Persecution drove the warrior monks of the Middle Ages to Tomar in Portugal. There, Richard Robinson finds, they built their Camelot
“I SEE that you are not Jewish,” said the only person, other than my wife and I, inside the sparse, four-pillared chamber. My wife shot me a reprimanding look, as if I had done something really stupid. “You took your hat off when you came in,” he explained. “It is our custom to cover our heads.”
Luis Vasco, wearing the serge cap of his previous career in the Portuguese navy, then showed us around the synagogue – the only one in Portugal to have survived the Inquisition. It had been used as a jail and a barn until it was rescued earlier this century, and now it is a museum, housing a collection of Hebrew-inscribed tombstones salvaged from hidden corners of the country.
Before the king of Portugal ordered their expulsion in 1496, the Jews got along well enough with the Knights of Christ, successors in Portugal to the Knights Templar and the elite of this town of Tomar. Discredited and persecuted everywhere else in Europe, the knights withdrew to the west and built this redoubt, their Camelot.
Outside the synagogue a stony lane led upward towards the castle and abbey of the warrior-monks. For four centuries it was the headquarters of the knightly orders, a church on a bold hill, walled about with battlements. A town grew beneath the walls.
The day before, we had stood on the platform of Lisbon’s new Oriente railway station. Our train followed the river Tagus into the rural past. By a blunder on my part we travelled second-class and shared the carriage with students and weather-beaten peasants, mouths agape in sleep.
We trundled out of Lisbon’s industrial fringes and rattled into cork-tree country, and the vineyards of Ribatejo. This was the riverbank land where the boundary fluctuated, for 150 years or so, between Christian and Moor. It was a shifting frontier where the Templars, charged with the task of driving the Moor from the Iberian Peninsula, built their castles.
We arrived at Tomar station, its concourse lit with oil lamps, its cobbled platforms frustrating the use of wheeled suitcases. In the booking hall, an old-fashioned coin-in-the-slot machine posed the question “How much do you weigh today?” adding the injunction: “for persons only”.
The following day, we walked up to the castle, past the unusual circular chapel of the Charola (where the knights are reputed to have attended Mass on horseback) and beyond the main cloister where a stair led us to the Corridors of the Cross. The transept was getting on for 200 yds long, a tunnel-like hall lined with small, locked doors to the monks’ cells. The disembodied tramp and chatter of tour groups echoed from distant chambers. We were drawn to the light of a window at the extreme end, and to a sound of shouting and cheering from outside.
Below us, on the rough turf of the friars’ vegetable garden, appeared to be a medieval gathering. A crowd of villagers from centuries past was listening to a speech delivered from a balcony, when a plague of mice erupted on the scene. Scores of small children in mouse-costume swarmed from the wings, orchestrated by the director and shepherded by teams of matronly minders.
They chased and harassed the scattering crowd with great enthusiasm. They were rehearsing for their part in next month’s festa dos tabuleiros – Festival of the Trays.
Tomar holds the tabuleiros every four years, a festival in honour of the Holy Spirit, in which beef, bread and wine are given to the poor. It goes back to the founding of the Order of Christ. The townswomen are central to the procession, each in white, traditional dress and bearing a towering headdress of flowers and loaves equal to their own height. “In the old days they were all virgins,” the forewoman of the headdress makers told me. “But it is no longer practical to insist on this precondition.”
This is not a touristy area, but the authorities have recognised a marketable theme and developed the Templars’ Wine Route, one which we sampled with the help of farmer Jose Vidal. Actually, the frugal Templars were denied wine and all other luxuries. But somehow, the expression “drunk as a Templar” had crept into the English language by the time the hapless knights were suffering sham trials and burnings at the stake in 1307.
Lunch with Jose took place in a country dining-room – a plain roadside building with no sign outside – where we ate dried salted cod and baked potatoes with garlic served in a pot of boiling olive oil. While we ate, locals would amble in to refill their glasses at the wine vats which lined the wall.
Essential viewing on the Templar trail is the fairytale island castle of Almourol, which appears to float on the river Tagus. At nearby Constancia, a pretty town famous as the birthplace of the poet Camões and for its annual flower spectacle, there were graphic reminders of how unpredictable this once-navigable river could be. The black-and-white depth gauge scaled the grassy bank of the Tagus and continued across the road, high up a flight of stairs. In the winding streets of the old town, lines had been daubed on walls to illustrate the worst of the 1978 and 1979 floods – a good 15ft above the town square.
Almourol, though, is high, dry and pretty well impregnable. The romantic, towering walls rise from the summit of a crag jutting from the middle of the surging waters. A boatman, of the thickset stoical kind, stood on the bank waiting. I thought he was sure to overcharge: boatmen are notorious for it. We embarked anyway, and after scaling the heights and scrambling the ramparts, found that our return trip came to all of 35p each.
Our single visit to Tomar Castle and the Convent of Christ was not enough, and on our final day we climbed once again the stone-paved spiral of the wagon road. Purple blossom of the Judas tree carpeted the way and high above, the flags of the Templars and of Portugal flapped softly in the warm breeze.
The Chapter House was added to the Templar’s circular chapel by Dom Manuel, Grand Master and future king. This was the crowning glory of Tomar, and its masons employed all their powers in the creation of its jewel, a window of unrivalled complexity.
Here was all the mystery and romance from medieval chivalry to the Age of Discovery expressed in stone. Anaconda coils, scaly serpent swags, fat drapes of cable and chain, heraldic insignia, coats of arms, festoons of seaweed and tropical fruit all worked together in a marvellous fantasy of the mason’s art. It was worth coming to Tomar just for that.
Air Portugal (020 7828 0262) operates three flights daily from London Heathrow. Take a taxi to Lisbon Oriente station and then a train to Tomar (2hrs).
Stay in the Hotel dos Templarios (00 351 49 321730), a comfortable modern hotel five minutes’ walk from the town centre.
Contact the Portuguese Trade and Tourism Office (0171 494 1441) or Templarios Regional Tourist Office, Rua Serpo Pinto 1, Tomar (00 351 49 329000).
Photos by Luis de Matos (c) 2007