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Tomar is an attractive town in its own right (especially during the Festas dos Tabuleiros in the first week of July, when the place goes wild) and is a place that is definitely worth visiting.

Built on a simple grid plan, Tomar’s old quarters preserve all their traditional charm, with whitewashed and terraced cottages lining narrow cobbled streets. On the central Praça da República stands an elegant seventeenth-century town hall, a ring of houses of the same period and the Manueline church of Sao Joao Baptista, remarkable for its octagonal belfry and elaborate doorway. Nearby, at Rua Joaquim Jacinto 73, you’ll find an excellently preserved fourteenth-century Synagogue, now the Museu Luso-Hebraicoa Abraham Zacuto. In 1496 when Dom Manuel ordered the expulsion or conversion of all Portuguese Jews, the synagogue at Tomar was one of the few to survive.

The Convento de Cristo is set among pleasant gardens with splendid views, about a quarter of an hour’s walk uphill from the center of town. Founded in 1162 by Gualdim Pais, first Master of the Knights Templar, it was the headquarters of the Order. The heart of the complex remains the Charola, the temple from which the knights drew their moral conviction. It is a strange place, more suggestive of the occult than of Christianity; like almost every circular church, it is ultimately based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, for whose protection the Knights Templar were originally founded. However, as the Moorish threat receded, the Knights became a challenge to the authority of European monarchs. In Spain this prompted a vicious witch-hunt and many of the Knights sought refuge in Portugal.

The highlight of the convent is the ornamentation of the windows on the main facade of its Chapter House, where maritime motifs form a memorial to the sailors who established the Portuguese empire. Later Joao III (1521-1557) transformed the convent into a thoroughgoing monastic community, adding dormitories, kitchens and no fewer than four cloisters. The adjoining two-tiered Great Cloisters comprise one of the purest examples of the Renaissance style in Portugal.

Tomar has a pleasant all-year campsite (telephone 249 321 026) in town and a number of reasonable pensions, each with a restaurant: Tomarense near the bus station (telephone 249 312 948), Luz (telephone 249 312 317), and the very popular Residencial Uniao in the center of town (telephone 249 323 161).

Information courtesy of Travelnow and Rough City Guides Lda.