This is the first in a series of Day Trips; brief reviews of some worthwhile places to visit…
What’s not to like about Tomar? It’s not too big, but has plenty to keep you busy at least for a day. Tomar is a gentle, medium sized town. It’s not glamorous but it is certainly charming. Tomar has a little bit of kitsch, a little bit of retro, a smidge of fun.
Let’s start with the gob-smacker, bound-to-bowl-you-over UNESCO World Heritage Listed Convento Do Cristo. It was the headquarters of the Knights Templar, aka the Iberian Crusaders. The knights were a religious order, but this place has a certain macho robustness that helps you remember that it was also a serious military base. Built in the 12th Century, the convento is a complex complex of courtyards, chapels and living facilities and there isn’t a single corner that’s not photogenic. My favourite bits are the stone spiral staircases of the Santa Barbara cloister leading to the terrace (where there is a top view of the gaudy and carbuncular pièce de résistance Manueline window) and the refectory; a vast dining room that would make the ultimate location for a debaucherous medieval feast-party, convent and piety notwithstanding. If you can’t get a bit of joy out of this joint then you have no imagination.
Time for a coffee, so we’ll go straight down to the corredore, the cobbled and pedestrianised thoroughfare in the old town. Café Paraiso is a classic, where the story goes that the local ladies had a seating system according to social ranking. Windows, most preferred. Toilets, least preferred. Don’t sit in Mrs Wapnobbles place or you´ll get a pastel in the face…. that sort of thing.
Also in the corredore is one of my favourite hotels in Portugal the Residencial União. It is the type of intimate, family run, character laden place that I want all guest houses to be like. Prim and proper like an English hotel but also cosy like staying at nanna’s. The dining room is so cute that I expect to see Poirot or Miss Marple reading in a corner. And it’s all genuine. They are not trying to be quaint or boutique, it’s just the authentic and stopped-in-time nature of the place. I can’t fault it. And it’s a ridiculous bargain to boot. The last I looked at their rates they hadn’t put them up in 3 years.
And now I’m going to rave about the museu dos fósforos. I would never have gone to a matchbox museum in a pink fit if it wasn’t for two funny Australians who directed me to the breasts in the chapel at Busaco (another sublime little secret of Portugal for another time) and on the strength of this tip, I listened well when they urged me not to miss this museum. And there you are: you might never imagine that the largest matchbox collection in the southern hemisphere could be so fascinating, or hilarious. The collection, belonging to the fabulously named Aquiles Da Mota Lima, is ridiculously vast, a superb snapshot of 20th century graphic arts. It is severely kitsch, and big fun.
What really lights my fire is that it’s the inverse of most museum collections. Your regular art collector wants their good taste, their wealth and their cultured intelligence to be admired through their collections. It can be all rather vulgar and pretentious sometimes. On display here is a plebeian obsession taken to the extreme. It is curious maximus. The first room is cute, the second interesting but after the third room and 20,000 matchboxes, you get the picture. This guy is nutty. The madness of it becomes slightly overwhelming – when there are still another 20,000 matchboxes to go – and the humanity so palpable that you can almost hear Mrs Da Mota Lima nagging Aquiles to get these damn bloody matches out of the house. So, don´t miss it. It’s (unbelievably) free and only open in the afternoons.
The best towns always have more than one historic café and my other hang is Estrelas do Tomar. I rate a place that does its specialities in a specially printed box and at Estrelas you can take home `kiss me quick´- Beija me depressa – little gooey custardy globs that look yummy, but frankly I just want the box. The rest of their pastries are just too darn tempting anyway, and the green tiles and matching dark tables and chairs are totally up my street. AND, very unusually for Portugal, they have a wicked tea selection, like they saw me coming.
Just as well god created the day with morning and afternoon tea. And just as well there’s lunch and dinner too because there is a lot of good food to be had in Tomar. I’m always on the look out for the side alley, small but personality-filled bistro, and the Tomar baixa is full of such treasures. My current favourite is Restaurant Piri-Piri which is a slight cut-above the usual, possible owing to its success with the house made sauce, and a very good wine list. The hosts are even more hospitable than your typical Portuguese restaurateurs. More great hosts and buckets of atmosphere can be found at Casa das Ratas and her sister-across-the-laneway Casa Matreno. They have the same short menu of tasty and satisfying fare with an interesting seasonal special or two, so you’ll just have to choose between the taverna style of the Ratas or the pink and green diner tiles of the Matreno.
Finally, when in Tomar, I never miss a visit to The Princesa. If the time is right and the weather is mild, she may just make herself available. However, The Princesa only conducts visits from her first floor window where she can look down on the people as they crane their necks adoringly. Is she not the most beautiful cat in all of Portugal?
Restaurant Piri Piri Rua Moinhos 54 T:249 313 494
Residencial União Rua Serpa Pinto 94 T:249 323 161
Pastelaria Estrelas do Tomar Rua Serpa Pinto 12/Rua Alex Cruz 13B T: 249 313 275
Café Paraiso Rua Serpa Pinto T: 249 312 997
Casa Matreno / Casa Das Ratas Rua Doutor Joaquim Jacinto 7 T: 249 315 882
Museu Dos Fosforos Av General Bernardo Faria, near the train station.