Evora & Tomar (Ancient Megaliths and Knights Templar)

After three days in Lisbon, it was time to head out for some day trips to see some of the other cities in Portugal.  Thanks to the small size of the country, you can get almost everywhere in Portugal in under a four hour train ride.  We didn't take any four hour rides, but we did get out of the city to some smaller gems that everyone should consider visiting when they come to Portugal.  Evora and Tomar are two smaller cities with far less tourists wandering the streets, but equally as nice people, and plenty of history to make a day trip an awesome experience.

To get to each city you can take the well run train system, or at least well run when they aren't on oddly timed strikes.  Portugal doesn't have high speed rail, which would make getting to some of these cities dramatically faster, but the trains are on time, and like most European countries can get you anywhere you want to go.  To get to Evora you will need to pick up a train out of the enormous Oriente train station.  If you are staying in Alfama like we did, you can pick up a connecting train from the Santa Apalonia station and be at Oriente in nine minutes.  From Oriente the train ride in about an hour and a half.  To get to Tomar, which is much less visited for some unexplained reason, you can get a day tour that will pick you up and drive you to Tomar, or you can take a direct train from the Santa Apalonia station.  The train ride will take you over an hour to get there.

Evora is a fun city that packs a lot of history in a compact amount of space.  Once you arrive at the train station take an easy 10 minute walk from the station into the heart of the downtown area.  The first place to visit is the Sao Francisco Chapel of Bones.  Not as over the top as the Kutna Hora Church of Bones we visited last year, it is still quite a sight to see.  Over the course a hundred years starting in the 17th Century, the people of Evora wanted to be buried at Sao Francisco.  After thousands wanted to be buried there, they eventually ran out of space and began decorating the walls of the chapel with the skulls and bones of those dead souls.  The room itself is not large, but is worth a look.  Another unique item is the mummified remains of a female adult and child whose remains were found on the chapel grounds.  This is interesting because the chapel was for hundreds of years men's convent.  Who these two ladies are is still a mystery.  When you are done walk through the impressive museum of art and relics at the cathedral.  One of the best collections of art I've ever seen at a European cathedral, they have it well displayed for everyone to tour through.  After visiting Sao Francisco, wander into town and visit the ancient Roman ruins that are still standing.  The columns on display were once a theatre two thousand years ago, and are still used today to put on live performances in Evora.  The real reason to visit Evora is to see the dozens of ancient megaliths that line the outside of the city.  People have lived in the Evora area for more than seven thousand years, and much like the stone monument of Stonehenge, these people began about 5000 B.C. building stone monuments to their gods.  Like ancient astrophysicists, these neolithic people were able to line these stone monuments up to the equinoxes and solstices.  While we are all about doing things on your own, we recommend using Ebora Megalithica to tour these sites.  Mario and his driver pick you up for your small group tour, less than 8 people, to three different sites.  What is amazing is the state these monuments are left in.  The megaliths site on private land, and as Mario explained to us there is a power struggle now between the older conservative generation who is still fearful of the government, which attempted to take all of their private owned land in the Communist coup attempt of the 1970's, and the modern governments which are still far too liberal for most of their tastes.  The politics of the region are a mess, but even for two Americans who love and value private land ownership and limited government involvement, even I couldn't believe the federal government hadn't done much to protect these historic pieces.  One of the sites will remind any traveler through the Southern states of the ancient Indian mounds of the Creeks and Ocmulgee people.  Using stones that are nearly twenty feet tall they created chambers to bury their relatives, but then covered them in dirt to look like naturally occurring hills.

While Evora is known for their ancient megaliths, Tomar is known for a legendary group of men who have captured the imagination for centuries, the Knights Templar.  As any history lover knows, the Knights Templar were a band of knights who defended the Holy Land for travelers from the 12th through 14 Centuries.  Answering only to the Pope, the Knights Templar did not have the same restrictions as other groups of knights that answered to the kings of their countries.  Over the centuries the Templars grew so wealthy from their banking practices they became targets for kings looking to claim their wealth.  On Friday, October 13th, 1307 (this is why Friday the 13th is considered an unlucky day), King Phillip IV of France had all of the Templars in France rounded up and executed in an effort to claim their wealth.  The problem was more than a thousand of them escaped into the friendly nation of Portugal.  Templars had been living in Portugal for more than a century, and had created a strong network.  After the Templars from other nations fled to Portugal, they eventually were reconstituted under the name the Order of Christ.  In Tomar you will have a chance to see some fascinating sites, and they are sites that only add to the mystery of the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, and hunt that has lasted for the last seven centuries for their treasures.  In Tomar you will visit the Convent of Christ.  Originally a fort built by the Knights Templars in 1160, the Order of Christ later expanded it in the Manueline style.  The 12th Century rotunda called the Oratory of the Templars was built to replicate the Temple of Solomon.  Stretching three stories from the floor to ceiling, the rotunda is filled with columns that created space for each Templar to stand and pray.  The doors of the church are enormous for a reason, the Templars would ride into the sanctuary on their horses so they could ride out at a moments notice.  After the fall of the Order of Christ in the 17th Century, the massive complex was turned into a monastery.  The monastery housed hundreds of monks who served the city for centuries.  The kings of Portugal were so in love with this temple they personally expanded in multiple times, each outdoing the king before them.  Down in the town you will visit the Church of Santa Maria do Olivais.  This church, built outside of the walls of the Templar fort on the hilltop, was a place for the Templars to worship for centuries.  As you approach the church you will notice the pentagram sitting in the window of the church.  The pentagram was not always a pagan symbol.  Used in the Temple of Solomon, there is great speculation as to why the Templars would have included it in their church, leading to the myth they were pagan worshipers of a god called Baphomet. Inside the church visit the side altars.  Find the statue of Mary on the right that is different than any Mary statue you've ever seen.  According to the guides, this is one of the few statues in the world to show Mary either not holding baby Jesus or with hands outstretched.  This Mary has her hands clasped together.  Look up through her hands and you will see a sight that has expanded the mystery of the church for centuries.  You tell me what you see?  If they are right, they believe it is Templar symbolism of the importance of this church.  Walk over to the left side of the church and look between the pews and see if you can find the Holy Grail.  It is either a marker for the Holy Grail or a sign that teenagers were also vandals seven hundred years ago.  When you walk outside you will see the entrance to a tunnel.  Believe it our not it is a tunnel that leads back to the Tomar Castle more than a mile away.  The Templars wanted to be able to get out of the walls and visit the church in secret, so over the decades they dug miles of tunnels underground that allowed them to move around undetected.  Tomar is almost so little known it doesn't show up in guide books of the country, but I can't imagine that will last for long.  You will see how important the people history of their town is to these people as you walk down the street and see the Order of Christ crosses lining the sidewalks.

Portugal really is a country that is full of impressive history.  It is also full of wonderful landscapes, nice people, and delicious foods, so who wouldn't want to travel through a place like that?  Have I mentioned there are a lot of hills, well lucky for us the hills are not nearly as steep in Evora and Tomar.  Either that, or I have developed the quads of an Olympic speedskater and no longer feel the burn anymore.  Either way, I recommend everyone plan a few days outside the city to see what else Portugal has to offer.

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