I went to Malta last month, here are some post preview pictures…
I went to Malta last month, here are some post preview pictures…
There was a steep path to be negotiated to get to the Convento and by midday it was really quite hot so it became quite uncomfortable just to get to the top of the hill. Luckily it plateaued out by the time we got to the entrance and paid our €6 entrance fee and went inside.
This was becoming a perfect day and thanks to the distraction of the Festival we arrived later at the Convento than we had planned and this turned out to be a good thing because a lot of the coach tour parties were now gathering up their passengers and beginning to leave. On the down side we just missed free entrance because we were a few minutes past one o’clock because before that it is free on a Sunday.
Tomar is one of the most historically important cities in all of Portugal with a history that stretches back to the Romans and probably even before that. Fast forward a thousand years and after the capture of the region from the Moors in the Portuguese Reconquista, the land was granted in 1159 to the Order of the Knights Templar. In 1160, the Grand Master in Portugal, Gualdim Pais, laid the first stone of the Castle and Monastery that would become the headquarters of the Order in Portugal and from here they pledged to defend Portugal from any subsequent Moorish attacks and raids
The history is important so please bear with me here. In 1314, under pressure from Pope Clement V, who wanted the Templars banned throughout Europe, the King of Portugal negotiated to transfer the possessions and personnel of the Order in Portugal to a newly created Order of Christ. In the 15th century by a compromise agreement the position of (cleric) Grand Master of the Order was nominated by the Pope, and the (lay) Master or Governor by the King.
Henry the Navigator (one of the most important people in Portuguese history) was made the Governor and he used the resources and knowledge of the Order to succeed in his enterprises in Africa and in the Atlantic. The cross of the Order of Christ was painted in the sails of the ships that crossed the seas and the Catholic missions in the new lands were under the authority of the Tomar clerics until 1514.
The Convento was a wonderful place to visit, so much better than the Palace at Sintra and at only two-thirds the price so much better value. We spotted a coach tour party arriving so we started with the visit before we were overrun with tourist invaders.
And what a tour it was, through courtyards and grand rooms, all empty of course and I prefer it that way to places that are stuffed full of furniture and decorations. Personally I prefer to see a place stripped bare rather than full of old tat.
Through corridors and chapels, great halls and kitchens, dormitories and medieval offices it was all completely wonderful, I could easily have gone through the place for a second time but I knew Kim wouldn’t like that so we left the Convento and made our way to the castle and climbed the walls and made a circuit of the complete site before returning to ground level and after a surprising three hours leaving again and making our way back down to the main square stopping on the way in a café for a drink.
Here I reflected on the visit and I realise that it is easy to get carried away by the moment but I compared it to a visit to the Alhambra Palace in Granada a year ago and I concluded that this place was better. If someone told me that I could visit only one of them ever again then I would choose the Convento de Cristo.
Eventually we arrived back in Praça da República and stopped for another beer. We liked it, the weather was perfect and we were seamlessly adjusted to life outside of Lisbon, it had been a very good few days. When we first arrived I worried about filling three days in Tomar but right now it really wouldn’t have bothered me if the trains went on strike and I had to stop for a fourth.
If you are planning a visit to central Portugal then you simply must stop over in Tomar.
As it happened I was becoming an expert now and I was confident in giving directions to Caminho Way walkers and giving restaurant recommendations to new guests at the Conde de Ferreira Palace. It was rather a shame to be leaving but eventually we left the square while Kim went back to the hotel I walked to the railway station to buy tickets for the next leg of our journey, this time to Coimbra.
Our preferred restaurant was closed tonight so we walked the small town looking for an alternative and eventually settled upon another local sort of place which was nowhere near as good but we enjoyed a good meal at a reasonable price before one last walk through Tomar and back to the hotel for suitcase packing.
Breakfast at the United Nations table was a little easier for us today, the French Canadians and the Flemish Belgians had left and been replaced by an Irish couple and two ladies from New Zealand, so we were not so linguistically outnumbered this morning and ours was the majority language.
The Americans continued to struggle with the English language but it didn’t seem to bother the Germans who were quite happy chatting away with us all in Queen’s English. The Russians showed no inclination to join in.
As it happened, the Germans were leaving today and driving to Coimbra, the Americans were driving north and the New Zealanders were going south to the Algarve but our plan was to visit the Convento de Cristo, an important historical monument built originally by the Knights Templar as long ago as the twelfth century, their most important possession in all of Iberia and now since 1983 a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I diagress here for a sentence or two – Tomar is most famous, not just for the Convento de Cristo but also for the Festa dos Tabuleiros. A festival that is held every four years when the local population parades in pairs with women and young girls carrying tabuleiros on their heads and men accompanying them to make sure they don’t fall off because these things are seriously heavy.
What is a tabuleiro I hear you ask? Well, a tabuleiro is made of thirty stacked pieces of bread, liberally decorated with flowers and carried on the head. At the top is a crown which normally contains either a white dove, symbolising the Holy Spirit, or the Esfera Armilar, which turns out to be a symbol of historical Portuguese maritime expansion of five hundred years ago or so. Tomar it turns out was once the base of Henry the Navigator even though it is some considerable distance from the Atlantic Ocean.
I mention this because after we set off at about ten o’clock and were almost immediately distracted by some music and making our way to the town centre we came across a parade. You are probably expecting me to tell you that It was the Festa dos Tabuleiros but of course it wasn’t because this wasn’t scheduled for a further two years or so but rather an annual religious event called Nossa Senhora da Piedade which is always held on the first Sunday in September and which also involves ladies carrying baskets of bread on their heads.
This was a real bonus; usually we are unlucky about such events; they have usually taken place a week before we arrived or are due to take place a couple of days after we have left. I am not exaggerating here, this was literally the first time that we have ever had such good fortune on our travels.
We chanced upon the parade at the very start and then followed it through the streets until it made its way to the main square, the Praça da República (in any Portuguese town the equivalent of the Spanish Plaza Mayor) and then following some religious rituals that we didn’t fully understand it set off again to an out of town religious sanctuary, the Hermitage of Our Lady of Mercy, but we had enough by this time so before setting off for the Convent we sat in the square in the already burning sun and had a coffee and a beer.
As we sat we engaged in conversation with a Canadian man who was walking the Camino Way, as you do in these situations we naturally exchanged personal information and told him that we lived in a town called Grimsby in England and he told us that he lived in Toronto near a place called Grimsby on Lake Ontario and close to the Niagara Falls. I really didn’t expect a coincidence like that during a chance meeting at a pavement bar in central Portugal. Moments like that always enhance the travel experience don’t you think?
We finished our drinks, he drank the last of his mineral water, left and followed the sign of the scallop shell on the way to Santiago de Compostela and we said once again that one day that we would like to do that but for today we simply contemplated the climb to the Convent and the Castle and then had a second beer to prepare ourselves before setting off.
The day began with breakfast. Nothing unusual about that of course, most days begin with breakfast, but this breakfast was unusual.
I have to say that I did not have very high expectations about eating at Conde de Ferreira Palace but I was soon to be proved wrong. The food and the service itself was excellent but it was the ambiance of the dining arrangements which set it apart from other places that we have stayed.
There was only one large dining table and hotel guests all sat together; this sort of arrangement can be uncomfortable at first but within only a very short time everyone was chatting away to each other. When I say chatting I really mean struggling because around the table there were several different nationalities rather like a meeting at the United Nations but without the interpreters.
The French Canadians from Quebec couldn’t speak to the Germans, the Flemish Belgians couldn’t speak to the Dutch because the French couldn’t understand German, the Belgians couldn’t understand the Dutch and vice versa. No one except the Portuguese could speak Portuguese. But this didn’t matter one jot because everyone could speak English, except for the Americans of course, so everyone was able to satisfactorily communicate with one another. I am forever ashamed of my linguistic ineptitude but today English was the universal language and we all got along rather splendidly.
It was a bright start to the day and we planned a walk out of the town to visit a nearby aqueduct about three miles away that had been recommended to us at the Tourist Information Office..
The small city of Tomar is situated on the river Nabão, a short but swiftly flowing river that carves its way through a deep valley and consequently the town is situated at the bottom of a steep hill which rises quickly away from the banks of the river and requires considerable stamina to make the trek.
The ascent seemed positively endless, every time we were certain that we were at the top of the hill the road tricked us into climbing even further, even Sisyphus would have despaired and we walked out and past edge of town houses that got bigger and grander the further we went. Each one had a big dog that barked like crazy as we passed by and with my cynophobic nerves shattered I wondered why? Why do people keep these obnoxious animals I wonder?
The Aqueduct of Pegões is, it turns out a little known monument and therefore very little visited, totally free access and no tourists.
It was built to bring water to the Convent of Christ in Tomar and is an amazing monument just over about four kilometers long and in some parts reaching a height of a hundred foot or so and made of one hundred and eighty arches and fifty-eight arcs at the most elevated part. The construction started in 1593 and finished 1614 and it is the biggest and most important construction of the Philip I kingdom in Portugal. Wow, who knew that, even the Tourist Information Office doesn’t give it a lot of headline space.
It was a quite astonishing place, no one there but us and some occasional ramblers. There was no entrance fee, no safety barriers and nothing to stop visitors from climbing to the top and carelessly falling over the edge. We climbed to the top and walked a short way out along the elevated section until we realised that this was quite dangerous so after walking out further than was really sensible and clinging desperately to the stones for security we groped our way back to safety and returned to ground level.
This was the sort of place that I am reluctant to leave but after a while it was time to concede that this was the end of the visit and we debated the route back. Should we return by the road and the way that we had come or perhaps take what appeared to be the walking route back along a narrow dusty track?
We were momentarily confused, we had no idea, no map, no SatNav and no clue about the track and bear in mind here that I was with Kim who generally suffers from a chronic lack of direction but who was urging a reckless walk into the woods. I surrendered my common sense approach to these sort of situations and we followed some optimistic signs and set off down the track.
To our surprise, before very long we were in a blackened wilderness of post forest fire devastation. Earlier in the year central Portugal had suffered a scorching summer followed by devastating fires which had wiped out acres of trees and caused several deaths. This was one such area and as we walked now through charcoal and ash we reflected on the power and terror of such an event. Sometimes I am grateful to live in a country where it rains rather a lot.
Eventually we emerged from the blackened wilderness, stumbled across a road back into town and made our way back to the main square where we were ready for an afternoon drink at a pavement bar.
We squandered away the rest of the day, did a bit of exploring through the back streets, enjoyed an hour or so at the Conde de Ferreira Palace and then dined again at the same place as the night before. Once we have found somewhere that we like we are always reluctant to give it up and go elsewhere.
“This enchanting landmark is an architectural blend of many European styles, from 13th Century French Fortress to late Renaissance Palace. Since it was inspired by no single structure, Cinderella Castle represents them all” – Disney Official Souvenir Book
Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in France because, according to the Official Tourist Board, there are almost five-thousand but it seems to me to includes a lot of questionable small Chateaux in that number. For comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom and just about two thousand five hundred in Spain.
In the 1960s, so the story goes, Disney ‘imagineers’ travelled throughout Europe looking for the perfect castles on which to model Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World.
The lead architect for the project was a man called Herbert Rymanand and what makes this story a bit of a mystery is that there is no documentary evidence to establish exactly which castles he visited and indeed which of them became the inspiration for the Disney Magic Kingdom centrepiece. Disney themselves do no more than confirm that Cinderella Castle was ‘inspired by the great castles of Europe’, but they never explicitly say which one.
I mention this because today I was planning a visit to the nearby town of Pierrefonds which is famous for its castle. Actually that is just about all that it is famous for and without the castle I doubt that very many people would take the detour to go there.
The castle itself is rather magnificent, statuesque and grand, stout walls and conical turrets and if the Disney architects had stopped by Pierrefonds on their fact finding tour of Europe then I suggest that they would have gone no further in their search for inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle.
After Pierrefonds we continued to nearby Compiègne which turned out to be another attractive but rather unremarkable town but my reason for visiting was to see just one thing. A statue of Joan of Arc. There are statues of the Maid of Orleans all over France but I especially wanted to see this one because it has some special significance.
A bit of background: Joan was born in about 1412 into a relatively well-off peasant family in Donrémy in northern France somewhere near the border of Lorraine. At this time English troops were running riot through France and at one point raided and plundered the village of Donrémy and the d’Arc family had to flee into exile. During this time Joan convinced herself that she had a visitation of saints and angels and heard patriotic voices that told her that she was chosen by God to save France. Joan kept hearing the voices for a further three years and when she was finally convinced she left home and presented herself to the authorities as the saviour of France with a mission to put the Dauphin on his rightful throne.
Word of Joan quickly spread and it was claimed that she was the embodiment of a prophecy made by a mystic called Marie d’Avignon, that a ‘virgin girl from the borders of Lorraine’ would come to save France. To test whether Joan was genuine the Dauphin had her questioned by a committee of clergymen and asked a group of respectable ladies to test her virginity.
She passed both tests and with religious sincerity and sexual inexperience being considered more suitable qualifications than an education at an appropriate military academy she was given a suit of made (maid?) to measure white armour and an army of forty thousand men and sent to fight the English at Orléans.
Joan rejected the cautious strategy that had characterized French leadership and attacked and captured the outlying fortress of Saint Loup, which she followed the next day with a march to a second fortress called Saint Jean le Blanc, which was found deserted. The next day with the aid of only one captain she rode out of the city and captured the fortress of Saint Augustins and two days later attacked the main English stronghold and secured a stunning victory that took everyone by surprise.
After that there was a seemingly endless run of French victories as the English and their Bugundian allies fled from the field of battle whenever challenged by the invincible Maid of Orléans fighting, it seemed, with God by her side.
From here however things started to go wrong for Joan and she was betrayed by the King, Charles VII, who was beginning to find here her to be a bit of a nuisance and to get her out of the way he dispatched her on a hopeless mission to fight a Burgundian army right here at (which brings me conveniently back to) Compiègne, where she was defeated by a much stronger army, captured and taken prisoner and so began her sad journey towards the bonfire.
I found the statue and with nothing else to detain me in Compiègne I headed back to the campsite at Vic-Sur-Aisne.