As Portugal emerged as a nation, bent on taking lands conquered by Moorish forces in centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, its first kings drew their lines along the River Tejo. Coimbra the capital of the Centro Region ended at the Tejo River, which became the border between the new kingdom of Portugal and the Moorish lands to the south. Here, a line of castles rose under religious orders designed to defend the newborn nation, while allowing a base to launch the Reconquest. The ring and line of castles, granite landscapes, and friendly folk make it a wonderful off-the-beaten-path adventure. Little if anything has been written about this journey into the age of king and knights…
Tomar – Marvel of the Templars
Just north of the Tejo, Tomar’s castle is massive and powerful, much like the Knights Templars, who built it 800 years ago. One of the most impressive defensive and religious structures in Portugal today, the castle of Tomar and its Convent of Christ, is a well-maintained glimpse of life in the days of the Reconquest.
Like so many of the towns in the fertile lands between the Tejo and the Mondego, Tomar had many conquerors and builders in ancient times. But, it was here that Gualdim Pais, the Grand Master of the order of Knights of the Temple, chose to build his base in the 12th century. In 1190 a mighty Moorish army caught King D. Sancho I by surprise in Santarém, and besieged him in that city. Tomar was also besieged, but the outnumbered Knights Templars turned the tide. After six days the Moors overcame the castle’s first line of defense, and opened a gate that allowed thousands of Moorish warriors into the walls. The Templars counter attacked, catching the Moorish armies unprepared, and to this day the gate is called “Door of Blood” for the slaughter that ensued. The invasion was beaten off; the king and young nation were saved by the heroics of Tomar. In 1321 the Pope disbanded the Templars, but the Portuguese king, D. Dinis quickly created an “Order of Christ,” to take over the assets of the former order. The new order would be an integral part of the Portugal’s age of exploration, with Infante D. Henrique (or Prince Henry) becoming Grand Master of the Order. As a result, the town of Tomar prospered and grew in the 15th and 16th centuries. The kings of Portugal lavished amazing projects on the castle, and it became a symbol for the enthusiasm of Portugal’s golden age. But, as the empire declined so did the order, and in 1834 it was extinguished. The castle was abandoned, and it riches were pillaged.
Today, much remains of the great castle. The 12th century Templar abbey, know as the Convent of Christ, with its round alter, and huge door (made high enough for a knight to attend mass on horseback) is a unique site. The keep, and ruins of the Templars’ castle still tower above Tomar. And, the 16th century portion of the Convent of Christ offers some of the finest examples of Portuguese Manueline architecture. The window behind the abbey is considered the masterpiece of the Manueline movement, and a symbol of Portugal’s age of exploration. The castle walls offer fine views of the town, adjoining parks, and the aqueduct that supplied the castle with water. The castle’s gardens are well maintained, and the more recent buildings of the abbey often host art and historical exhibitions. It should be added that Tomar is a monumental city, with fine churches, parks, and a well-preserved historic district.
Santarém (Porta do Sol)
Set high above the Tejo, with a commanding view of surrounding lands, the site of the castle of Santarém is a shady garden with spectacular views. Parts of the medieval castle still stand, hiding a bloody past. The Romans arrived in the 2nd century and called this place Scalabis. In the 8th century the Moors arrived, and made the city a center of culture. In 1147 the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques and his army captured the city after some scouts climbed the walls in the middle of the night and opened the gates. The city became a cultural capital for medieval Portugal, full of monasteries and palaces and today is called "Capital of the Portuguese Gothic."
An English knight named Palmeirim was on his way to Constantinople when a storm forced him to seek shelter at the mouth of the Douro. There, he heard tales of a giant called Almourol who held two beautiful princesses, Misaguarda and Polinarda, prisoner in his castle. Palmeirim set off to fight the monster and free the princesses. He arrived to find that another wandering knight, called The Sad Knight, was also there to fight for the honour of the ladies. The two knights fought a bloody duel and after being injured, they retreated. Thus, is the legend of Almourol, a special castle in a nation rich in castles.
Almourol floats on a tiny island in the river Tejo, rising like a dream over the calm waters. It was never attacked and today, is one of the purest castles to be found in terms of retaining its original design. Even before the arrival of the Romans, a fort was there and the Moors held the islet briefly. In 1171 Gualdim Pais and his fellow Templars were given the task to build a new castle to solidify the lines of the Tejo that they were defending. The result was an imposing castle that looked like a stone ship. It rises 18 meters high, and is 310 meter long and 75 meters wide.
With the total defeat of the Moors in 1249, Almourol lost its military importance, and was left to its river and the wind. Soon, legends and ghost stories were told about the place. But, sitting on an islet, vandals, stone thieves, and invading armies all left the castle alone, and it has survived intact to the present time. The castle’s plan is simple; one high keep is flanked by a wall on either side and one wall in the middle. A series of small round towers defend the walls, and a double castellated wall juts out like a prow to the east. A small boat carries the visitors to the island for a pittance. Eerie and silent, the enchanted isle remains a place of legends.
What remains of the Castle of Abrantes commands the valley of the Tejo, looming on the crest of a hill - making this city as an important military fortification. The Romans called the town Aurantes - and it was taken from the Moors in 1172 and entrusted to the military Order of Saint James of Compostela where the massive walls of the castle were erected. Numerous battles took place here. Today, the semi-ruined keep holds a massive tablet to the Napoleonic Campaign of the early 19th century.
Lovely to view, is the definition of Belver. Legend has it that King D. Sancho I ordered the knights of St. John of the hospital to build a castle on a hill overlooking the Tejo River. In truth, D. Sancho’s job was not an easy one. He had to continue his father’s fight, against the Moors to the south, while keeping peace with the Castilians, and holding a defensive line at the Tejo River. To achieve the final part, he turned to religious military orders, and in 1194, the knights of St. John began to build their castle, which they defended until 1350, when the Order of Crato took on the task. The castle served as a base for attacks to the south, its high walls and impressive keep deterring Moorish assaults. Belver’s castle still dominates the highest hill on a green and yellow bank of the Tejo, with a small village in its lap. The fine walls, which are in good repair, circle the keep in the shape of a pear. The walls offer breathtaking views of the Tejo, and a sense as to how Belver got its name.
Amieira do Tejo
A perfect square, flanked by four towers, is the design of this unique castle. No other Portuguese castle shares its design, and none rises from the banks of a river with equal majesty. The castle was edified in the 14th century by Álvaro Gonçalves Pereira, a knight-turned-monk and father of the legendary Nuno Álvares Pereira. The order of the Hospitallers built this imposing castle between 1350-1360, as a defensive fort. The Castle of Amieira do Tejo is rather sophisticated for early gothic military architecture, with its regular, geometric plan, four towers on each angle. Today, its square-like design is unique. The well-preserved main tower offers several Gothic rooms, and the original cistern and parade square are well maintained. Amieira retains a bold view, and special setting that transcends the centuries.