The recent top-selling book, “The Da Vinci Code,” by Dan Brown,
concerns a secret that the medieval Knights Templar were supposed
to have discovered beneath the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
Though the novel weaves an exciting tale, it’s a shame that Dan
Brown’s fiction has stolen the limelight from the achievements and
history of the real Knights Templar.
The Knights Templar was a military organization founded in the
12th century after the First Crusade. Claiming allegiance to the
Temple of Jerusalem, they protected Christian pilgrims traveling to
the Holy Land. They also served in the Iberian Peninsula of Spain
and Portugal, helping the Christian armies expel the Moors from
Europe. In gratitude for their services, the knights were given
lands and political privileges, and they became a power unto
themselves, serving as bankers for the Kings of Europe and
answering to no one but themselves and the Pope.
For two centuries they exercised this power, building formidable
castles and fighting battles in the name of God, but eventually
their power excited envy in some rulers. Finally, Pope Clement V
dissolved the order in the 14th century.
Today, the best place for fans of “The Da Vinci Code” to
experience Templar history is in the Portuguese town of Tomar. On a
hill above the river Nabao in the 12th century, the Templars began
to build their castle and Convent of Christ. The heart of the
convent is the Charola, an octagonal structure designed with
doorways high enough so the knights could enter on horseback.
Visitors to the convent can marvel at the eight cloisters, still
intact. An early 16th-century window built into a nave of the
church offers a remarkable example of the Manueline style of
architecture from the reign of King Manuel. The style uses nautical
themes to pay homage to the Portuguese navy that was then building
an empire stretching from Brazil to Macau.
Beyond the convent, the 400-year-old aqueduct that once brought
water to the monastery lies just outside of town. It took 20 years
for laborers to build the four-mile aqueduct. Visitors should ask
the local tourism office for directions.
The downtown section of Tomar has a charming pedestrian area
with little shops and the historic Cafe Paraiso. The Santa Maria
dos Olivais church was built during the 13th century to serve as a
pantheon for the Templar masters. Subsequent renovations destroyed
most of the funerary monuments, but spared the tombstone of Master
Gualdim Pais, founder of the Templar castle that looms over the
Another Templar site worth visiting outside of town is Almourol
Castle, which sits on an island in the middle of the Tagus River on
the Rio Tejo Islet in the municipality of Vila Nova da
In terms of hotels, the Hotel Dos Templarios offers spacious
accommodations plus amenities, including a health club and indoor
and outdoor pools, the latter alongside the Nabao River. Guests can
request a room with views of the Templar castle and monastery.
Rates for double rooms range from $103-$146 a night.
Of course, Portugal is known for its distinctive cuisine. The
restaurant Chico Elias serves up hearty portions in a warm and
casual atmosphere. This is the spot to get splendid renditions of
classic Portuguese dishes, such as sardines, goat (cabrito) and the
famous national codfish dish called bacalhau. Be sure to also try
the rabbit cooked inside a pumpkin, a recipe that has won acclaim
for chef and owner Maria do Ceu.
While millions enjoyed the fiction of “The Da Vinci Code,”
history lovers can find true tales of valor, betrayal and eventual
dissolution at the Templar monuments of Tomar.
Tomar is about 85 miles northeast of Lisbon and
can be reached by train (about $10-$16, depending on the speed and
class of train), by bus or by rental car. The road between Lisbon
and Tomar consists mostly of well-marked highways, but drivers
planning to explore other small towns or the countryside around
Tomar should be comfortable on winding country roads.
Bus Service: www.rede-espressos.pt
Rua Serpa Pinto, 127
Chico Elias Restaurant
Hotel Dos Templarios
E-mail Hotel Dos Templarios
Tomar Tourism Office
Regiao de Turismo dos Templarios, Rue Serpa Pinto,
Admission to the Convent of Christ monastery costs about $6 per