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Top tourist attractions in Portugal


In central Portugal's fertile Ribatejo region, Tomar is dominated by its 12th-century castle and the Convento de Cristo, one of the country's most spectacular religious sites. Tomar is wrapped in Templar myth and legend. Seat of the mysterious Order of the Knights Templar and later, the Order of Christ in Portugal, the convent, with its two churches and myriad cloisters is mesmerizing.

Straddling the crystalline River Nabão, this quaint little town is a pleasure to explore. The town center, webbed by narrow lanes lined with family-run restaurants, cozy cafés, and homestyle shops, exudes a delightfully domestic atmosphere, a quality not lost on visitors who appreciate the humble, down-to-earth character. Rua Serpa Pinto, the main shopping street, arrows into Praça de República and provides onlookers with a glorious vista of the ever-present fortress. But Tomar's main square is also the focus of great celebration when, every four years, the townsfolk take part in the ebullient Festa dos Tabuleiros, a major tourist draw on Portugal's festival calendar. Further afield, a lake provides sunbathing and water sports opportunities, while another castle, renowned for its rugged good looks, woos sightseers at Almourol. And yes, the Templars built it!

Convento de Cristo

Tomar's stand out crowd-pleaser is the magnificent Convent of Christ, inscribed on UNESCO's World Heritage list. Founded in the 12th century by the Grand Master of the Templars, this extraordinary church with its graceful cloisters and impressive castle is one of the most dazzling and extensive of Portugal's religious sites.

The powerful and enigmatic monk-knights were rewarded for their ferocity on the battlefield with a castle, built in 1160 within sturdy walls on a wooded hilltop near the River Nabão. Soon afterwards, a church appeared, the Charola. Sometimes called the Rotunda in deference to its drum-like appearance, this is the Templars' oratory, a hallowed sanctuary that surrounds a gilded octagon of breathtaking beauty. Pope Clement V suppressed the Order of the Knights Templar in 1314, but in Portugal, a canny King Dinis turned it into the Order of Christ, thus facilitating the construction of what would become the Convent of Christ. A second church was consecrated in the early 16th century, and its elaborate chapterhouse window, framed by a rhapsody of curvaceous filigree stonework, is one of the most recognized examples of Manueline architecture in the country.Castelo de Almourol Of the convent's eight cloisters, it is the resplendent Great Cloister that captures the imagination of most visitors. To climb its spiral staircases and wander the elegant terraces is to immerse oneself in the romantic and intriguing world of the Templars and 16th-century Portugal.

Igreja de São João Baptista

Igreja de São João Baptista

Positioned across chessboard paving stones in the middle of lively Praça da República, the church of St. John the Baptist is a graceful, late 15th-century head-turner. Many a tourist has had their photograph taken under its elegant Manueline portal, and the lofty aspect of the brick-stone clocktower with its octagonal spire is beautifully proportioned against the squat, mainly 17th-century townhouses that flank the square. Its cool, hushed interior is decorated with a number of 16th-century paintings including a finely detailed Last Supper by Gregório Lopes. Historians should note the statue of Gualdim Pais standing in the middle of the square. Pais was a Portuguese crusader knight and the first grand master of the Order of the Templars in Portugal, who founded Tomar in 1157. His grave lies in Igreja de Santa Maria do Olival. Praça da República is the focus of the spectacular Festa dos Tabuleiros, a costumed festival that takes place every four years and culminates in the area outside the church.

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