pilgrims as they made their way to Jerusalem and other parts of the Holy Land. However, they soon branched out into all sorts of other activities such as banking, shipping, managing trade routes and most notably, being some of the most badass soldiers of medieval times.
Gauldim was born in the Portuguese village of Amares in northern Portugal. He fought with Anfonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king and was knighted by the monarch in 1139 for his services to the Crown against the Moors, the name given to the Muslims who at that time occupied the Iberian Peninsula. Gauldim must have enjoyed his work because soon afterward, he embarked to protect the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, i.e. the European Crusader states in Palestine, from none other but the Muslims. After he arrived in Palestine, he joined the Knights Templar and fought in battles and during sieges in Gaza, Ascalon and Antioch.Gualdim eventually returned to the country of his birth and became the Grand Master of the Knights Templar in Portugal. In 1160, he commissioned a castle in what is now Tomar, back then close to the Portuguese / Moorish frontier. Legend has it that Gauldim chose the site of Tomar because of its seven hills, similar to the seven hills of Jerusalem and Rome. Both the castle and the surrounding countryside were attacked by Muslim forces several times, but Gauldim and his men were able to hold out long enough and protect this region of Portugal for several decades. He died in Tomar in 1195 at the ripe old age of 76 and was buried in the Church of Santa Maria do Olival.
By 1314, the Order of the Knights Templar had been banished by the Catholic Church and its remaining members severely persecuted. The Pope at the time, Clement V, ordered the Portuguese King Denis I to banish them from his realm. However, the Templars were his allies against the Moors, and so instead of disintegrating it, he created a new order known as the Order of the Knights of Christ and transferred all Templar assets and possessions to that.
Historical significance aside, Tomar today is a quiet town surrounded by all of the natural beautiful of Central Portugal. The heart and soul of the city is its 12th-century castle that contains the grand Convento de Cristo.
Convento de Cristo
Let’s get right to it. If you happen to be in Tomar, there is a 97.6% chance that you’re there to see the Convento de Cristo. Founded by the Grand Master of the Templars in Portugal, Mr. Gualdim Pais, the castle and convent is a place that would be ideal as a set to film an episode or two of Game of Thrones.
The main attractions of the complex include the following:
This is the original church with a 16-sided rotunda, modelled after designs that Gauldim had seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s pretty surreal to walk around and see the impressive artwork that dons the Charola’s walls and ceiling, most of it added after 1356 when the Order of the Knights of Christ returned to Tomar. Though back in the day this was the monks’ oratory, it later became the main the chapel of the church.
Built in the mid 1500s, the cloister is actually Italian by design. This is due to King João III’s affinity for all things Italian.
There are spiral staircases here that lead to the…
Terrace of Wax
This is where honey was made in the castle/convent. I guess some of those monks must have had a sweet tooth or two.
This is where tombstones of various monks who once lived here are along with a well.
This is a two-level church that while large, is not as impressive as the other parts of the Convento de Cristo.
This is a tower and good lookout point for viewing the rest of the castle.
The camera shaking aside, the video below gives a good video tour of the castle and convent:
As you can see, it’s definitely worth visiting.
Igreja de Santa Maria do Olival
Similar to the Convento de Cristo, the igreja or Church of St. Mary of Olival is another reminder of Tomar’s Templar past. Along with that of Gualdim Pais, the Templar’s first Grand Master in Portugal, are the tombs of subsequent leaders of the Order and its successor, the Knights of Christ. The architecture and interior is really ornate, especially the stained-glass window with a rose pattern that glistens in the sun. In front of it is a three-story stone bell tower, which to be honest looks a bit out of place.
Church of São João Baptista & Praça da República
Located in Praça da República, Tomar’s man town square, the Church of São João Baptiste (St. John the Baptist) is unique for its octagonal-shaped stone clock tower and the works of art contained inside, the most famous of these being the 16th-century Last Supper by Gregório Lopes.
At the center of Praça da República is a large statue of Gauldim Pais. If you don’t know who that is by now, you obviously missed his biography and all of the references to him above (see above). The perimeter of the square is surrounded by cute little 17th-century houses (yes, I called them cute).
Museu Luso-Hebraico de Abraham Zacuto
Housed in one of Portugal’s oldest synagogues, the Museu Luso-Hebraico is a museum that is named after Abraham Zacuto, a famous 15th-century Jewish astronomer and mathematician. The story of the synagogue is kind of sad. Taking several years to build, the synagogue was completed around 1460 but only able to be used for a few decades because in 1493, all Jews were banished from Portugal by King João II and also the following year by his son, Manuel I. Today, the atmosphere is in and around the synagogue is quite serene and contains a number of medieval Jewish artifacts including ceramics and limestone slabs with Hebrew writing on them. The place pays homage to the Jews’ glorious as well as troubled past in the Iberian Peninsula.
This is a quirky museum that supposedly holds the largest collection of matchboxes in the world. The museum’s collection contains at least 43,000 matchboxes from over 100 countries. Located in the old church of São Francisco, the museum is truly one of a kind.
Núcleo de Art Contemporânea
Also known as the Tomar Museum of Contemporary Art, this museum showcases about 100 or so modernist and surrealist works that were donated by art historian and critic José-Augusto França. Along with paintings, there are several interesting exhibits featuring photography and sculpture.
Other areas close by that are worth exploring include the cities of Fátima, Santarém and the Templar Castle of Almourol.
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