The Portuguese city of Tomar was founded, on the site of a Roman town, by the Knights Templar in the twelfth century. (Many businesses in the town still use the Templar name or their logo, which is also found in the calçada pavements throught the town.) The town lies on the Nabão River (the name means “turnip”, I don’t know why).

It was saved from the wreck of the Templars (they had grown too rich and powerful and were brought down by an alliance of the Pope and the King of France who wanted to get his hands on their treasure) by King Dinis of Portugal, who had the town and its assets transferred to a newly created Order of Christ.

The famous Portuguese prince Henry the Navigator became head of the Order. It may be that some of its wealth funded the journeys of exploration and discovery made by the Portuguese during his reign.

The focus of the town, standing on top of the highest hill, is the castle and convent of the Order of Christ, with a 12th century round chapel said to be modelled on the Temple of Jerusalem. Later, additional building works were carried on in the Manueline period, showing the characteristic armillary sphere and naval ropes in the stonework. This destroyed the austere simplicity of the chapel, but contains a window which has become the symbol of Tomar. Water was supplied by a 6-kilometre aqueduct. The hilltop is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Manueline window

We went there last Saturday, primarily to visit the Convent. After wandering down the long dormitory corridors, and through the gardens with sweet-smelling lavender, we went down to the town in search of refreshment. Despite some difficulty finding a parking place, we ended up in a small café.

Every Portuguese town with a convent has at least one speciality sweet cake, and Tomar is no exception: I had a cake which looked like a large slice of mango but tasted like the food of angels. (I recently found out the reason for this. The convents consumed large numbers of eggs – they used the whites to stiffen the nuns’ wimples – and they had to find a use for the yolks.)


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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