In this clip, I marvel happily about “discovering” something new — after all these years of travel.
It’s Day 56 of my 100-day trip to Europe, and I’m in Tomar, a delightful town in central Portugal with little tourism and an amazing history. It’s the hometown of our tour guide, Fatima, who was excited to splice a visit here into our regular itinerary. And I’m so impressed, I’m adding it to the next edition of our Rick Steves Portugal guidebook: https://store.ricksteves.com/shop/p/portugal-guidebook
Towering above this charming, workaday town is a castle with an Oz-like circular church (or “oratory”) built 800 years ago by the Knights Templar. The church (modeled after the Dome of the Rock or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem) is where knights would go, often on horseback, to be blessed before battle as they defended Portugal against the Moors, protected pilgrims heading for the Holy Land, or just empowered Portugal in the age of discovery. After the Order of the Knights Templar was dissolved across Europe in 1312, the Order in Portugal simply morphed into the Order of Christ and carried on. Henry the Navigator was a Grand Master, and later, King Manuel (who became a Grand Master in 1484) ordered much building here. Under his leadership, the stout early-medieval castle was decorated in exquisite Manueline decor.
The Knights Templar was a rich organization. It was both a popular Christian charity and Europe’s first great bank — pilgrims gave money in the west, were given a “check,” and could make withdrawals along the way as they ventured east. If they died, which was common, the Templars kept their estate. (Always read the fine print!) The Templars — you could call them the first multinational corporation — built and managed about a thousand forts, stretching from Portugal all the way to Jerusalem.
To gape up at the majesty of the Templars’ church here in Tomar has been a highlight for me on my Rick Steves Heart of Portugal tour…and I hope we’ll find a way to make it a standard stop for future groups as well.