Portugal: Tomar

DSCF1423 tempeliersburcht Tomar

The Castle of the Templars.

The description of Tomar in our travel guide was particularly promising: a picturesque town in the shadow of a crusader castle and monastery perched on a hill. Since both the Convento de Christo and the Castelo dos Templários are listed as UNESCO World Heritage, we decided to take the car for a two-hour drive to Tomar. The first part of the trip was on country roads which were lovely during the daylight hours, but pitch dark on the way back to our apartment in the night. At one point, the road went downhill like the most exciting part of a rollercoaster… The second part of the trip was on Portugal’s excellent motorways. The toll roads are in mint condition, and relatively inexpensive.

We decided to park the car near the railway station. It was a Saturday and it soon became clear to us that Tomar, with a population of about 20.000, is a relaxed and quiet town, and anything but boring. There are plenty of parking locations near the station and you can park your car for free there. From the car park, it is just a short walk to Tomar’s main square, the Praça da República. Here one can find the São João Baptista, a fifteenth century church with an interesting tower and a lavishly decorated portal. In front of the church, on the square, is a twentieth century statue of Gualdim Pais (1118-1195), the founder of the town of Tomar.

The Knights Templar and the Order of Christ

Statue of Gualdim Pais.

Statue of Gualdim Pais.

Gualdim Pais was a Knight Templar and served as Grand Master of the Portuguese branch of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. He founded the Castelo dos Templários in 1160 and the town of Tomar two years later. The Castelo served as a frontier castle in the war against the Moors, in which the Templars were actively involved, but it lost its function in later years as the battlefront moved further south.

In the early fourteenth century, the Templars had become so wealthy and powerful that they were perceived as a serious threat by the French King Philip the Fair. Philip had the support of Pope Clemens V, a Frenchman who was born Raymond Bertrand de Got. In 1307, the French King cracked down on the Templars and arrested many of them. The Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burned at the stake in 1314. Coincidentally (or not), both the king and the pope also died in 1314.

While the Templars were persecuted throughout Europe when Pope Clemens dissolved their order in 1312, things went rather differently in Portugal. The Portuguese King Dinis I (1279-1325) refused to persecute the men who had served him so well. Instead he founded a new order, the Order of Christ. Dinis used clever diplomacy to persuade the new pope, John XXII, to recognise the new order and allow it to more or less inherit all of the Templars’ privileges, lands and other property. Soon the Order was just as powerful as the Templars had been. One of its most famous leaders was Henry the Navigator (1394-1460), who became its Grand Master in 1420. The Order used its wealth to finance naval exploration during the Age of Discoveries and many important expeditions were undertaken during Henry’s lifetime. Portuguese ships carried the Templar cross in their sails, and this symbol is still omnipresent in the streets of Tomar.

São João Baptista.

Castelo dos Templários and Convento de Christo

The Charola.

The oldest part of Tomar is on the left bank of the river Nabão. From the Praça da República, it is a short and easy climb to the castle and monastery on the hill. A map of the premises near the entrance gives a good impression of how the structures on the hill were developed over the centuries and how their functions changed. Originally, there was a crusader castle with strong walls and a central keep, one of the first in Portugal. From the walls, you have an excellent view of the town and you can see the Praça da República, the São João Baptista (see above) and the church of Santa Maria do Olival, which I will discuss in a minute. The visitor enters the complex through the Porta do Sol, the Gate of the Sun, and then finds himself on the former Parade Ground.

The ticket office and entrance to the complex is near the spectacular round chapel. This is called the Charola or Rotunda. It was built around the same time as the castle and served as the Templars’ chapel. It is possible that the Charola was based on the rotunda of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, just like for instance the Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome. On the inside is an octagonal structure, while the outside has sixteen sides and is supported by several buttresses. The Charola is without a doubt the highlight of the entire complex. While the structure is medieval, most of the decorations are from the reign of King Manuel I (1495-1521). When the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon used the chapel, its decorations were probably much more sober, but now it is lavishly painted with religious scenes from the life of Christ and adorned with statues.

Interior of the Charola, seen from the nave of the church.

Painted interior of the Charola.

Chapterhouse window.

Chapterhouse window.

Originally, the Charola was a round church in its own right, but in the fifteenth century it was turned into the apse of a new church when a nave was added to the building. This nave was rebuilt in 1510 by King Manuel I in the style which is named ‘Manueline’ after him.

A spectacular part of the exterior of the nave is the famous Manueline style chapterhouse window. At the bottom is the head of a man, usually identified as Diogo de Arruda (ca. 1490-1531), the Portuguese architect who worked on the church. Above the window is the Templar cross and surrounding it are many Manueline motifs pertaining to Portugal’s status as a seafaring nation: ropes, corals and armillary spheres.

The Spanish architect João de Castilho (1470-1552) was responsible for the equally spectacular southern portal of the church . The decoration is in Manueline style and we can see beautifully carved statues of the Virgin and Child and several prophets, as well as many Manueline motifs.

Decorations on the southern portal of the church.

Decorations on the southern portal of the church.

Tomb of Diogo da Gama.


The church is surrounded by as many as eight cloisters. The oldest cloisters are the Claustro de Lavagem and the Claustro de Cemitério, both fifteenth century and commissioned when Henry the Navigator was Grand Master of the Order. The first cloister was also for washing the monks’ habits; hence the name Claustro de Lavagem, i.e. ‘washing cloister’. The word Cemitério of course means cemetery, and here one can find the tomb of Diogo da Gama, brother of the more famous Vasco da Gama (1460-1524).

The Claustro Principal is to the southwest of the Charola. Construction began in the 1550s during the reign of King João III (1521-1557), Manuel’s son and successor. João was passionate about Italian art and the cloister was built in Portuguese renaissance style. Construction was not completed until well after João’s death. By the time of the cloister’s completion, Portugal had been conquered by Spain and the Spanish King Felipe II was on the Portuguese throne (the so-called Iberian Union, 1580-1640). He had ordered Italian architect Filippo Terzi (1520-1597) to finish the work, which the latter did in 1591.

The Claustro Principal.

The Claustro Principal.

What is so wonderful about the Convento de Christo is that the visitor is allowed to wander around on all the storeys of the cloisters. From the roof of the Claustro Principal, which was formerly used to dry honeycombs, one has an excellent view of the church and its elegant pinnacles. The other side of the church can be admired from the sixteenth century Claustro de Santa Bárbara. Many other parts of the complex can also be visited. Hardly any section is off-limit. You can walk around in the refectory and the kitchen, in a chapterhouse which was never completed and in the Claustro dos Corvos, which is connected to a seventeenth century aqueduct that provided water to the complex, the Aqueduct of Pegões.

The church seen from the roof of the Claustro Principal.

Back to Tomar

The Santa Maria do Olival.

Tomar itself is a small and very picturesque and friendly town. Near the railway station is the Museu dos Fósforos. Fósforos are matches, and the museum reportedly has some 43.000 matchboxes from 104 countries. Since we did not visit the museum, we were unable to verify this claim. We did want to visit the small Jewish museum in the historical centre, but regretfully found it closed. Jews were originally tolerated in Tomar and were an important and wealthy minority in the town. However, under Manuel I and João III, they were ultimately persecuted, forced to convert to Christianity or banished.

You can cross the river Nabão using the Ponte Velha, a fifteenth century bridge. If you do this, you will find the small Capela de Santa Iria to your right. According to legend, this Santa Iria or Saint Irene of Tomar was a nun who was martyred in the seventh century. Her body was thrown into the river and washed ashore uncorrupted in the town of Scalabis, some 45 kilometres to the south of Tomar. This town was renamed Santarém in her honour and we will visit it later. To the north of the Capela de Santa Iria is the Parque de Mouchão, a public park where one can find a large water wheel. My travel guide claims it might be from the Roman era, but while the Romans did make use of water power, this wheel is obviously far more modern. Near the entrance to the park is a restaurant called Bela Vista. The view is indeed lovely, and it serves good food at very reasonable prices.

Gualdim Pais’ tombstone.

Further to the south, on the eastern shore of the Nabão, is the Santa Maria do Olival. It is a thirteenth century Gothic church and it was used by the Templars and members of the Order of Christ for religious services. Many Templars were buried in this church, although their tombs have not survived. One of the chapels of the right aisle does contain a tombstone with the name of frater Gualdinus magister militum templi Portugal. One can easily guess that this is Gualdim Pais’ tomb slab. The church’s interior is anything but lavish; in fact, there is hardly any decoration. The church does have an original Gothic rose window and the freestanding bell-tower is also interesting.

To sum up, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Tomar, it was well worth the two-hour drive and we will surely return to this wonderful town some day.


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