Tomar

Places to Visit in Central Portugal (Tomar, Alcobaça and Batalha) – Part II

Portugal is home to some of the most famous medieval-era monasteries in Europe. On our last trip, we were able to visit four of them. A primary reason for our two day stay in Nazaré was to visit three of these monasteries: Alcobaça, Batalha and Tomar (the fourth monastery is in Belém, near Lisbon, I have written a little about it here). It might be possible to visit all three in an extremely rushed day; however, I would suggest visiting Alcobaça and Batalha on one day (both are pretty close to Nazaré) and then see Tomar on the second day, with a visit to Almourol castle before or after (these two sights are just 32 km (20 miles) apart).

All three monasteries in this post are well worth visiting. For sake of time, I would prioritize Tomar first (it’s the furthest away and has the most extensive set of rooms that can be visited), Alcobaça and then Batalha.

Tomar (Convento de Cristo)

The town of Tomar, known for its unique monastery (called Convento de Cristo), is one of the signature sights in Portugal. The main chapel dates to the 11th century and the walls surround the monastery complex are much older. Convento de Cristo is extremely unique because of its circular, fortress-like chapel, and its long association with the Templar Knights.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar

A view of the walls surrounding Convento de Cristo in Tomar.

I had the privilege of visiting Convento de Cristo a few years ago, and I was just as amazed visiting it again on this trip as I had been previously. The site is extensive, and consists of visiting the chapel, cloisters with several levels, kitchens, refectory, dorm rooms, meeting halls and other places, including the exterior gardens.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

The circular (16 sided) Templar chapel of Convento de Cristo.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal

Interior of the Templar Chapel (Charola), Convento de Cristo.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

The elaborate entrance to Convento de Cristo, Tomar.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar

Detail of the Manueline sculptures (16th century) which decorate the Convento de Cristo.

Allow at least two hours for your visit. The site is well sign-posted with English explanations.

Note: Several years ago, I visited Tomar as a day trip via train from Lisbon (see post here). This is very doable. However, if you have more time, a road trip is better, since you will be able to see more sights along the way. Since my family had not been to Tomar, we made this sight one of our destinations out of Nazaré. It’s only 77 km (48 miles) directly east of Nazaré. This monastery sits on a hill overlooking the town, and parking is available off the road part way up the hill.

Tomar Aqueduct

Also, just north of the town of Tomar a few kilometers is an old aqueduct, built in the 1590’s. Visiting it is free, it goes right over and next to the road. We saw it on the map and made our way to it after our visit to the monastery. It was built to provide water to the monastery.

Tomar aqueduct, Portugal.

A view of the aqueduct near Tomar. You can take a walk across the top.

Alcobaça

This Cistercian monastery is just 16 km (10 miles) east of Nazaré and takes its name from its location at the confluence of the Alcoa and Baça rivers, which provided a water source for crops and the monastery residents. Construction began in 1178 and now the monastery is surrounded by the old town of Alcobaça.

Alcobaça monastery, Portugal.

Exterior view of Alcobaça monastery.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

A view of the Cloister of Silence, built in the 13th century.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

The massive and austere interior of Alcobaça Church. The vaults are over 20 meters (65 ft) high.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

Alcobaça’s refectory (where the monks would eat their meals). From this pulpit, there would be scripture readings to those gathered.

Alcobaca Monastery Kitchen2

Everything in Alcobaça is on a huge scale. This is a view of the massive kitchen.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

Reliquary Chapel, built between 1669 – 1672, part of the Manueline Sacristy. There is an additional fee to visit this chapel, but it is well worth it. Seventy-one terra cotta busts adorn the interior.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal.

The dormitory, one of the oldest parts of the monastery.

The adjacent town of Alcobaça also deserves at least a short walk, it has a scenic center.

Alcobaça Monastery, Portugal

A view of Alcobaça town.

Batalha

Founded in 1386 by King João I (who is buried here), to commemorate a battle that led to Portugal’s independence from Spain, this site is of national importance to the Portuguese. Construction went on for hundreds of years and was never completed. This monastery is 32 km (20 miles) northeast of Nazaré. It is considered one of the finest manifestations of gothic architecture in Portugal. This monastery was nearly in ruins in the early 1800’s, and thankfully it has been restored and is now a museum.

Batalha Monastery, Portugal.

A view of the north side of Batalha Monastery.

Batalha Monastery, Portugal

Another view of the exterior of Batalha Monastery.

Batalha, Portugal

The intricate detail carvings over the entrance to the unfinished chapels (Capelas Imperfeitas) at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal.

A view of the unfinished chapels.

Batalha, Portugal.

The soaring expanse of the main nave in the church at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal

Door carving at the entrance to the cloisters.

Batalha, Portugal.

A view of the cloisters at Batalha.

Batalha, Portugal.

The Chapter House at Batalha. Its ceiling covers a large expanse and has no central support, an engineering feat in the early 1400’s. Soldiers can be seen standing as honor guards in this room by the far wall, stationed here in remembrance of the war of independence from Spain.

Practicalities

We visited these monasteries in October, and none were very busy. You can get a ticket that allows you to visit all three of those discussed in this post for a discounted rate. A senior rate is also available. Buy your ticket at the first monastery you visit. There is a direct train to Tomar from Lisbon (I recall that there were only one or two stops along the way), and it’s an easy day trip from Lisbon. Travel to Batalha and Alcobaça is a bit more complicated from Lisbon via train (it requires bus travel too). A rental car is by far more convenient.

Convento de Cristo, Tomar, Portugal

The Templar church (Oratory) was also a defensive tower, it has 16 sides, and was next to an exterior wall. The interior (see pictures below) is amazing.

The Templar church (Oratory) was also a defensive tower, it has 16 sides, and was next to an exterior wall. The interior (see pictures below) is amazing.

Huge fortress walls, a Templar castle-like church and a huge late-Gothic monastery all in one.  What more could you ask for? That’s what you get with the Convento de Cristo, in the town of Tomar, Portugal.

The entrace to the 12th century circular church from the 16th century chapter house.

The entrace to the 12th century circular church from the 16th century chapter house.

The circular ambulatory in the 12th century church.

The circular ambulatory in the 12th century church.

The 8 sided center column fans out to the 16 sided walls.

The 8 sided center column fans out to the 16 sided walls.

The fortress grounds and convent sit on a hill overlooking the town of Tomar—the walls are visible from the train station.  Ever since I got a book about the Great Monasteries of Europe (by Bernard Schütz) many years ago, I’ve wanted to visit Tomar. With my love of medieval history and interest in the Knights Templar, Tomar is a must do, and I finally had the chance to visit in 2012.

Tomar is 2 hours by train (137km) northeast of Lisbon.

Tomar is 2 hours by train (137km) northeast of Lisbon.

The fortified walls and entrance to the monastery.

The fortified walls and entrance to the monastery.

The original fortress was a Moorish settlement (9th to 12th centuries), and the Knights Templar made Tomar their headquarters in 1160. The Templars were heroes at the time due to their role in the Reconquista, helping push the Moors out of the Iberian Peninsula. The Knights brought with them architectural refinements from the Middle East (from their time defending the Holy Land) and the fortress structural design was considered ahead of its time for western Europe.

The intricate carvings of the main entry way into the church and chapter house.

The intricate carvings of the main entry way into the church and chapter house.

The highly decorated exterior of the 16th century chapter house addition.

The highly decorated exterior of the 16th century chapter house addition.

The famous chapter house west facade window, 1510-1513, late Gothic “Manueline” style (after King Manuel), symbolizes the Tree of Life or Tree of Jesse from the Bible.

The famous chpater house west facade window, 1510-1513, late Gothic “Manueline” style (after King Manuel), symbolizes the Tree of Life or Tree of Jesse from the Bible.

When the Order of the Knights Templar (or Order of the Temple) was disbanded in 1319, the fortress of Tomar was turned over to the Portuguese Order of Christ, becoming its headquarters in 1357. King Manuel and King João III in the 16th century added extensively to the site making this a very large monastery—the artistic work speaks to the wealth of Portugal as a world power at that time.

The monk's cells were finished around 1543 – 1545, the tiles are from the 17th century.

The monk’s cells were finished around 1543 – 1545, the tiles are from the 17th century.

The refectory was finished between 1535 – 1536 by King João III,  reserved for reading during meal times.

The refectory was finished between 1535 – 1536 by King João III, reserved for reading during meal times.

The kitchen of the monastery (16th century).

The kitchen of the monastery (16th century).

Tiles in the Portocarreiros Chapel, built 1626.

Tiles in the Portocarreiros Chapel, built 1626.

Practicalities:  Tomar is an easy day trip from Lisbon. It’s about a 2 hour train ride (€9.75 each way), and the train leaves from Station Apolónia (eastern side of Lisbon). It’s about a 15 minute hike from the Tomar train station up the hill to the Convento de Cristo. The entry fee was €6. There’s a lot to see, so allow at least a couple hours. I kept finding new cloisters (courtyards), rooms, and unique views and architectural features of the buildings at every turn.  The signage is comprehensive and in English. If you get hungry, there is a café on the site as well. Be sure to stroll out and see the terraces, gardens, walls and an aqueduct that was built in the 17th century and finally gave the monastery a consistent water supply.

Main cloister—started in 1530-1533, under King Joao III (1521-1557), considered a masterpiece of the European Renaissance.

Main cloister—started in 1530-1533, under King Joao III (1521-1557), considered a masterpiece of the European Renaissance.

References: Signposts throughout Convento de Cristo.