I was educated in a convent. I spent my formative years with the Presentation nuns. I don’t think it did me any harm. I might have picked up a few quirks along the way that are all part of convent life to the point where I’ve long associated the word convent with women in habits – not men. So the Convento de Cristo in Tomar came as quite a surprise.
Founded in 1160 by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, this absolutely stunning complex stands as evidence today of their skills and craftsmanship. It wasn’t all built over night. It took centuries. The Charola, which lies at the heart of the monastery, dates back to 12th century while the first stone of the Great Cloister, with its magnificent spiral stairways, was laid in 1550. First sighting of the Charola elicited audible gasps from many. The photos don’t do it justice. An hour could pass and you’d still not have seen the half of it, such is the detail.
A 16-side polygonal structure, with strong buttresses, round windows and a bell-tower, inside, the round church has a central, octagonal structure, connected by arches to a surrounding gallery (ambulatory). The general shape of the church is modelled after similar round structures in Jerusalem: the Mosque of Omar and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
It moved through various religious orders throughout the ages and in 1834 was in the private ownership of the Count of Tomar and his descendants. In 1933, the state acquired it and in 1983, it was granted Unesco World Heritage status.
The place is a warren of interesting nooks and crannies. My favourite was the tiled Chapel of António Portocarreiro built in 1626. The azulejo tiles are amazing and the walled panels depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary are stunning.
The rather spacious cells – 20 lining either side of the long dormitories – made me rethink the austerity of life in a sixteenth-century monastery. It’s quite famous for its Manueline window – with its marine motifs. The carving at the base is supposed to be either the architect or the Old Man of the Sea. And, if you didn’t already know – as I didn’t – Manueline architecture is the Portuguese equivalent of Late Gothic. If you’re in the area, it’s well worth a visit.