Upon arrival at the Lisbon airport on January 5th, we stayed there only long enough to claim our baggage; a very eventful 10-day car trip around Portugal’s cities awaited us. Our GPS navigator calculated a course and we moved to a little-known Portuguese village, Alvega. Ninety minutes later, our rented Citroen was already parked at the Manor House Solar de Alvega.
That ancient house was chosen to be the starting point for our fascinating acquaintance with Portuguese history. The best places to visit in Portugal we had already identified at home, in advance. Judge for yourself. Within a radius of a hundred kilometers around Alvega, there were such historic Portuguese cities as:
- Alcobaca with the gravestone of the most popular Portuguese Queen, Ines de Castro;
- Tomar which has been the capital of the Portuguese Knights Templar since the 12th century;
- the Almourol Castle, the Templars’ outpost on the Tejo River;
- Coimbra, one of the first Portuguese capitals;
- and the unique Portuguese village of Monsanto which would surprise us a bit later.
The Templars constructed a military fortress on a small island on the Tejo River. Their residence in Tomar, like any capital, needed a defense or, at least, an early warning of impending danger.
Six months ago, we were sitting at home and scrupulously investigating the map of Portugal. Judging from the Google Maps, the Tejo River was not so wide in that place and not very deep. On the pictures in the Internet, you can see some stones above the water surface. How would we ford the river and take inner pictures of the castle? We had to choose a rubber boat or a professional fishing costume. Since we did not know the strength of the river current, we chose a rubber suit.
We easily found the road to the Almourol Castle, but were a bit embarrassed with a carabinier’s car which followed our Citroen, then overtook us and disappeared ahead. As it turned out, the Tejo River level had risen and the authorities were alerted. The access to the Almourol Castle was closed.
Even if we used our fishing outfits taken along from home, we could hardly cross the flooded river, much less do it under the eyes of the carabiniers who were carrying out their duty at the bank of the river. So, we had to be satisfied with an external photo-shoot.
Templars’ Convento de Cristo in Tomar
After a comparative misfortune with the Almourol Castle, we continued the implementation of our plans and moved to the Convento de Cristo in Tomar. No, we had no intentions of tracing the destiny of the countless Templars’ treasures there, although it could be strongly presumed that some part of this “melted into thin air” wealth is hidden somewhere in these lands. Only in Portugal and Scotland, the Templars had not been subjected to persecution after the Order’s crash in France.
In that historical moment, Portugal was so far from both France and the Pope that the Portuguese rulers pretended not to hear the angry appeal for the Order’s demolition. It was a wise decision. The Knights Templar helped the young kingdom to consolidate and get rid of the Moors. In return, the Order not only managed to survive without losses, but also to get into their possession 30 percent of the territories taken from the Moors south of the Tejo River. A fabulous prize, but the knights guaranteed the King sovereignty of the lands as well as the stability of his crown.
The mysterious Order of Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon was just renamed the Order of Christ also called the Christ’s Knights Order.
This is the famous window in the Manueline style, the reproduction of which can be found in every architectural book devoted to the Portuguese late Gothic. This is the main attraction of Tomar. People say that in the 19th century the Brits suggested writing off the whole debt of Portugal to Great Britain in exchange for this window. The window is still here, which means that the Portuguese rejected the proposal. You might ask, what is this window so famous for, what is so special about it, and why did England long to get it?
The window is more unusual rather than beautiful; moreover, it is huge, much bigger than I could imagine. Give your attention to these details: the waves of nautical ropes, marine plants, navigational instruments, the symbol of Christianity, and the Knights Templar’s Red Cross.
There is a legend that under the decoration of the Manueline window in Convento de Cristo in Tomar during the period from 1510 to 1513, a plan of Portuguese world domination was codified by the Templars and King Manuel I. Here is the answer to the question, why did the greatest marine empire need it? Sole dominion over the world was the ultimate goal of Great Britain always.
Convento de Cristo is a very interesting historic object surely included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. However, we did not notice any crowd of tourists here in January, and to tell you the truth I doubt there would be many of them in summer. Tomar is quite far from both Lisbon and Porto airports, and not so many travelers manage to get there.
The walls of the primary Templars’ fortress in Portugal look just as monumental now as they did in the 12th century. Had it not been for the construction of the Templars Grand Master’s residence, Tomar would never have become a city. In 1357, Tomar was announced the capital of the Order. Nowadays, those massive walls with the familiar loopholes are fractionally preserved, but there is not much left of the primary castle of the Knights Templar. It is either ruins or reconstructed buildings which became a part of the monastery.
The unconventional Round Church Charola was under restoration, and we have not evaluated its magnificent decorations thoroughly, but believe me–it is very floridly decorated. We took just a few shots, having looked inside through the railings, but outside, it is possible to take as many photos as you like, including the famous Manueline window. As you might guess, this style was named in honor of King Manuel I during the reign of whom the residence of Templars was most actively decorated.
The present structure of the Convent of Christ in Tomar poses eight cloisters of the different epochs. Altogether, half of them were closed for reconstruction. We were there about three hours. Each king built something new here, and on the whole it worked out grandiosely.
Guesthouse Solar De Alvega
Tired, but happy we came back to the Solar de Alvega (their website). By tourist standards, the hotel is located off the beaten path; however, what a perfect opportunity you have to visit interesting historic places of Portugal and to live in a real manor house of Portuguese aristocrats.
For heating devices on these January days, we only had a fireplace and an air-conditioner, and at first the beautiful ancient house with a tiny family chapel caused mixed emotions. On the one hand, “Oh, God, what a vintage interior,” and on the other, “Damn, how we are going to warm ourselves?!” The interior is from the beginning of the 18th century. It feels like the last King of Portugal used to sit on this chair and his beloved slept on that bed. The proposed facilities reminded one of the middle of the 18th century rather than the 21th: the room lacked not only central heating, but a kettle and a mini-bar as well.
It was the middle of January, and to be honest, it was not warm in these five antiquely furnished rooms, and a bit damp. After check-in, gracious Gisella, exercising a housekeeper role, followed us to the room and said, “It is quite cold in your room. Which temperature would you like to set?” We answered, “+25, please!” True amazement flashed in Gisella’s kind brown eyes.
I wonder, if owners of hotels ask themselves, what their foreign tourists might miss? For example, our room was provided with a huge plasma TV, but all we needed after a long trip was a cup of hot tea. Of course, we only had to go down the beautiful marble spiral stairs and ask Gisella or Susanna for tea, but we did not want to disturb those lovely women while they were sitting and watching their favorite soap opera. We were the only guests in the hotel.
On the other hand, when we came back to our house in the evening, tired after our trips, Gisella and Susanna cooked a traditional Portuguese dinner (always delicious) with wine and served us at a table near the big fireplace in the hall at the time appointed by us. We felt ourselves the rich, owners of the manor, surrounded by servants, and always got freshly baked hot rolls for breakfast. It is no surprise that Irina brought home a couple of extra kilos from that trip!
And the most important thing: storks nested on the roof of Solar de Alvega and many neighborhood houses. Before, I had only seen them on television, and now I watched them through the window of our room.
Welcome to Portugal–an amazing and interesting country so different from its neighbors.