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

Back Roads – Castelo Branco – Jewel of the Portuguese Frontier

The long, curved road to the top of Colina da Cardosa in Castelo Branco was lined with olive trees.  In this small city of 56,000 it seemed that every available piece of land that didn’t have a building on it was planted with olive trees – even in the median strip!  Being olive aficionados, we were impressed with this urban landscaping that was both functional and edible.  We parked adjacent to Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo and the ruins of the old castle that dominate the hilltop.  A pathway led us to benches that overlooked the prosperous expanse of the modern city.  The golden hour lit the trees around us with warmth.  As the sky deepened, city lights slowly filled the void. Behind us, on the slope below the castle, the old historic district was already cloaked in night.   Tomorrow we’d spend the day wandering its ancient alleys. 

Located just a short walk from the crest of the hill TRYP Colina Do Castelo Hotel, with its free parking, turned out to be the perfect place to base our wandering of the historic district from.  Better for us to walk downhill than uphill.  From our balcony the next morning, we watched a brilliant sunrise.IMG_8704Fortifying the high ground was the rule centuries ago and the last remnant of Castelo e Muralhas Castelo Branco, the white castle, still commands the skyline above the old historic district of the town.  Much isn’t known of the history of Castelo Branco before 1182, when it is first mentioned in a royal document decreeing land to who else, but those prolific castle builders the Knights Templar.  Only 18km (11 miles) from the Spanish border, the fortified village quickly grew into an important center of commerce and line of defense to protect the Portuguese frontier.  Today only two towers and a wide section of the ramparts are all that remained to remind us of this once mighty fortress and walled city.  Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo is thought to be the first church built in the village, when it was constructed within the castle walls on the foundations of a ruined Roman temple.  The church had a turbulent history: destroyed in 1640 during the Portuguese Castile war, burnt down in 1704 and then used by the French as a stable when they invaded. It was left in ruins until it was rebuilt in the 19th century. It now sits peacefully in the park, atop the hill, with a view of the surrounding countryside.

From the castle towers we plotted our walk down through the ancient quarter to Jardim do Paço, the Bishop’s Palace Garden, then ending our day at Sé Catedral de Castelo Branco.  From the hilltop we descended a long flight of shaded stairs to the Miradouro de São Gens.  This is a lovely, quiet spot with a water garden and benches.  During its construction in 1940s evidence of earlier civilizations living on the hill were unearthed and placards describing the finds are featured along the pathway.

We exited the park onto Rua do Mercado, the old merchant street that runs flatly across the midsection of the hill.  Unlike Alfama in Lisbon, there are no boutique shops or galleries along the lane; the area is strictly residential now.  The names of the narrow, cobbled lanes reflect the shops that once lined them: Rua dos Oleiros (potters,) Rua dos Peleteiros (pelters,) and Rua dos Lagares (wineries,) and they run steeply down the slope from Rua do Mercado to flatter ground around the Bishop’s Palace Garden and the newer 17th century part of town.  Wonderful examples of 15th century homes with carved stone door and window frames can be found in this area. But like Alfama, Albicastrenses still gather to talk to their neighbors in the streets and hang laundry from their windows.

Fine examples of Portuguese Calcada, mosaic stone sidewalks, can be seen in front of the Bishop’s Palace, now the Museu Francisco Tavares Proença Jr., which is famous for its collection of highly embroidered, ornate colcha, bedspreads, from the Castelo Branco area.  This traditional art has been unique to the region for over three-hundred years.  It is thought that the inspiration for these was brought back from the orient by Portuguese traders and that the local women self-taught themselves the technique. Needing to rest, we headed into a municipal park across from the Bishop’s Garden, where there was a small café that served good coffee and tasty sandwiches.

The Bishop’s Palace Garden is the crown jewel of Castelo Branco and even in mid-March when we visited was green and spectacular. Commissioned in the early 1700s by the Bishop of Guarda, D. João de Mendonça, it is one of Portugal’s best examples of baroque formal gardens.  The garden is divided into four distinct sections containing fragrant orange trees, azulejos tile murals, boxwood hedges, staircases, statuary, pools, and fountains all inter-connected via pathways. Of particular interest were the staircase of the Kings of Portugal that depicted in miniature the hated Monarchs of Spain, who for short periods ruled Portugal, and the delicate sprinkler fountains found in the pools that were unique to Portuguese formal gardens at the time.

Continuing our walk to the Sé Catedral de Castelo Branco we passed a tall, richly carved, stone road marker.  The Cross of Sao Joao, its fine Manueline details now heavily eroded by time, was sculpted in the 1500s to mark that there was a chapel devoted to Sao Joao nearby. Further along we passed an old defense tower that was renovated centuries earlier to become the town’s clock tower, Torre do Relógio, with its signature finely, pointed conical roof.

Just off the old square, Praça do Camões, we passed through an archway that was once one of the gates to the walled lower part of the town.  Above it was the first residence of the Guarda Bishops before their luxurious palace was built. Those versatile Templars, fortress and cathedral builders extrordinaire, are also credited with the construction the of Sé Catedral de Castelo Branco in the early 13th century.  The cathedral’s original footprint has been lost under centuries of expansion.  Today its simple exterior belies a richly decorated interior that features a gold-leaf altar and a beautiful baptismal font.

Exhausted after a long day of discovery, we took a taxi back uphill to our hotel for the evening. 

When we visited in early Spring, we had the town mostly to ourselves. There were only a handful of other tourists wandering the alleys and gardens with us.  As inexpensive as Lisbon was, meals are even more budget friendly in the countryside.  We highly recommend touring through the small villages and towns along the Portuguese frontier with Spain as a reprieve from the big cities of Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna