Santarém is the capital of the Santarém District in the Ribatejo region in central Portugal. It is by no means a large city, with a population of about 30.000. Yet it has many interesting monuments and is definitely worth a visit. Just don’t go there on a Monday or Tuesday, as you will find most of the tourist attractions closed.
The city is named after a nun called Iria – or Irene – who lived in Portugal in the seventh century. At that time, the Visigoths controlled the entire Iberian peninsula and Portugal was part of their kingdom. Iria was a young woman from a well-to-do family who had devoted her life to worshipping God. Apparently, the fact that she had become a nun did not scare off male attention. A young man desperately fell in love with her, but she wanted to remain celibate and turned him down. When the young man became very ill with depression, Iria explained to him that her turning him down had nothing to do with him, but with her devotion to the Lord. Then Iria’s tutor started behaving badly by making a pass at her, and she turned him down as well. The tutor subsequently started spreading false rumours about her and told people she was pregnant. The young man became exceptionally angry when he heard this news and hired an assassin to kill Iria. Iria was murdered and her body thrown into the river Nabão, near what would later become Tomar.
Her body was washed ashore in a town called Scalabis, which was some 45 kilometres to the south of Tomar. Scalabis had been inhabited by the Lusitanians since history’s early days and had become part of a Roman province in the late second century BCE. Julius Caesar was sent to the province of Hispania Ulterior (“Further Spain”) as a propraetor in 61 BCE and actively campaigned against the Lusitanians in the region. Scalabis was alternatively known as Praesidium Julium after Caesar. Originally it would have been just a small settlement on a hill, about where one can find the Jardim das Portas do Sol nowadays. It later became an important commercial centre because of its strategic location on the river Tagus (Tejo in Portuguese). The town was renamed Sancta Irene or Xantarim and later Santarém in honour of Santa Iria, whose body had been found here. The city was taken by the Moors when they crushed the Visigothic Kingdom in the eighth century, and the first King of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, took it back on 15 March 1147. To commemorate his victory, the king began the construction of the famous Alcobaça complex.
Santarém is also known as the Capital do Gótico, the capital of Gothic architecture. We visited the tourist information office first, got plenty of useful information, but also found out that for some reason most of the tourist attractions are kept closed not just on Mondays – which is pretty standard procedure – but also on Tuesdays! And we visited Santarém on a Tuesday… Fortunately, one of the most famous churches in the city was still open to the public, the fourteenth century Igreja da Graça. It has an exceptional Gothic rose window, made from a single piece of stone. The Gothic portal of the church is also interesting.
In front of the church is a statue of Pedro Álvares Cabral (ca. 1467-1520), the Portuguese explorer who discovered Brazil in 1500. Cabral is shown brandishing a Christian cross in his right hand, holding it out in front of him. With his left hand he is touching the hilt of his sword, perhaps a grim reminder that exploration and colonialism were profitable for some, but a disaster for others.
Cabral is buried in the Igreja da Graça and you can still see his grave in the right apse. If you have visited the Santa Engrácia church in Lisbon, you may have spotted a funerary monument for Cabral there as well. That monument is just a cenotaph; his actual grave is in the Igreja da Graça in Santarém. The interior of the church is quite simple and sober. There is hardly any decoration, the walls and columns are all white and there is no ceiling either. The visitor is not allowed to take pictures, something I only found out after I took the picture that you can see on the far left. Fortunately, the guard was not watching me, as she was having a heated discussion with another visitor.
Santarém has several more interesting Gothic churches. One of them is the São João de Alporão, which is also an archaeological museum. Our travel guide informed us that the museum had been closed for several years because of problems with the foundations. These were reportedly resolved in 2014, but the lady at the tourist information office told us the building had been closed again for the very same reason, and not just on Tuesdays.
It is a pity we could not visit the museum, as it houses the famous tomb of Duarte de Meneses, a Portuguese nobleman who died in Morocco in 1464. His body was never recovered, so the tomb is in fact a cenotaph, although the lady at the tourist office told us the Portuguese did manage to find back a single tooth.
To the Tagus and back
We continued our tour to the Jardim das Portas do Sol, a public park and garden in the oldest part of Santarém. You can still see parts of the old city walls here. The Jardim is high above the river Tagus and from the walls you have a splendid panaromic view of the countryside. Down below is the Ponte Dom Luís I, named after the king who ruled Portugal from 1861 to 1889. The river looks like it has silted up in places. We did not see a single ship, so river traffic is now apparently not as important as it used to be.
After admiring the view and having a drink at one of the bars in the Jardim, we returned to the city centre. My better half went shopping and I decided to wander through the streets to see if there were more churches open to the public. I found the doors of the Igreja do Santissimo Milagre open and went inside. The church is a sixteenth century reconstruction of an older building.
It houses a precious relic from the thirteenth century, a vial containing the blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Apparently the transubstantiation did work out for once, and the host used during the Eucharist actually became Jesus’ blood in 1266. The church, dedicated to Saint Stephen the protomartyr, was named after this Most Holy Miracle. The relic is kept away from visitors though. I was not allowed to see it, nor to enter the sacristy. It did not matter. I was grateful the volunteer guard was there at all, so that I could see the church from the inside.
The Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Conceição do Colégio dos Jesuítas is the cathedral of Santarém. It is also known as the Igreja do Seminário and was built for the College of Jesuits in the seventeenth century by King João IV (1640-1656).
Previously, there was a royal palace at this site. It is a bit ironic that the Igreja do Seminário became a cathedral, since you would expect a Gothic church to hold this position in the Capital do Gótico. This church is obviously Baroque. I did not get a chance to admire the interior, as the church was closed. I visited the octagonal Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Piedade on the other side of the square instead.
Then I found a pleasant surprise around the corner. In the distance, I noticed the rose window of a religious building that looked really old. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be the Convento de São Francisco, a thirteenth century convent that had been abandoned long ago and was now apparently under renovation. Franciscan monks had settled in Santarém as early as 1240, just 14 years after the death of their religious leader, Saint Francis of Assisi.
The convent was commissioned by King Sancho II (1223-1247) and construction started in 1242. The complex was completed some 40 years later. It must have been a grand structure. Originally, King Fernando I (1367-1383) was buried here, as was the Duarte de Meneses mentioned above. All religious orders were disbanded in 1834 and a 1940 fire badly damaged the building. After the fire, King Fernando’s tomb was translated to Lisbon, and Duarte’s cenotaph had already been moved to the São João de Alporão in 1928.
While I was admiring the – obviously modern – rose window, I noticed that some visitors were leaving the convent. Apparently it was open to the public today. A lady who spoke English reasonably well sold me a ticket and told me I could take pictures as long as I would not publish them on Facebook. Assuming a personal blog is more or less the same thing as Facebook, I will not publish them here either. The interior of the church is interesting, although there is little decoration. I did find one chapel (or what is left of it) covered in the remains of azulejos. While I was admiring the pleasant cloister outside, my better half texted me that she had not been able to find the shoes she was looking for. She desired to be picked up, and this text message concluded our trip to Santarém.