We arrived in Tomar around half past nine, having caught an earlier train than originally planned. The two-hour journey was slow and the scenery alongside the track not particularly enthralling, but it was hard to grumble at the cost: the state-owned train company CP (Comboios de Portugal) charges just 9.95 euros each for a single ticket from Lisbon.
The weather was dreary with intermittent rain and we were relieved we’d made the last-minute decision to pack our lightweight waterproof jackets. The sprawling and impressively tiled Praça da República with its Gothic church and many cafes was deserted apart from the rows of wild pigeons lining the benches.
With only a few hours to spare there was no time to waste and, after a quick wander around the praça, we headed up a steep, cobbled path leading to the magnificent centuries-old Convento de Crista.
Tomar’s unique selling point is its connection to the Knights Templar (yes, those very same Christian crusaders who feature in The Da Vinci Code). Over eight hundred years ago, the city became the Order’s headquarters in Portugal. It was the Knights Templar who built Tomar’s castle and the convent in the 12th century and who defended the city from the Moors in 1190. When Pope Clement V abolished the Knights Templar in 1312, King Dinis of Portugal refused to pursue and slaughter the former knights (as happened elsewhere in Europe). Instead, he established the Order of Christ, which went on to accumulate great riches and power during Portugal’s Age of Discovery.
There was no charge to go into the castle grounds so we strolled around, wandering up and down the stone steps and narrow, unguarded walkways of the castle walls and marvelling at the ornate facade of the convent. More tourists (plus a group of flag-waving pilgrims) arrived and began queuing for guided tours costing just six euros each. We were sorely tempted, but Harri reminded me that we still had 14 miles to walk – possibly in the rain – plus supplies to purchase. There simply wasn’t time. Next time we’re in Tomar we will definitely make sure we enjoy a tour of those magnificent cloisters!
As we strolled along the Rua Serpa Pinto, past endless gift shops all displaying Knights Templar paraphernalia, I happened to turn to look back at the castle. I realised I was looking at the exact same scene depicted in a photograph in my DK Eye Witness Travel Guide: Portugal (they are still my favourite travel guides … I love all the pics!). For some reason it gave me a real thrill.
We avoided another heavy downpour by just happening to be in the toilets for its two-minute duration and spent another half an hour or so meandering across the 15th century Ponte Velha to the beautiful Parque do Mouchão (there’s a wonderful working wooden water mill, allegedly Roman but who knows!) and stopping to buy bread and fruit in Tomar’s indoor market.
We’d probably have lingered for a while outside a wisteria-covered cafe/restaurant overlooking the river had the weather been warmer and the clouds less threatening, but instead we headed out of town. When we stumbled upon an Intermarché supermarket on the outskirts of the city, we ventured inside only to be asked to leave our full rucksacks at the customer services desk. This infuriated us. Why would we, as long-distance hikers, be seen as potential shoplifters? As Harri pointed out (to me, his Portuguese isn’t good enough to engage in long conversations with shop assistants), our rucksacks contained our passports and quite a lot of euros … far more euros than the value of anything we were likely to steal! And our rucksacks were crammed to the brims. Where exactly were we planning to stash the lifted items? This has only happened to us once before – last year in Torroella de Montgrí on Spain’s Costa Brava – and on both occasions we have felt bewildered and angry that we were being discriminated against on such nebulous grounds.
The afternoon’s walking was a bit of a disappointment. Though the rain held off, the weather remained very British, i.e. dreary and grey, and the landscape and vegetation was not what I’d anticipated of Central Portugal. As I plodded along behind Harri it crossed my mind that I might have made a big mistake in choosing to spend half our fortnight’s holiday walking inland instead of just sticking to the Silver Coast for two weeks (our original plan). Well, it was too late to change our minds now!
When we finally reached Ferreira do Zêzere, it was similarly underwhelming, perhaps because the image I’d held in my mind was not of the town itself but of the nearby village of Dornes, with its picturesque location on the water’s edge (just try Googling images for Ferreira do Zêzere and you’ll see what I mean). The town did redeem itself later on, with its good-value restaurants and bars, but it didn’t do it for us in terms of a possible place to live.
Tomorrow our hiking starts in earnest when we head north to join the Castelo de Bode reservoir. I just hope the weather improves as I haven’t brought long trousers with me and we’re about to head into the mountains.
If you want to follow in our footsteps, download our route from Tomar to Ferreira do Zêzere.
The Via Algarviana – an English guide to the ‘Algarve Way’ by Harri Garrod Roberts is available from online bookstores, included Amazon’s Kindle store and is priced at £2.99.
The Via Algarviana: walking 300km across the Algarve by Tracy Burton is available in paperback (£5.99) and Kindle edition (£2.99) from Amazon.