Having been twice to Tomar in as many years, I can tell you that this is the Templar destination to visit. You should treat yourself to a stay in the Hotel dos Templarios and during the day visit the ‘charola’ or circular Templar church built in the twelfth century by Portuguese Templar Grand Master Gualdim Pais.
The thick walled charola had an altar in the middle and Templar knights would originally have ridden in and been able to remain on horseback while a service was said by a chaplain standing in the middle. Then they could ride out to do battle with the Moors.
This part of middle Portugal was fought over by the muslim ‘Moors’ – who still ruled the south – and the northern crusader kingdoms for many years. It was a kind of badlands where only the Templars were brave or foolhardy enough to take on the muslim forces.
In my conversations with a local historian, there is remarkable caginess about admitting that this was once a Moorish city. The official line seems to be that Tomar sits on two Roman towns, that it was largely unpopulated in the Moorish occupation and after being ‘liberated’ by the Templars, they founded the city as we know it.
But it seems clear to me that within the Templar preceptory, there had been a Moorish settlement (a medina) and that the Templars used building techniques for their walls that have a strong Moorish influence. The names of the gates in to the preceptory indicate a Moorish influence as well.
The charola now joins on to a vast convent complex built largely in the sixteenth century – two hundred years after the Templars had been crushed under orders from the Pope. The Convent of Christ is an impressive building constructed in the ‘Manueline’ style – lots of rope motifs in the stonework and a famously elaborate window. But it’s the charola that I’m always drawn to. It’s a beautiful space, painted very elaborately – partly at the time but later as well.
French soldiers during the Napoleonic wars of the nineteenth century did some damage to the convent and the charola but nothing that would ruin your visit. The whole thing is eerily deserted of both Templars and the later monastic inhabitants. There are rows of empty cells flanking long corridors – very spooky.
Tomar also has a church where several of the Grand Masters are buried – Santa Maria do Olival. It’s a bit underwhelming as a building and set next to what looks like a housing estate. But note the pentagram window. You’ll have to ask where Gualdim Pais is buried because he’s not easy to find.
Pais is viewed by the Portuguese as something of an Arthurian figure of legend – though unlike Arthur, we know Pais existed for certain. But he’s shrouded in a certain degree of mystery. One thing is certain is that he fought the Moors back time and again including a vast army that threatened to overwhelm Tomar in the 1190s.
Here is a north American visitor clearly overwhelmed by the charola at Tomar – I like his little video.
More randomly – here is a tornado that his Tomar last year – this doesn’t happen often!