Óbidos and Tomar: Fascinating Portuguese Castles

Nicholas Sterling

Two impressive fortresses where centuries of Portuguese architecture and history come together.

Portugal is a country dotted with admirable fortresses that reveal to the traveler the legacy of a nation that has played a significant role in the history of Europe over the centuries. These stone monuments speak of kings, conquests, intrigue, wars and memorable epics.

Let us use as examples the impressive Óbidos Castle, a typical Portuguese medieval fortress, and Tomar Castle, which—at some point—was the property the Order of the Templars. This castle, which also served as a convent, is a meeting point for the architecture and the history of this great nation.

Óbidos Castle
Óbidos, one of the most picturesque towns in Portugal, sits atop a hill that rises gracefully over an agricultural valley. The word Óbidos derives from the Latin and means citadel. During Roman times, there already was a small defensive outpost in the area. The castle was built by the Arabs during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula. After the Christian conquest (1148), it was renovated and expanded several times.

During the reign of King Manuel I—in the 15th century—the town’s governor ordered the construction of a palace and changed some parts of the fortress. In the Governor’s Palace, for instance, the windows show a particular Portuguese Gothic style, known as Manueline. The Church of Santa Maria was the venue chosen by Prince Alfonso V to marry his young cousin. This temple’s walls are decorated with 17th-century tiles, which host a collection of Renaissance tombs and the paintings of the artist Josefa d’Óbidos.

The palace was severely damaged in the earthquake that devastated the country in 1755, and for much of the 20th century, it remained in ruins until it was restored to become the first Pousada of the network of luxury hotels in Portugal.

Tomar Castle
The main point of attraction for tourists who flock to the city of Tomar is the Castle of the Knights Templars, which houses the Convento de Cristo (Convent of Christ), declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Located on a hill by the Nabão River, it was built in the early 12th century, as an enclave of resistance along the border with the Muslim territories. Tomar is a daunting castle, one of the largest defensive constructions of the Iberian Peninsula.

Both the castle and the Convento de Cristo—which is perched on top of a hill—were the headquarters of the Knight Templars until 1314, and from 1347, housed the Orden de Cristo (Order of Christ). The construction of the Convent of Christ lasted from the 12th to the 17th century, and a visit to this magical place is a unique experience where we can observe the evolution of the Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Renaissance styles.

In its interior, we find two magnificent Gothic cloisters and the rotunda of the Templars, consisting of two floors sustained by eight pillars following the model of Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulcher. Another highlight—a true gem of decorative art—is the Ventana do Capitulo (Chapterhouse Window) designed by architect Diogo de Arruda, a fascinating example of Manueline style whose carvings include plant motifs, knots, twisted ropes and intricate bows.

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