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the princesa of tomar: a day trip

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?


are you talking to me?

Restaurant Piri Pir
i 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.


  1. Steve May 13, 2010 5:46 pm Reply

    Always entertaining and those sardines yum yum. I hope to be in portugal in the next few years to live

    Thanks Emma
    A Pom, Marooned in an ever increasing racist Australia (Queensland)

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 16th, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    I thought the racists all left when little johnnie got the boot… drats…

    [Reply to comment]

    Steve   Reply: May 17th, 2010 at 10:21 am

    @Emma, There is a new car sticker in QLD it says “F%$k Off There is no space left”.

    So My friend and I have had one made that says “Come on in there is lots of space”.


    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 23rd, 2010 at 12:13 am


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  2. PAULO REIS May 13, 2010 9:15 pm Reply

    Just amazing photos , you are very good at it, THANK YOU.

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  3. Ad May 13, 2010 10:06 pm Reply

    Yep, that goes on the list for a visit

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  4. sarah Whitehead May 14, 2010 5:37 am Reply

    we love Tomar too, esp. the matchbox museum, next time try the restaurant across the river, can’t remember name……

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 16th, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    yes, I´ve had my eye on that one…nice spot, looks alright…
    what´s it called?

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  5. John May 14, 2010 8:00 am Reply

    Don’t forget the most amazing gastronomic delicacy that Tomar has to offer… they even have a McDonalds ! Wow! The only other one I have seen outside of Lisbon, Porto or Coimbra.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 26th, 2010 at 12:56 am

    John! Not another ad for Macca´s! I´m afraid even beautiful braga has one…

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  6. yozzee May 15, 2010 4:59 am Reply

    Hi Emma i’ve been reading your blog on and off for the last six months or so – you have a lovely way with words.

    Bookmarked it properly now and hopefully won’t lose it next time the interwebs crash 😉

    Tomar looks nice to visit but everytime I see a property in that area it seems to be a terraced house or overlooked by neighbours.

    There must be a gentle compromise where you can be in cycling or walking distance without being surrounded by curtain twitchers…

    yozzee x

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 16th, 2010 at 10:42 pm

    yep… I know what you mean… that´s why I bought an hour away… I didn´t like the pop.density… nice to visit though

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  7. Dee Hawa May 15, 2010 6:02 pm Reply

    Great photos Emma,very atmospheric, and as Yozzee says, you do have the most lovely way with words. I’m always salivating after your descriptions of coffee and cakey buns! Tomar was earmarked for a visit, those Knight Templar gezzers were SERIOUSLY weird.. now an absolute must do..! Dee x

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  8. Paemla Smith May 16, 2010 11:44 pm Reply

    Oh, Emma how I wish I had visited Tomar with you.

    I suggested Tomar as a day out to my husband back in February. What a disaster! We went but he just was not interested. Of course, according to him, it was my fault because I had not done my research properly.

    I saw several interesting restaurants but, no, he went and bought a take away from Mc Donalds. Philistine!!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 23rd, 2010 at 12:18 am

    I love reporting to people that neither starbucks nor mcdonalds really took off in portugal. SO. NOT. NECESSARY. Philistine indeed! 🙂

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  9. sophie May 17, 2010 12:17 am Reply

    andy didn’t want to go to the museu dos fósforos when we were in tomar (think he thought i was joking when i suggested it) i’m defo gonna go now though. also really want to stay at the residencial união – spotted that when we were there too (staying at a disappointing hotel, booked online, that turned out to be right next to the bus station, grrr). great to hear from you that it’s as fab as i thought it was from outside appearances 🙂

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  10. eliane May 17, 2010 5:56 am Reply

    que fotos lindas!

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    Emma   Reply: May 23rd, 2010 at 12:13 am


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  11. Kathleen May 17, 2010 6:12 pm Reply

    I love your blog, more reviews please! We’re coming to Portugal for 10 days in 3 weeks, again again. Almost can’t wait! I have to print out some of your descriptions, especially those on how to order a coffee properly 😉 Maybe we’ll have time to visit Tomar – where do I find the princesa? Cat lover …

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 23rd, 2010 at 12:10 am

    I forgot to add her address… maybe the royal secretary would be cross with me. Um… in the little laneway from the u/g carpark exit on the castle end of the main square….

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  12. Elvira May 18, 2010 12:28 am Reply

    Tomar is the city where I was born. I love Tomar, of course! 😉

    And I am the owner of a field where the “moura encantada” is from. Peasants say that she is haunting my field, offering gold to who gaves her fresh water… I love these legends!

    Thank you to divulgate, Emma. 🙂

    A big hug from my new home : Azores Islands.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 23rd, 2010 at 12:06 am

    Wow! The Moura Encantada! Yes, there must be a post on portuguese legends sometime… so charming! Thanks elvira, nice of you 🙂

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  13. Mariola Stone May 19, 2010 11:42 pm Reply

    We went to Tomar a few years ago and we had lunch at a riverside restaurant. There were a lot of people looking down into the river- so being the nosy type I went for a look. OMG I have never seen so many fish! the water was quite literally ‘boiling’ with the little critters. Can’t remember the name of the restaurant but there was a veranda outside and lots of Portuguese eating there ( always a good sign)- the grub was very good. We really liked Tomar I felt it was mystical in some way. I’m off to the airport now to catch a flight to my bit of paradise in the sunny Algarve!

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: May 23rd, 2010 at 12:00 am

    cool! 🙂

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  14. Rosa Maria June 13, 2010 2:27 am Reply

    Um dia que volte a Tomar não deixe de ver o Aqueduto dos Pegões. Água para uso doméstico do Convento e para rega da sua horta, a Cerca conventual.
    Mais uma vez parabens pelo seu blog.
    Rosa Maria

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: June 14th, 2010 at 8:46 am

    por certo, tenho de ver o aqueduto. x emma

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  15. Celia Teixeira July 4, 2010 7:28 pm Reply

    I am originally from Tomar and although living in Sydney now, have to say I still love this city as much as the day I left it 25 years ago.
    The restaurant across the river is called “Bela Vista”, there is also another favourite of mine just as you start to leave the city towards Lisbon ” O Manjar dos Templarios” which is very good.
    The traditional cake is the Tigelada, and the best sardines are to be had on a Friday at the “tascas” surrounding the markets.
    Can’t wait to go again.

    [Reply to comment]

    Emma   Reply: July 5th, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    I adore tigeladas… perfect when you´re on a carb free diet 🙂 and thanks for the tip about the market tascas… that I must try. Thanks celia x

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  16. Richard July 14, 2010 8:27 am Reply

    And don’t forget the great little bric a brac market every second Sunday of the month – and the Convento Do Cristo is free then as well.

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  17. Neil Perkins July 19, 2010 9:53 pm Reply

    Well i stumbled across your web page this morning, its now 11.45 am and i have not done a stroke of work as i have read your blogs non stop, better than a Dan Brown novel !, and much funnier. I have built / renovated a house in Serra de Tomar, overlooking the Costelo Du Bode. Taken 3 years of blood sweat and bribery LOL. but just about finished now, apart from being on my third builder rectifying the second builders cockups who was finishing the first builders failed attempt to build my house and rip me off almost to bankrupcy …. But i still love the place and the people. Try Cave de Irene, just past the Intermarch, turn right at the roundabout and its maybe 100 m on right hand side. All home made traditional food, tiny little place, just love it. All the best Emma, you really are pretty original. Regards Neil

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