The restorative power of a good shower – doing one’s laundry simultaneously (don’t try too hard picturing a pile of clothes in the tub collecting soapy water as I stomp on it, then rinse it and wring out the excess water) – is easily underestimated. Only one thing is better, and that’s sleep. Together – one after the other – after a very long day’s walk is a miracle. So, having walked into Tomar after sundown the night before, and then sleeping soundly, I woke up on Sunday knowing I wouldn’t have to repack that day, wouldn’t have to strap a 20 lbs. pack onto my back, and wouldn’t have to walk. Yesterday I was a pilgrim, but today I’m a tourist… and Tomar is a good place to be one.
I was in a small but extremely comfortable guest house directly in the heart of this medieval city. I thought I’d need to go out for breakfast, but as I was about to leave at 9am, I noticed the place had a fully stocked continental breakfast buffet, so that problem was solved just like that. Several parents – French and German – were there with teenagers; I could tell since no one was speaking with each other, all were staring at their phones, a universal affliction. After a good meal, I was charged up to explore this city about which I’d heard and read a great deal.
In the Roman Empire days on the Iberian peninsula there had been a settlement, called Sellium, here. Then the Moors pushed the Romans out and occupied the area, only to be pushed out themselves during a military campaign called the Reconquista. The forces fighting and defeating the Moors in this area were the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, also known as the Knights Templar. The Knights had been formed to fight in the 12th century crusades at the end of which came this reoccupation of the Moorish (Islamic) caliphate on the peninsula. On the site where the Romans had first built a town, the Knights established Tomar as their regional base. I won’t pretend to explain this group any further, and will suggest Dan Brown’s best sellers on the topic even though they’re fiction and may not be 100% accurate; they’re entertaining in any case.
Everything in Tomar virtually screams “Knights Templar.” The distinctive cross that symbolizes the group is everywhere from the inlaid stone sidewalks to clocks on coffee shop walls. You may think there can be no more images of this cross-cum-weapon when it suddenly pops out at you as the powdered sugar decoration on a cake. All of these images appeared during my late morning walkabout around the old city. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of streets in the tiny city core, but eventually you emerge in a place you’ve been to before. During this time I happened by the cathedral at 11 o’clock just as mass must’ve ended and the worshippers poured out. Unlike what I see when I pass the Boise cathedral on my way to my neighborhood at home, where any dress code seems to have been abandoned some time ago, the people emerging here we’re in hot summer finery (it was approaching 90 degrees F). I stop to watch the dynamics a bit, and soon the crowd dispersed with everyone seemingly headed to a variety of nearby coffee houses. Unlike conventional coffee shops, these “houses” are larger and serve a great variety of fine pastries, including “natas,“ the Portuguese staple sweet treat, a flaky-crusted tart shell filled with very sweet custard and lightly charred on top.
After treating myself to a sweet second breakfast – a Camino tradition – I proceeded to see the prominent Knights Templar castle on a height above Tomar. I found an upward winding path leading to the castle and approached its outer walls. Seeing no entrance nearby, I started walking around it, a fairly lengthy walk in itself as this structure is huge. It’s so huge, in fact that I never did find an entrance. Clearly there was one; I heard faint voices on the other side of the massive walls, but, by God, I wasn’t meant to find it. Remembering this was also my day off and tomorrow was going to be another long walk, I abandoned the effort to get inside and started drifting downhill again, toward the city. This took me to a lush, well-kept garden and a playground where distant descendants of those old Knights – I’m sure that’s what they were – played on slides, teeter-totters and swings.
After a nap and and some catching up on chores, it was nearing 7:30. Don’t even think of showing up at a restaurant in Portugal or Spain before 7:30. They’re simply closed. Even then, it’s the foreigners who show up at opening time with the locals drifting in no earlier than 8:00. The “Biero Rio” had been recommended to me by people staying at the guest house, and indeed it was s great choice. I order the Carne de Casa, a nice cut of beef marinated in a garlicky white wine sauce, grilled perfectly and then served in more of the heavenly marinade, with thyme sprinkled potatoes (OK, they were French fries) on the side. An American couple came in as I was eating and sat a few tables off. From their wardrobe I guessed they were walking the Camino too. When I had finished I approached them and started to introduce myself, when she said, “you’re Anthony from Idaho.” Well, yes I am; she recognized me from the Facebook site dedicated to the Portuguese Camino. Sadly they reported that the husband had injured his knee and that an emergency room x-ray ($75, no insurance paperwork, 30 minutes start to finish with a doctor’s reading of the pictures and his consultation) indicated he shouldn’t push on. They had booked themselves back to Oregon, so they were having their last meal on the Camino before flying home – disappointed – the next day. This reminded me of my new British friends, Mary and Paul, since he had also suffered a knee ailment. Did they make it to Tomar and would I see them again on the trail, or ever?
Happy to still feel well, and now a bit rested on a free day in the city of Knights, I headed back to my room to prepare for the next day.