Portugal Road Trip – Part 1: Searching for Templar Castles

“It’s okay, you can just ignore that caution light on the dashboard. It never goes off.” “Do you have another car?” “No.” All rental cars appear equally perfect when you are making comparisons and a final selection from a website. Staying within our budget, we chose an off-airport car rental agency with good reviews, that picked us up at the arrivals terminal and sped us away to our awaiting wheels, for €12.50 a day.  The Fiat Panda assigned to us had been driven hard and put away wet, you might say. Reviewing the preexisting body blemishes with the rental agent resulted in a cartoon of the car that looked like it had been ambushed in a gangster movie and sprayed with machine-gun fire, including the roof. Nevertheless, the engine sounded fine, and our twelve-day journey began, driving in a large figure-eight, north to south route, around Portugal. Our first destination – Castelo de Almourol, before arriving in Tomar. But by the afternoon of day three we were referring to our car as the Portuguese version of the American rent-a-wreck concept. When driving through the mountains, on the way to a schist village, every warning light on the dashboard started blinking violently in Portuguese. If we had been flying an airplane, we would have donned parachutes and bailed out.  The engine sounded fine, so we flew on.

Not being sure what is open during the week in the off season, we headed for the Miradouro do Almourol, an overlook above the island that the castle commands. Located on the south side of the Tagus River, it’s not particularly easy to get to. But my wife and I enjoy the off the beaten track routes that take us through less traveled countryside. Crossing the Tagus River, we followed the N118 north into the Alentejo (beyond the Tagus) Region through flat farmlands and wine estates dating back to the 1700’s. The red wines of the area vinted with the Portuguese varietals Castelão, Trincadeira, and Touriga Nacional are acquiring international recognition now, as are the regions white wines made with Antão Vaz, Arinto, and Fernão Pires grapes.

The drive was slowed occasionally by tremendously large John Deere combines, the width of the entire road, as farmers drove them between different fields waiting to be harvested. Seasonal spring floods that replenish the soil have made this river plain an important area for cereal crops and wheat since the Roman times. Our walk a little then café philosophy quickly transformed into drive a little then café when we did our first U-turn of the trip as we passed a small place that had a tractor parked in front. Our espressos only €.70 each. It was nice to be back in Portugal.

The wetlands of the Tagus River valley are ideal for bird watchers looking for black-winged stilt, marsh harrier, purple heron, pratincole and Kentish plover. Occasionally we spotted storks atop centuries-old chimneys of abandoned homes, resting in new nests that were stacked like pancakes atop older ones before continuing their winter migration south to Africa. Quiet lanes, faded sun-bleached pastels, and centuries old weather-worn buildings dotted the landscape. Bullrings, Praça de Touros, still stand in Chamusca and Salvaterra de Magos, and the latter’s traffic circle has a large sculpture of a cavaleiro and bull to celebrate the tradition. Though interest in bullfighting has been waning since Queen Maria II of Portugal banned the spectacle in 1836 with the argument that it was “unbefitting for a civilised nation,” it regained popularity in the Alentejo region after the fights were reinstated in 1921, and the climatic killing of the bull was outlawed in 1928.

Before we reached the castle, we stopped for lunch along the riverfront in Arripiado at the ABC Bar Café. It was a tranquil spot with a boardwalk that had a view of the Tagus River and the small village of Tancos across the water. Small boats offer rides to Almourol Castle from the Arripiado riverbank here.

With its striking island location, just below the junction of the Zezere and Tagus rivers at Constância, Almourol Castle is one of the most picturesque medieval fortresses in Portugal.

Constância was once an important fishing village during the Middle Ages where it was said the rivers there were “two-thirds fish and one-third water.”

As with most things ancient on the Iberia Peninsula, the castle’s history started with an early tribe. The Lusitanians built a small fortress on the island as protection against the Romans in the first century B.C.E. Visgoths, Vandals, Alans and Moors followed until it was captured by the Portuguese during the Reconquista in 1129 and subsequently entrusted to the Knights Templar to rebuild for defense of the frontier border at the time.  It eventually lost its strategic relevance and was consequently abandoned. Various phases of reconstruction began in the mid-1900s. 

Train service to Tancos, Castelo de Almourol and the hilltop village of Constância is available from the Santa Apolónia Station in Lisbon. The trip takes about an hour and a half.   

We arrived in Tomar just as the late autumn sun was low in the sky and beginning to cast lengthening shadows on the forested slope that led to the jewel that crowns this quaint village.  We followed the winding cobbled lane to Castelo de Tomar and only got a brief glimpse of the castle through its outer gate as the heavy wooden door was closed for the day with an echoing clang. The castle combined seamlessly with the Convento de Cristo next to it and creates an immense structure that’s best observed from a distance to appreciate its scale. Admiring the expansive view from the miradouro in front of the castle, we made plans to return the next day via a tuk-tuk taxi, from the town square.

This beguiling medieval village with its narrow lanes and tranquil riverside location discreetly hides its outsized contribution to the history of Portugal.

It starts with those mysterious Knights Templar when in 1159 the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, granted land to Gualdim Pais, the fourth Grand Master of the Knights Templar in Portugal as reward for their military prowess and religious zeal during the Portuguese wars for independence and the subsequent Reconquista. When the town was first founded, the population was so minuscule, most of the villagers lived behind the castle’s defensive walls.

In 1160 Gualdim Pais order the construction of a monastery and fortified citadel that would be known as the Convent of Christ, a combination of a fortress and a monastery, that is sometimes referred to as the Convent of Christ Castle. The convent’s most interesting feature is a round sanctuary with an ornate ceiling soaring over a central altar, its design said to be influenced by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  Legend states that the knights attended mass on horseback here, the open circular design facilitating the horse’s easy entrance and exit. Famously in 1190, outnumbered Templars defeated a larger Muslim army after their six day siege of Castelo Tomar failed.

Founded in 1118 and slowly gaining recognition from their vowed mission to protect pilgrims journeying to the Holy Lands, the Knights received Papal endorsement in 1139. Pope Innocent II’s Papal Bull sanctioned the Templars as “an army of God,” and provided them special rights that included exemption from paying taxes, allowed them to build their own oratories, immunity from local laws, freedom to cross borders, and obedience only to the Pope. With this blessing Pope Innocent ll made the first papal monetary gift to the Templars. Now a church-endorsed charity, they began receiving land, money, businesses and young nobles from wealthy families who were enthusiastic to find glory in the crusades and willingly donated their assets in order to take the vows of poverty, chastity, piety, and obedience.

Today the Templars most likely would have been charged with running a racketeering enterprise which forced pilgrims and others to pay for protection services they have not requested. This protection was usually from the very people who were demanding the money in the first place.

Things were going well for the Templars across Europe until 1307 when King Philip lV, heavily indebted to the Templars from a war against England, lobbied the Holy Church to disband the Knights Templar as it was a state within a state with its own military, preached heresy and practiced idolatry.

The Templars’ fatal day (eerie music, please) was Friday, the 13th of October 1307. Early that morning all the Templars in France were arrested as enemies of God. Upon torture many falsely confessed and were burned at the stake.  A month later Pope Clement V, a relative of King Philip, decreed that the rest of the Catholic kingdoms in Europe should arrest the remaining Templars and seize their properties. All complied except Portugal!

King Dinis of Portugal did not believe the charges leveled against the Templars, remembering instead their service to a fledging country, and offered sanctuary to knights that had escaped capture.  He then persuaded Pope Clement to support the creation of a new organization, the Order of Christ, into which he transferred all the Templars’ wealth and holdings. The new Order’s mission was now the liberation of the Iberian Peninsular from the Moors and wars against Islam in Africa.

Same group with a new name, but to ensure that the deception of the Pope succeeded, the headquarters of the new order were established, almost in exile, 210 miles away in Castro Marim, a frontier town on the Guadiana River, that serves as the border with Spain.

One hundred years later Dom Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator, allowed the Templars/Order of Christ to return to their former seat of influence in Tomar.  Here they now helped Prince Henry the Navigator establish a medieval think tank: a research institute dedicated to developing navigational tools for a ship to determine its accurate position at sea, relying on the Arabic studies of astronomy, mathematics, trigonometry, which were farther advanced than European knowledge at the time.

The Order of Christ succeeded the Knights Templars as the country’s banker and financed building the fleets of ships needed at the beginning of Portugal’s nautical age of discovery. As rewards, fleets of caravels with white billowing sails boldly embellished with the distinctive red cross of the Order (perhaps the first attempt at global branding) carried explorers down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean in 1487. Portugal’s age as an expanding empire had begun!

Wandering the cobbled lanes of the old town in mid-October, we seemed to have the whole village to ourselves. Later, as the day was perfect, we walked along the Nabao River, crossing a small footbridge in Parque do Mouchão. The view back toward the village was sublime with ducks slowly trailing ripples through the mirrored reflections of the buildings in the water.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lodging: Casa dos Ofícios Hotel

Dining: Restaurant Beira Rio and Sabores ao Rubro

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