A Knight’s Tale

In Portugal, visitors discover the real Knights Templar

By: Aaron Dalton

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 town.

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 Barquinha.

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.

GETTING THERE

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.

Train: www.cp.pt
Bus Service: www.rede-espressos.pt

CONTACT

Cafe Paraiso
Rua Serpa Pinto, 127
249-312-997

Chico Elias Restaurant
EN-113 Algarvias
351-249-311-067

Hotel Dos Templarios
351-249-310-100
E-mail Hotel Dos Templarios
www.hoteldostemplarios.pt

Tomar Tourism Office
Regiao de Turismo dos Templarios, Rue Serpa Pinto,
1249-320-000
E-mail Tomar Tourism
www.rttemplarios.pt

Admission to the Convent of Christ monastery costs about $6 per person.

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