During a week-long visit to Lisbon, I took a day trip to the nearby medieval town of Tomar, North East of the Portuguese capital. Though a two hour bus ride away, there is absolutely no question that Tomar is worth a visit. Here’re just a few reasons why.
It’s a beautiful little town
Tomar is not party central. It has a population of only 20,000 and, from what I could tell, fully three quarters of that is quiet old people walking around aimlessly and hanging laundry. It is not especially energetic, but it is absolutely gorgeous.
The old (and far more interesting) and new parts of town are separated by a river, its edges lined with trees, its surface dotted with ducks and broken by the occasional infinity-pool-style waterfall. A few placid canals even branch from the main river. Peer into the canal and fish will swarm your shadow, hoping for a bread crumb.
It’s famous for its castle and convent
The Convento de Christo is a fortified convent/monastery. The town of Tomar was actually born within its walls. Honestly, it’s difficult to describe this thing. The Convento is a blend of several architectural styles, giving it the look of three or four castles mashed together to form a single, spectacular structure. The styles represented include Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance and Romanesque designs.
Within its walls, you’ll find an ornate church, eight cloisters, as well as the kitchens, dining area and the monks’ sleeping quarters.
The Guardian has named it Portugal’s most spectacular sight and, in 1983, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The convent includes massive gardens
On my way to visit the Convento, I noticed a large statue and a gate beyond which stretched a rather lovely garden. I had read of the Convento but had not heard of its gardens, so I decided to explore. It was October so the flowers had died or faded. There wasn’t much to see. I figured I’d be in there twenty minutes or so and then I’d hit the castle.
Three hours later I finally made it out of the garden, thirsty and mildly sunburnt.
You see, the section we would commonly refer to as gardens covers, maybe, a football field’s-worth of terrain. Beyond that, though, stretching for acres, are thick woods and steep hills riddled with winding paths. These paths, in turn, branch out at random. Given that I was travelling alone and have an absolutely terrible sense of direction, of course I followed every narrow trail.
I ended up on a path that ran along the castle walls. I came across stone outbuildings, many of them crumbling, their roofs sagging or completely caved in, just begging for a clumsy and litigious idiot to come by, injure himself, and bankrupt the Convento and municipality of Tomar.
I also stumbled upon the town’s ancient aqueduct.
It has an ancient aqueduct
The aqueduct wasn’t completed until years after the Convento had been constructed and now it looks like little more than a wall. Occasionally it completely disappears, swallowed up by the garden grounds, but it remains a fascinating glimpse into the past.
It may hide the Templar Treasure
In Templar lore Tomar is of particular importance. See, the convent was actually founded by the Knights Templar in 1118 and, when the Templars were essentially outlawed across the known world, in 1319, King Denis of Portugal asked Pope John XXII if he could keep his Templars. The Pope said, yeah, okay, but they were, from then on, to be called the Order of Christ.
The Order of Christ, formerly known as the Knights Templar, made Tomar and the Convento their headquarters. Surviving Templars from across the globe came to Portugal to escape—y’know—death. Now, thing is, the Templars had amassed an enormous treasure and, as far as anyone knows, that treasure has never been found. So, legend has it that some or all of that treasure may have been moved to Portugal, where former Templars were welcome, and, if so, what better place to hide your treasure than within the fortified walls of your fancy new headquarters?
So, if you’re looking for a quiet escape from Lisbon’s hustle and bustle, if you’re looking for a unique hike through woods and along ancient walls, if you’re looking to learn about the Knights Templar and see their post-dissolution home, or if you’re looking to maybe find a legendary treasure, well, Tomar is absolutely for you.