Simon Templar, the Saint, helped gorgeous damsels in distress. That was all I knew of the mystical Knights Templar, in the dark ages before The Da Vinci Code enlightened us all. Now I’ve visited their Portuguese headquarters in the small town of Tomar, and learned how Templar gold changed the world.
Tomar, 135km north of Lisbon, is a quiet town, and sensibly closes each day for a long lunch. It ticks all the charm boxes – swans on the river by the spillway, lush parks along the water’s edge, pretty church towers and whitewashed houses with terracotta roofs. To these it adds those special Portuguese touches – facades decorated with azulejo tiles and striking cobblestone patterns in the narrow streets.
There’s also an entertaining museum. Mr Mota Lima from Tomar, on his way to watch Elizabeth II’s coronation, swapped matchboxes with an American lady he met on the steamer. This started an obsession, not for American ladies but for matchboxes. The Museu de Fosforos now boasts Europe’s largest collection, nearly 50,000 of them. We enjoyed spotting ancient Redheads and the packs Qantas issued to smoking passengers in times long past.
Tomar’s history goes back even further than that. Perched above Tomar is the Templar Castle, founded in 1160. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, so we tramped the rocky path up the hill. The castle and monastery may be a little run down, but of course after centuries of history you expect some wear and tear on your gargoyles. I’m not sure I want them fixed anyway. I like my ancient parapets crumbling and mossy, rather than scrubbed and sparkling.
Adjoining the castle, the Convento de Christo (Cloister of Christ) is beautifully preserved and plaques in Portuguese and English tell its story. The Templars were a sort of mediaeval private security firm ostensibly formed to protect the route to the holy lands. Depending on whose account you read, they were devout warrior monks or greedy privateers, beating up Moors and Spaniards. They took vows of poverty and became mega-rich.
When the Templars were declared heretics and extinguished in most of Europe in the 14th century, in Portugal they were cannily reinvented as the Order of Christ. The new regime inherited Templar money and invested it in voyages of discovery, sending the likes of Vasco da Gama out with orders to take Christianity to the world and to bring back to Portugal any gold and spices they found lying around.
The monastery at Tomar is a testimony to Templar wealth and power. The octagonal fortified church in the middle of the cloister is considered the Templars’ most beautiful creation, though when we visited it was shrouded in renovators’ tarpaulins. But the cloister’s dormitories, kitchen, library and washing areas gave us a sense of what a monk’s life was like; slow, contemplative, cold and, as the sign informed us, there was ‘no smocking allowed’ in the cloister. Monastic, in other words.
Rosemary spilled out of garden boxes and fruit ripened on the citrus trees in the tiled courtyards. A poster advertised an upcoming theatrical presentation of The Name of the Rose and it was hard to imagine a better setting.
Outside we patrolled the battlements and admired the Manueline window, Tomar’s most photographed icon. It’s state of the art 16th century masonry. A tangle of stone ropes surrounds an ancient mariner clutching the Tree of Life, while beside him stone explorers stare into the distance. The orange lichen crawling across them adds to the appeal.
The next day we drove out into the countryside. It’s pretty rather than breathtaking. Logging and bushfires have clear-felled the forests, leaving small stands of pine and eucalyptus surrounded by purple heather and yellow gorse. Small olive groves, vineyards and orange orchards dot the hillsides.
Most villages are plain. The Portuguese generally don’t bother renovating cute stone cottages – they knock them down and replace them with something less draughty. An exception is the tiny village of Dornes, on a spectacular site overlooking the Zezere River. Winding paths lead up to a lovely little church and an imposing Templar watchtower.
Many roads round here are narrow, so our progress was often slow, and this part of Portugal could well be a world leader in one aspect of traffic control. Villages have a 50kph limit. An overhead eye registers your approaching vehicle and if you’re speeding, traffic lights ahead switch to red. If you want a good run with the lights, take it easy.
Just under an hour from Tomar we came to a more modern religious site. In 1917 the Virgin Mary appeared to three peasant children in Fatima. I confess to doubts about such claims, but the Catholic Church took their word for it, so now Fatima has a major tourist industry.
In Fatima’s souvenir shops you can buy Virgin Mary statues, small, medium or large. You can shake her in a snow dome full of sparkly plastic if you think that makes her look holier.
The square in front of the cathedral is twice as big as St Peter’s Square in Rome, and caters for crowds of football final proportions on May 13, the anniversary of the apparition. In the Chapel of Apparitions is the bullet that nearly killed Pope John Paul II. Fortunately Our Lady of Fatima intervened just in time and the would-be-assassin’s bullet missed his heart. He’s a hero in this town, and his images are on sale in the shops next to Our Lady’s.
A little further on is Batalha, an unassuming little town dominated by a fabulous monastery and towering Gothic church, the Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitoria, in which Templar Prince Henry the Navigator is buried. His heroic statue in Tomar depicts him as the visionary instigator of the Age of Discoveries, but after reading about his leading role in introducing the African slave trade to Europe, I was glad to see him dead.
We continued our own Voyage of Discovery, this time in search of food. Prices in this area are a delightful step back in time. In the cafes coffee and wine are dangerously cheap, as are the famous tarts in the patisseries.
By now we were almost locals, so we settled into one of those long lunches in the Café Fronteira in the tiny village of Poco Redondo. No menu, no choices, but our hostess Manuela served huge dishes of pork cheeks, piles of potatoes and spinach, carafes of red wine, then coffee with a shot of local paint stripper to spice it up.
The bill was around 8 euros a head, so we could keep our vows of poverty.
The Templars would have been well satisfied. We certainly were.
Getting there: Trains run every 1 – 2 hours between Lisbon to Tomar. The trip takes about two hours and costs 8.20 euros.
Staying there: Camping Redondo, at Poco Redondo, has self-contained cabins from 50 euros a day. http://www.campingredondo.com
Entry to Tomar Castle and the Cloister of Christ is 4.50 euros.
Entry to the Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitoria in Batalha is also 4.50 euros.
Fatima is 30km west of Tomar and Batalha 30km further.
First published Sun-Herald, Sydney