Tucked away in a side street of Rua Infataria is the old Jewish Synagogue, now home to the Museo Luso-Hebraico Abraham Zacato. The synagogue is the tiniest I have ever seen, but historically very significant. For a few years after the poisonous Spanish expulsion of the Jews many found shelter in Portugal, setting up in towns and cities like Tomar.
The treatment of the Jewish by the Spanish was particularly vicious and caused a devastating diaspora that saw Sephardic Jews ending up in countries as disparate and as distant as the Netherlands, Turkey, and Morocco, where they sought a safer life. Some of the crimes committed against them were induced by insidious rumours, such as that they were smuggling out gems in their stomachs, which inevitably led to many a brutal murder from greedy bandits.
Unfortunately only a few years after the Spanish exodus, the Portuguese government followed suit and insisted upon the forced conversion or expulsion of all Jews and Muslims in the country. Those who chose to remain became the focus of the Spanish Inquisition, who sought to test the newly converted for their faith. The methods for determining the faith of the new converts have made the Spanish Inquisition infamous, and a byword for medieval ignorance and brutality.
Despite the interesting history of the Jewish people in Iberia, the museum itself isn't all that much. As I said, the synagogue is small and doesn't contain a great deal. Even if you are interested in Jewish history in Europe, which I am, you won't find much to enthrall you here. That said, there's not a lot else to do in the town of Tomar after you've been to the convent, so poke your head around the door and say hello to the friendly owner.
The Templar Castle is part of the entire convent complex, but unlike the convent you can visit it for free. The walls offer amazing views of the town, the best you can find anywhere, but they are a little difficult to find your way up to them. I almost missed them. If I hadn't doubled back on my way out of the convent and made a determined effort to discover how people were getting up onto them I might have missed out. To your right as you enter the castle walls and walk towards the convent, there is a path that winds behind some bushes and leads up and over the main entrance. Once you are on that path you can walk the entire length of the walls that remain as they encircle the convent and the castle gardens.
Convento de Cristo
This is by far the town's biggest draw, and one of the must see sights of Portugal, let alone Tomar. It is the former headquarters of the famous (possibly infamous) Knights Templar, and as such reflects the vast amount of wealth and power they accrued from their crusading exploits, and subsequent money lending enterprises. As the Knights Templar were both a Christian and Militaristic order, so the convent is both a religious and military centre. The convent part of the complex is a round church, focused around the magnificent central Charola.
Unfortunately when I was there the Charola, like much of the best sights in Portugal right now, was under reconstruction. There was an ugly piece of draped over scaffolding blocking the entrance to the inner circle, and a number of the paintings appeared to have been taken from the walls for restoration. Unlike Tomar the convent was crawling with tourists, most of whom seemed to be French. I am guessing that the recent success and controversy of the Da Vinci Code novel has sparked an interest in that country for the Knights Templar in particular.
I really enjoyed walking around the convent and imagining what it must have been like to have been there back when the likes of Prince Henry the Navigator would have been wandering around its hallowed halls. I buried myself away in a quiet corner of the two storied nave adjoining the central Charola. It was totally quiet there due to it being strangely overlooked by the other tourists as they were drawn to the painted Charola like bees to a flower. There I sat in the snug on the cool stone benches tucked away from the main hall to give privacy. Here I imagined the furtive, perhaps even heretical, discussions of the Templar monks from centuries earlier.
Cine Teatro Paraíso
A multifunctional room in the city for theater plays, cinema and concerts. It was the first theater in town in the XIX century and the first place that in 1901 showed to the locals the wonders of cinema.
Albufeira de Bode Dam
Built in 1951 has created a huge artificial lake for over 60kms that is today a great place to practice sports or relax in the shore. From this artificial lake comes almost all the water that runs in the taps of the region of Lisbon.
Set next to the Sete Montes Woods Park, the tourist office is set in a revival building built in the XX century by the regime. This type of architecture replicate buildings of the XV and XVI century. Just in front in the entrance of the park there is the statue of Henry the navigator.
The building also has a museum of ancient art.
Aquiles Mota Lima exchanged a match for the first time with an American lady going to England. The beauty of the match box stroke him and from than on it was a passion. Today with more than 50.000 boxes it is the largest collection in Europe.
- Museum Visits
Nossa Senhora da Conceição
Overlooking the city and close to the convent the Nossa Senhora da Conceição Church is a XV century construction by João Castilho in a clear influence of Italian Classicism. It was suppose to become the pantheon of king João III that died before the conclusion of the works which prevented his body to be placed there.
National Woods of the 7 Hills
The 39ha park was for centuries part of the Order of Christ territory and is today an interesting park with a wide variety of flora. The park is quite hilly.
The charolinha in the middle of a lake is one of the highlights but the current conditions of preservation of this small temple are not the best.
- National/State Park
Santa Maria dos Olivais - Templars Pantheon
It is a very interesting XII century church rebuilt over time. It was the headquarters of the temple order and their pantheon. The fact that the church has a staircase to go in so that you can focus on the star of Solomon at the other end is one of the key features that gives its uniqueness. The presence of the 8 as esotheric element is also a must. 8 steps in the stairs, 8 columns or an octogonal baptism well are some of the main.
It is a mainly gothic church.
- Historical Travel
The name of the river comes from the roman times when it was called Nabanus. The river is the centre of town, in its margin is the main park and the beautiful old bridge believed to be built over a roman one and embelished in the XV and XVII century. There are old factories being restored that used water to run, old Arabic mechanisms to extract water,families of ducks fed by the families of the city having fun in the river in this water that is and was life for this city of Tomar.
The small synagogue of Tomar is one of the rare examples of medieval synagogyes still existing. Dating back to the XV century is a simple small space not fully open to the public, since part of it is under the next door house and is a great postcard of an era long gone.
- Museum Visits
Republic Square (Praça da República) is the main of town. The main building is the city hall building and unique piece from its time.
The centre of the square filled with black and white cobblestones is dominated by the statue of Gualdim Pais, the founder of the city. A portuguese cruzader, templar friar and horseman of the order of Afonso Henriques the first king of Portugal. As the other templars is buried in the church of Santa Maria dos Olivais.
One of the palaces is Dona Maria da Silveira of maneiristic inspiration.
São João Baptista is a national monument church. The origin is uncertain but was rebuilt in 1510 and has manueline features together with many mysterious including the "sphynx" at the entrance.
- Historical Travel
Though the highlight of the convent is the Manueline window, its more beautiful and surprising part is the Charola.
Inspired in the eastern mosques seen by the crusades, this chapel is absolutely fabulous in its shape and decoration.
Photos are somewhat restricted (no flash means dimmed light!) but I think that they may give an idea.
- Historical Travel
Tiles in Convento de Cristo
If you are keen of Portuguese traditional tiles, then this convent could not be your first destination (we have many fabulous tiles somewhere else).
However, as you are there (and you MUST be there!), then the corridors and some cloisters will delight you, with tiles that come from several periods and stiles, from the 12th century to the 17th.
- Historical Travel
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