During the 12th century the Knights Templars set up a Portuguese base in the town of Tomar. They fortified the hill overlooking the river Nabao and fought off the Almohads in 1192. Within the walls, they built a circular temple, known as the Charola.
In 1312 the Templar Order was dissolved and became known as the Order of Christ. One of their most famous leaders was Henry the Navigator, who was a great explorer of the New World. During the 15th and 16th centuries the Convent of Christ grew immensely with the addition of cloisters, a rectangular church and military buildings, and in the 17th century, dormitories and a hospital were added.
The legacy of those works provides an amazing place to visit. I spend nearly two hours wandering the intricately carved cloisters, the long, cavernous dormitories, the small chapels, the kitchens and the olive oil store. I relish in the tiny details of the ceiling roses, the gargoyles and the magical Chapter Room window with its symbols of the sea: Ships’ masts, coral, seaweed, ropes and anchor chains. However, the crowning glory is the Charola with its huge 16th century painted panels, wooden statues and high domed roof. Its floor plan was based on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
It is said that there are tunnels carved into the rock below the buildings and that there is Templar treasure buried beneath the Charola. Perhaps the Holy Grail is hidden in Portugal – Porto do Graal (Grail’s Harbour). In fact, the true treasure is the site itself which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1983.