Travel

Gaztelugatxe – Hundreds of stone stairs and a winding medieval bridge connect this haunting Spanish island to the mainland

Posted on Updated on

SITTING OFF THE BASQUE COAST of Spain, the tiny island of Gaztelugatxe would probably just be another tiny isle left off of maps and all but forgotten, were it not for the fantastical stone bridge and famed steps that connect its single hermitage to the mainland.

Today, the crooked stone bridge that connects Gaztelugatxe to the shore looks more like something that one might see on Game of Thrones,  but when it was originally built in the 11th century, the span was simply a sturdy lifeline to the religious hermitage erected atop the sea crag. The structure, along with its attendant stone path seems to have been established by the Knights Templar. Down the centuries, the little church has been sacked, burned, and otherwise destroyed, but was rebuilt each time.

The church is still standing on the little rock, looking, maybe more enticing than ever, its history simply adding to its charm. The ancient bridge and the hundreds of stairs leading up to the church are still a popular tourist attraction and can be accessed by a well-groomed modern path. Along the bridge are smaller staircases that lead down to reflecting spots at the edge of the water. The hermitage can also be visited, and legend says that after ascending the old staircase, visitors should make a wish.

Whether or not you are interested in ancient construction or churches at all, doesn’t really matter as this spot can just as easily be appreciated for its uncanny resemblance to a location you might use in a Dungeons & Dragons game.   

in atlasobscura.com

Execution Site of Jacques de Molay

Posted on Updated on

ON MARCH 18, 1314, JACQUES de Molay was burnt at the stake near this site on Ile de Cite in the middle of the Seine in Paris. Up to the moment of his untimely demise, he was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, a powerful religious organization established during the Crusades.

The Knights Templar had amassed a great deal of wealth and influence and thus became targets of retribution, both by the ruling classes of France led by King Philip IV and the Catholic Church headed by Pope Clement V.

Trumped up charges of sodomy and blasphemy were brought against the religious order, and Molay and several other Knights were arrested and made to confess to these crimes. They were most likely tortured by Inquisitors hired by the pope. The French king himself had borrowed a great sum of money from the Knights Templar and saw this as an opportunity to confiscate the massive amount of wealth and land they possessed. Each man had a reason to find the incarcerated parties guilty, and thus the Knights were doomed to fail.

Continuing to protest his innocence even while on the smoldering pyre, Molay is said to have shouted out a curse on both the king and pope. He reputedly swore that neither men nor their descendants would live beyond one year and one day from this injustice. And, it is true that both Pope Clement V and King Philip IV died within a year of the execution, though it would take another 14 years to wipe out the lineage of the king.

Located behind the Statue of Henri IV riding a horse, on Pont Neuf Bridge. There are two sets of stairs, both will lead you down to Square du Vert Galant. There are several plaques, in French, telling you the story of Jacques de Molay. There are stories that he was burnt in front of Notre Dame, but he did indeed meet his demise on Ile de Cite.

in atlasobscura.com

The Village of Monsanto – Houses are tucked between, on, and underneath giant boulders

Posted on Updated on

IN 1938, THE VILLAGE OF Monsanto was dubbed the most “Portuguese town in Portugal.” Yet at first glance, Monsanto certainly does not seem representative of the entire country. For one thing, most Portuguese houses are not sandwiched between gigantic boulders.

Defined by its landscape, Monsanto hangs off a mountaintop overlooking the Portuguese countryside, with views for miles.The mountaintop has actually been extremely important strategic position since prehistoric times. It’s crowned by the remains of a Templar castle, which was partially destroyed by an explosion, in the 19th century.

The village has hardly changed in hundreds of years, and enjoys distinction in Portugal as a living museum. Due to this standing, Monsanto cannot be changed and has retained its classic village charm.

Its tiny streets wind at a steep grade past red-roofed cottages tucked against mossy boulders. Some of the boulders are actually fitted with doors, leading to structures carved right into the rocky landscape.

While the mountainous town seems a bit unorthodox, it is actually a unique twist on classic Portuguese architecture.

Walking along the cobbled streets it soon becomes evident that Monsanto is a microcosm of Portugal. The architecture even incorporates the Portuguese Manueline style on a number of buildings and a church. While it certainly represents the classic Portuguese village style, visitors will no doubt be more impressed with the cottages built in boulder chic than medieval Romanesque or Manueline.

in atlasobscura.com

Abbazia di Valvisciolo (Valvisciolo Abbey)

Posted on Updated on

THE BEAUTIFUL ABBEY OF VALVISCIOLO (from the Italian “Valle dell’Usignolo”, Valley of the Nightingale) can be found between the gardens of Ninfa and the medieval town of Sermoneta, set against a backdrop of central Italy’s Lepini mountains. 

Though we know very little about the earliest history of the abbey, it dates back to at least the 12th century, if not earlier. It was founded by Greek Basilian monks, and supposedly occupied by the Knights Templar in the 13th century. Legend has it that the Church’s architraves broke when the Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was burnt at the stake in 1314 (the Order had been suppressed and its members persecuted).

Traces of the abbey’s Templar past are believed to be subtle but very significant. A small templar cross is carved on the rose window on the façade, and the crack in the architrave is visible just underneath. More templar crosses have been spotted inside the church and on the ceilings of the cloister.

But one of the the abbey’s most interesting features is a very small carving on the wall that you walk past to enter the cloister. Sheltered by a transparent screen, you will find an unusual palindromic SATOR inscription. Its shape is not square, like those found elsewhere, but instead five concentric circles, crossed by five lines that divide the circles into five sectors that contain five letters. The palindrome is read in the following way in any direction: Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas. The exact meaning of the inscription is unclear.

If you look carefully, you might also spot several carvings of Solomon’s knot (which has been interpreted as a metaphor of one’s esoteric journey in search of the self and of truth) and of the omphalos, the sacred center of the world. All of these carvings were discovered during restorations of the cloister and they might provide a mysterious testimony of the presence of the Knights Templar and of their spiritual symbolism.

Today, the Romanesque-Cistercian style abbey is home to Cistercian monks. The church has three naves divided by pillars and columns and bare walls, as the Cistercian tradition that avoids architectural splendor to emphasize the importance of the spiritual over the material.

in atlasobscura.com

Convento de Cristo

Posted on Updated on

A MAGNIFICENT CASTLE OVERLOOKS THE river Nabão. It is known as a convent, but it was built in 1160 as a headquarters for the Knights Templar, the formidable Catholic military that answered to the Pope.

When sovereigns feared the Pope had too much power, they annihilated the Knights Templar. In France, many were burned at the stake. In Portugal however, King Denis I took pity, and instead renamed the knights the Order of Christ. This new order would answer to the King, but was later demilitarized and converted to an entirely religious order.

The subsequent heads of the Order added on to the castle in the centuries to follow. Additions included cloisters, connecting corridors, an aqueduct, and an expanded chapel, not to mention decadent ironworks, paintings, and tapestries. All of these were built in the various prevailing styles of the day, from Romanesque to Gothic to Renaissance. The greatest architectural draw is the Manueline chapel, an ornate architectural style found only in Portugal.

Today, the Convento de Cristo is preserved as a museum. It has been a World Heritage site since 1983. The striking architecture, beautiful gardens, and unparalleled view offered by the hilltop castle don’t disappoint.

in atlasobscura.com

Burg Lahneck – Centuries of warfare, tragedy, executions, and poetry come together in this 13th-century fortress

Posted on Updated on

FROM ITS ORIGINAL CONSTRUCTION IN 1226, all the way up through the 20th century, Burg Lahneck has experienced many notable events that have led to it’s intriguing tale including several wars, political unrest, the tragic death of a young noble. The castle even inspired the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The castle was built at the confluence of the Lahn and Rhine rivers by Siegfried III of Eppstein in order to protect the town of Oberlahnstein and a nearby silver mine. In subsequent years the castle became the setting for several battles and political strife. In 1309, the castle was stormed by King Albert I of Habsburgs after the Burgrave of Lahneck, Friedrich Schilling of Lahnstein who occupied the castle, participated in a conspiracy against Albert. Albert’s forces storming of the castle was successful, and Schilling was executed at the castle for his part in the conspiracy. 

Another event of note would be the slaying of the last Knights Templar warriors. When Pope Clement V demanded the Knights Templar disband in 1312, the legend goes that the last 12 Templars barricaded themselves within the confines of Burg Lahneck. All perished in a desperate fight against the overwhelming forces of Mainz Archbishop Peter of Aspelt.

Several centuries later, in 1633 during the Thirty Years War, the castle was assaulted and left in relative ruin by the passing Swedish and imperial troops.

Burg Lahneck also holds a note of literary importance as it is was the inspiration for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem, “Geistesgruß” or “Ghost Greetings”. It is said Goethe felt the need to pen the poem after spotting the castle during his travels along the river Lahn on July 8, 1774.

Goethe’s poem however, is not the only event concerning the castle that is remembered in writing. In June of 1851, a Scottish family visited the area of Burg Lahneck on holiday with their 17-year-old daughter, Idilia Dubb. The story goes that Idilia went out to sketch the Rhine river valley and its surroundings to keep as a keepsake when they returned to Scotland. In search of a breathtaking vantage point of the valley, Idilia entered the abandoned Lahneck Castle and climbed the wooden staircase to the top of the castle’s keep. Unfortunately, due to countless battles which left the castle in ruins and the lack of repair or upkeep, the wooden staircase leading to the top of the keep collapsed once Idilia reached the top. She was now trapped at the top of the ruined castle, and due to the high walls surrounding her, her cries for help were unable to be heard by anyone in the vicinity. Her family searched for her, but to no-avail, and eventually returned to Scotland. Nearly 10 years later in 1860, German workers repairing the castles keep found Idia’s skeletal remains at the top of the castle. It is said that her diary was found next to her body, documenting her trip to the area and the last moments of her life in the ruined castles keep. 

 Historians have been skeptical about the validity of the diary, however that has not prevented it from being printed in mass publication in 2002 under the title “Das verschwundene Mädchen : die Aufzeichnungen der Idilia Dubb”  or “The Missing Girl: The Records of Idilia Dubb.”

in atlasobscura.com

III International Conference “Order of the Temple – Spiritual Chivalry – Templarism”.

Posted on

The Templar Interpretation Center of Almourol (CITA) of Vila Nova da Barquinha promoted, on the weekend of November 13th and 14th, the III International Conference “Order of the Temple – Spiritual Chivalry – Templarism”.

The municipal auditorium hosted some of the best national and international experts on the subject, with speakers from countries such as Spain, the United States, Croatia and Portugal: Luis de Matos (Chancellor of OSMTHU), Carlos Trincão (Teacher and member of TREF), Álvaro Barbosa (Architect and former director of Convento de Cristo), Virgílio Alves (Philosopher and Senior Technician in Public Administration), João Pedro Silva (Researcher and member of OSMTHU), Ernesto Alves Jana (Historian and member of TREF), Jefferson Perry (former -military), José Miguel Navarro (OSMTHU’s Senescal expert in security systems), Lovro Tomasinec (Croatian Order of Knights Templar OSMTH) and Manuel J. Gandra (CITA Researcher and Curator).

The book “Almourol – 850th anniversary of its foundation, in the context of the Order of the Temple in Portugal”, was launched at the event.

Fernando Freire, Mayor of the City Council, and Paula Pontes, Councilor for the Department of Culture, were present at the conference. The initiative also featured the musical animation of Fernando Espanhol, in a medieval music moment.

The Almourol Templar Interpretation Center is the first of its kind in Portugal. It has a permanent exhibition room, a space for temporary exhibitions and a projection room for films on the theme of the Templars. The Library – Templar Archives is also located in the same building, which has a vast literary collection dedicated to this theme, the result of donations from Teresa Furtado and Manuel J. Gandra.

Centro de Interpretação Templário de Almourol; Largo 1.º Dezembro; 2260-403 Vila Nova da Barquinha Tel.: 249720358E-mail: cita@cm-vnbarquinha.pt

III Conferência Internacional “Ordem do Templo – Cavalaria Espiritual – Templarismo”

Posted on Updated on

O Centro de Interpretação Templário de Almourol (CITA) de Vila Nova da Barquinha promoveu, no fim de semana de 13 e 14 de novembro, a III Conferência Internacional “Ordem do Templo – Cavalaria Espiritual – Templarismo”.

O auditório municipal acolheu alguns dos maiores especialistas nacionais e internacionais na temática, com oradores oriundos de países como Espanha, Estados Unidos, Croácia e Portugal: Luis de Matos (Chanceler da OSMTHU), Carlos Trincão (Professor e membro do TREF), Álvaro Barbosa (Arquiteto e ex-diretor do Convento de Cristo), Virgílio Alves (Filósofo e Técnico Superior na Administração Pública), João Pedro Silva (Investigador e membro da OSMTHU), Ernesto Alves Jana (Historiador e membro do TREF), Jefferson Perry (ex-militar), José Miguel Navarro (Senescal da OSMTHU perito em sistemas de segurança), Lovro Tomasinec (Croatian Order of Knights Templar O.S.M.T.H.) e Manuel J. Gandra (Investigador e Curador do CITA).

O evento foi marcado pelo lançamento do livro “Almourol – 850.º aniversário da sua fundação, no contexto da Ordem do Templo em Portugal”, efeméride que se assinala este ano.

Marcaram presença na conferência Fernando Freire, Presidente da Câmara Municipal, e Paula Pontes, Vereadora do Pelouro da Cultura. A iniciativa contou ainda com a animação musical de Fernando Espanhol, num registo de música medieval.

O Centro de Interpretação Templário Almourol é o primeiro do género em Portugal. Dispõe de uma sala de exposição permanente, espaço de exposições temporárias e de uma sala de projeção de filmes sobre a temática dos templários. No mesmo edifício funciona também a Biblioteca – Arquivo Templário, que dispõe de um vasto acervo literário dedicado a este tema, fruto das doações de Teresa Furtado e de Manuel J. Gandra.

Centro de Interpretação Templário de Almourol Largo 1.º Dezembro2260-403 Vila Nova da Barquinha Tel.: 249720358E-mail: cita@cm-vnbarquinha.ptHorário:- Dias úteis: 9h00 às 12h30 / 14h00 às 17h30- Fins de semana/feriados: 10h00 às 13h00 / 15h00 às 18h00(encerra à 2.ª feira de 1 de outubro a 30 de abril).

Pyeyros

Posted on

Según la documentación medieval la aldea de “Pyeyros”, el actual lugar de Pieros (León), perteneció a la Orden del Temple, que tuvo allí numerosas propiedades rurales hasta el punto de llegar a constituir una encomienda aneja a la de Ponferrada, regida por el mismo comendador, que entre 1220-1224 fue frey Domingo Fernández y entre 1240-1249 frey Juan Fernández “el Viejo”. Se trataría de una granja fortificada, con capilla incluida dentro de las murallas, al estilo de Aberin (Navarra). Por desgracia todo ha desaparecido, únicamente resta la pequeña capilla originalmente obra del 1086 reconstruida en románico por el Temple. Hoy está irreconocible y lo único medianamente románico es su espadaña, con la pequeña portada oeste y algunos muros. Según es tradición las piedras de los edificios templarios se llevaron al vecino Monasterio de Carracedo, en el s.XVIII, para restaurar el templo de aquel cenobio, por eso hoy podemos ver en él numerosos sillares llenos de extraños signos: hexapétalas, rosáceas, poliskeles.

in Sigillum Templi, por Diego Wesley Nogueira

Temple Bruer

Posted on Updated on

CONCEALED IN A FARMYARD IN rural Lincolnshire, this rare 13th-century tower once bore witness to one of England’s richest Knights Templar preceptories, second only to The Temple in London. One of a pair, this sole surviving three-story southeast tower once flanked the chancel of a round church. Today, Temple Bruer it is one of very few Knights Templar preceptories still standing in Great Britain.

The Knights Templar were a religious military order established at the time of the Crusades in the late Middle Ages. Their role was to protect pilgrims and the shrines of the Holy Land. As their popularity grew, they quickly went from rags to riches. Powerful and wealthy, they were able to finance their work through a Europe-wide network of preceptories, of which Temple Bruer was one.

The Knights Templar remained rich and successful for almost 200 years, but after the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land fell, their popularity declined, and they were accused of misconduct and corruption. In 1308, the Grand Prior of England was arrested and imprisoned at Temple Bruer in Lincoln. The order was suppressed not long after, and the Knights Hospitaller took its place. The Dissolution of the Monasteries around 1540 saw Temple Bruer granted to the Duke of Suffolk by King Henry VIII, who stayed there with his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, on the way to Lincoln. Over time, the church gradually became a ruin with only the southeast tower remaining, which can still be seen today.

Categorized as a scheduled monument, this present tower, constructed of limestone ashlar, was restored in both the early 20th century and in 1961. In 1833 an archaeological excavation carried out at the Temple Bruer site concluded in a report that the ruins exhibited many signs of violence including that of live burials and infant sacrifice. The existence of subterranean vaults containing human remains previously submitted to the operation of fire was also claimed. A subsequent excavation in 1908 largely discredited these findings, although two stairways descending to a crypt were discovered. Sections of stone pillar also discovered during the 1908 excavations can now be seen on display in the ground-floor chamber along with a damaged stone effigy slab in the form of a knight which was unearthed when a petrol pump was installed in the car park situated next to the tower.

 The interior walls of the tower and the spiral staircase are covered with a veil of graffiti, some dating from as early as the 17th century. A number of masons’ marks are visible, and it is speculated that apotropaic or witches’ marks can also be found. For centuries, symbols and marks were carved or scratched into the fabric of buildings, particularly near entrance points, to offer protection from witches and evil spirits. Due to the Templars being accused of devil worship, infanticide, and many other heinous crimes, it is possible locals added these marks after their arrest to ward off evil, but it is left up to the visitor to decide.

in atlasobscura.com

Temple Church – An unusual round church in London with a Templar past

Posted on Updated on

WHETHER OR NOT YOU’VE READ The Da Vinci Code and subsequent thrillers, you may have heard of the Knights Templar. A few facts can be confirmed about the Knights. A group of pilgrims traveled to Jerusalem in 1119, and some of them were armed and followed a strict, religiously inspired code. Here’s where the facts get muddy. According to the story, nine among them took vows to become monks and were trapped in the Temple of Solomon. Or so the story goes…

Named Knights Templar because of the Temple of Solomon (“templar” meaning of the temple) their group quickly blossomed as more pilgrims began traveling to Jerusalem from Europe. Muslim–Christian tensions in Jerusalem rose, and it became very expensive to protect the Christian pilgrims. Funds were raised from Europe as the Knights grew in number and prestige.

Back in London, the Knights began to influence politics. With wealthy friends and their Church in central London, the Templars became intertwined in the financial and domestic concerns of the burgeoning English nation. The Master of the Church was an ex officio member of Parliament: separation of Church and State was more than five hundred years away.

Temple Church

With a distinct round nave, the Temple Church was consecrated in 1185. The round church is modeled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. (In a twist of fate, that church may originally have been a temple to Aphrodite in the second century.)

But by the late 1200s, the Crusades weren’t going so well, and, with other troubles in France, the clout of the Knights waned. When they eventually fell in 1307, their land was seized by the Crown. King Edward II used the land and buildings for law colleges that developed into the present-day Inns of Court.

During World War II, German firebombs damaged the roof of the Temple Church, but it has since been restored. Visit the website for details about when the sanctuary is open for services and musical performances.

Side note: the library at Middle Temple owns valuable antique maps. These maps depict land we now know not to exist, but they are fascinating, nonetheless. A 1570 edition Abraham Ortelius’ Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World). Check the Middle Temple Library website for times.

in atlasobscura.com

Isla de San Simón – Small, lush island has a long and bloody history

Posted on Updated on

ON THE ISLAND OF SAN Simón (Pontevedra, Spain), Canarian palms grow alongside acacia and eucalyptus. A pathway lined with boxwood trees known as the Paseo de los Buxos welcomes visitors to the small island off the coast of Vigo, Spain.

The Isla de San Simón is part of the San Simón archipelago along with several other islets. These small spits of land are part of an estuary environment that supports important biodiversity.

Though it currently has no permanent residents, San Simón has seen a number of inhabitants over the years. The earliest records of inhabitance dates back to the 12th century when a monastery founded by the Order of the Temple was established on the island. The Knights Templar (…) were the island’s main residents until the 14th century, when it was abandoned. 

Over the following centuries, San Simón saw a number of naval battles and was used as a hiding place for valuable cargo. From 1838 to 1927 the island housed a quarantine station for those with serious contagious diseases including cholera and leprosy.

Not long after the quarantine site shut down, its buildings were repurposed for use as a penal colony during the Spanish Civil War. Political prisoners from all over Spain were held at the camp, where they were subjected to inhumane living conditions and mass executions. The camp was shut down in 1948.

Today, the Spanish government has turned San Simón into an “Isla del Pensamiento” (“Island of Thought”), meant to honor the history of the island and inspire deep, creative thought. In addition to the historic buildings, sculptures scattered across the island memorialize different parts of its heritage. A partially submerged monument on the east shore commemorates San Simón’s appearance in Jules Verne’s 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

The island houses ancient graveyards, sculpture gardens, and surprises around every turn. It can only be accessed by boat.

in atlasobscura.com [edited]

The mysterious stained glass London telephone box that has puzzled historians for years

Posted on Updated on

The phone box can be found near Temple station next to the River Thames

The classic red phone box is a familiar sight for anyone walking the streets of London.

Along with the famous red London buses , the phone box is a recognisable nod to the city’s great history .

Tourists can often be seen posing for photographs outside these phone boxes to mark their trip to the capital.

However, there’s one phone box in the capital even more ornate and recognisable than all the rest.

Between Temple and Blackfriars Tube stations, on the bank of the River Thames , you will find London’s only stained glass phone box.

One side of the phone box has been embellished with colourful stained glass depicting a figure of a mysterious knight.

According to The Londonist , the phone box was first noticed in 2019, and has been catching the attention of passers-by ever since.

The most puzzling thing about this phone box is that no one knows who is responsible for installing the stained glass.

Historians have researched the phone box, such as David Hay from the Sainsbury Archives who investigated the installation and contacted a number of sources.

David was ultimately unable to find out where it came from.

David even contacted BT for comment, and they too have absolutely no idea where the knight came from or who put it there and said they did not give permission for the stained glass to be installed.

The knight could easily be a reference to the Templars, an ancient order of knights who used to reside in that area of London – with Temple Church just a stone’s throw away.

However, why the knight feels the need to watch over innocent people making a phone call is still unknown.

Although the stained glass phone box is certainly a source of mystery, it’s a talking point worth visiting and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face if you’re ever in the area.

in mylondon.news

Tomar – Portugal’s Knights Templar Town

Posted on Updated on

Tomar is a historically outstanding town in the Ribatejo region of central Portugal. Straddling the banks of the River Nabão, Tomar has narrow cobbled streets and a whole host of appealing buildings. It is also home to one of the most important architectural and religious monuments in the country – the Convento de Cristo, former headquarters of the Knights Templar. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, this magnificent monastery and its associated castle sit in a commanding position on a wooded hill overlooking the town.

The Knights Templar was an elite fighting force and semi-religious order that was founded in 1119, during the Crusades. Under the guidance of Gualdim Pais, the visionary Grand Master of the Portuguese Knights, the order began construction of a castle on the hill overlooking Tomar around 1160. The design of the castle’s famous ‘rotunda’ church was inspired by similar structures in Jerusalem. Each knight took a vow of poverty and chastity and wore a white coat emblazoned with a red cross. Over the years, the Templars spread across Europe, gaining extraordinary wealth in the process – and also many powerful enemies!

By the early 1300s, amid accusations of heresy, the order was finally suppressed. However, in Portugal, the Templars re-emerged again in 1320, reincarnated as the ‘Order of Christ’, but now under the control of the throne. It was thanks to the wealth of this new order that Prince Henry the Navigator (who was Grand Master from 1417-1460) was able to fund Portugal’s legendary maritime voyages. The order’s proud symbol – the Cross of Christ – became the distinguished banner for the country’s great age of exploration and discovery. From the 13th to the 17th century, the Convento de Cristo underwent continuous expansion to become the superb monument it is today.

We entered the castle grounds through the main gate and stopped to admire the outside of the circular 12th century church. After entering the monastery, we realised that there was a surprise around every corner. We counted eight cloisters, the largest of which is regarded as a renaissance masterpiece. There are charming terraces with great views over the countryside, an infirmary, a pharmacy and some gloomy monks’ living quarters.

The interior of the beautiful round church, known as the charola, is the chief attraction. The aisle is circular with a high altar enclosed within a central octagon, and the surrounding walls are decorated with murals of sacred art from the 16th century. This was the knights’ private oratorium and they attended services here whilst seated on horseback!

Just outside the church, the tiny Santa Bárbara cloister has a grandstand view of the chapter house’s amazing ornate Manueline window. This bizarre masterpiece is structured around two carvings of ships’ masts, adorned with knots, cork, coral and seaweed. Although covered in lichen and clearly in need of renovation, these somber blemishes just add to the window’s extraordinary appeal.

A secure supply of water to the complex was provided in the early 17th century by means of a six-kilometre aqueduct. This supreme engineering structure is most impressive where it crosses the steep Vale da Ribeira dos Pegões just outside Tomar. It has two magnificent 30m high tiers of arches and there is a tempting high-level walkway along the top of the conduit – but a painful drop should you stumble and fall!

The ordinary town residents have always been able to enjoy a plentiful water supply from the River Nabão itself.

From Roman times onwards, waterpower was used to drive mills, oil-presses and water wheels for irrigation and industry. The Roda do Nabão is a modern and much-admired water wheel located next to the town’s lovely central Parque de Mouchão. Constructed of pinewood, it is a perfect example of how the force of the River Nabão was used for local economic benefit.

Tomar has many other noteworthy attractions and we began our exploration on the east side of the river at the Santa Maria do Olival, a simple church dating from the 12th century and home to many Templar tombs, notably Gualdim Pais, the Grand Master himself. Plain on the outside and plain on the inside, this is a church with considerable charm and overlooked by most visitors.

Crossing the river using the scenic ‘Old Bridge’ and turning left, we found the Match Box Museum in a shady courtyard of the Convento de São Francisco. It has a mind-boggling collection of 43,000 matchboxes from 120 countries displayed like colourful tapestries.

The medieval heart of Tomar lies nearby and we wandered through its cobbled lanes to visit Portugal’s oldest surviving medieval synagogue. Many Portuguese have Jewish ancestry and Tomar was once the home of a thriving Jewish community. This 15th century Hebrew temple has variously been used as a prison, a hayloft and a grocery warehouse during its long history, but has now been splendidly renovated and is home to an interesting small museum. There are strange upturned earthenware jars set high in its walls to improve acoustics!

The spacious Praça da República, surrounded by attractive 17th century buildings is at the very heart of the old town, and overlooked by the lovely Igreja de São João Baptista. The church has an octagonal spire and two superbly ornamental Manueline doorways. The handsome city hall lies directly opposite and between the two, in a befitting place in the middle of the square, stands an imposing statue of the city’s illustrious founder, Gualdim Pais.

Every four years, the square becomes the centre of activities for Tomar’s most famous cultural event – the Festa dos Tabuleiros. This ancient celebration, associated with the Feast of the Holy Spirit, is actually thought to have its roots in earlier pagan fertility rites. Its highlight is a procession of hundreds of local girls (traditionally virgins) carrying tall ‘tabuleiros’ on their heads. These unusual headdresses are built from loaves of bread, decorated with flowers, and have a white dove at the top to symbolize the Holy Spirit. A local boy helps each girl to support her enormous ‘hat’ as it can weigh up to 15kg. However, these male attendants are not apparently required to be virgins!

One wonders exactly what Gualdim Pais would think about modern Tomar if he were alive today – international tour groups tramping through his beautiful church and young ladies walking the streets with stacks of loaves on their heads? However, he and his fellow Templar Knights would no doubt have been very happy to collect the considerable tourist income for their charitable coffers!

by Nigel Wright in portugalresident.com