If you enjoyed The Da Vinci Code or are a fan of medieval history, you’ll want to put the Convento de Cristo in Tomar on your to-see list. The Templar knights came to Portugal in 1128. 31 years later, as a reward for their victories, they received land from Portugal’s king where they established the castle and (then) village of Tomar. This impressive castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, still stands above the city of Tomar today.
Portugal’s king, D. Dinis, wanted to hold on to the skilled knights and the riches of the Knights Templar after the Order’s abolition in 1312. He maintained it, with permission from the Holy See, by changing its name to the Order of Christ and modifying the Templar cross. Both the Knights Templar and the Order of Christ crosses can be found on various city emblems today, including that of Tomar. In 1357, the Order of Christ’s headquarters was moved to the Convento de Cristo.
With Infante D. Henrique’s influence at first, but most notably under D. Manuel’s rule in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Ordem de Cristo became heavily involved in the Portuguese discoveries, as they were sent overseas to all four corners of the Earth.
Today, you can visit the castle – and I strongly recommend you do. Inside the walls, the most iconic focal point is the Janela do Capítulo, the “chapter window”. Found on an ornate wall, the “Manueline” architectural style (transitioning from the gothic style to the baroque, named after D. Manuel) window is famous throughout Portugal. It features naval motifs such as ship ropes, lifesavers, and wood, as well as imagery of the Order, like the cross and celestial spheres.
I had been to the castle as a child but didn’t recall the “residential” part of the castle, which, from 1922 until 1990 was actually inhabited by missionaries. It was fascinating to explore the bedrooms (some actually had very nice views), kitchen and refectory that were inhabited along the centuries. I was lucky enough to catch a temporary exhibit they had there, on Portugal in WWI. Who knows what you might find when you go.
After wandering around through the castle, I needed to walk along the castle walls. It takes about 5-10 minutes but you get some nice views of the lush grounds and you can see a long way out. You can also imagine you’re an archer practicing their aim through the holes in the wall, but that’s entirely optional.
You can drive to the Convento de Cristo in about 85 minutes from Lisbon, so there’s really no excuse to not go and see this incredible historic treasure. Don’t believe me, maybe The Guardian will convince you.