Knights Templar

A tale or two : Rhodes

All aboard for the islands!

All aboard for the islands!

Now that the small person had been initiated into Greek Island life, and been found to approve, there was no stopping us!  Six months later it was Rhodes for a Spring holiday.  Another group of islands to call home for 2 weeks, this time far south in the Eastern Aegean, just off the coast of Turkey.  The connection with the Knights Templar has always fascinated me.

I had chosen Pefkos as a base.  The notion of it being a summer home for workers who farmed grapes, olives, tomatoes and figs on the coast, and didn’t return inland to their homes in the heat of summer, I found very appealing.  It promised peaceful days but a close proximity to beautiful Lindos.

Lindos castle

Lindos castle

Donkeys!  No thank you- we'll struggle up under our own steam.

Donkeys! No thank you- we’ll struggle up under our own steam.

As far back as the 8th century Lindos had been a major trading centre and in classical times it was dominated by an Acropolis and temple of Athena.  Practicality interceded in the 14th century when the Knights of St. John built the mighty fortess over part of the temple ruins to defend the island against the Ottomans.

It was, of course, a long hot slog up there!  Always upwards for the view.  But afterwards it was very pleasant exploring the streets and quiet corners.  A cafe was essential and wouldn’t you know it- two year old James proved to be a dab hand at backgammon!  Me, I was clueless, but endeavoured to learn.

A charming corner of Lindos

A charming corner of Lindos

I'm over here Mum!

I’m over here Mum!

This is how you do it!

This is how you do it!  I don’t think it’s an illegal move?

Ok smarty pants- back to the streets.

Ok smarty pants- back to the streets.

Down to the beach for a hint of breeze

Down to the beach for a hint of breeze

It was, as you can probably see, pretty hot.  I even sat in the shade down by the beach!  A lesson had been learnt from the previous holiday in Zante and we indulged in a taxi back to Pefkos, where James favourite occupation was watering the garden of our apartments. (endlessly!)  You remember he had a fascination with hosepipes?  Taps, too!

I imagine it will be more of a resort now, but back then, Pefkos had all we needed.  Many hours were spent at the beach, drawing sand pictures and tunneling away.  The restaurants were wonderfully laid back and a “spaghetti cat” adopted us.  He seemed to survive happily on James’ leftover spag bol.

As on Zante, we did the island tour as a painless way of seeing things with a toddler in tow.  Rhodes town we did on the bus.  I only had to see that harbour to set me off scheming again!

Mandraki harbour, Rhodes

Mandraki harbour, Rhodes

The mighty castle of the Knights of St. John in the background

The mighty castle of the Knights of St. John in the background

The medieval old town is a World Heritage Site and from 1309 was occupied by the Knights Templar.   I tried to imagine Mandraki Harbour when it was home to the Colossus of Rhodes but the bustle of yachts and artist’s easels defeated me.   I’m going to share a wonderfully evocative photo from Wikipedia because by evening time we were long gone.

The harbour as I would have loved to see it- cortesy of Wikipedia

The harbour as I would have loved to see it- courtesy of Wikipedia

Woodcut of Rhodes  from the Nuremburg Chronicles 1493- also Wikipedia

And a woodcut of Rhodes from the Nuremburg Chronicles 1493- equally captivating to me, also from Wikipedia

I had really hoped that a trip across to Kos might have been on the cards, but for once Michael refused to even discuss it.  My consolation prize was the tiny jewel, Symi, famous for its sponges, spices and shipbuilding.  Symi is 41km northwest of Rhodes and nearer to Turkey’s Datca peninsula.  Our honeymoon had included a gulet trip from Bodrum in these very same waters.

The ferry landing on Symi

The ferry landing on Symi

The pastel harbour of Symi

Symi’s pastel pretty harbour

The ferry docked first at Panormitis for a visit to St Michael’s monastery, and then into Symi town.  A wind had sprung up, driving the clouds before it, and I was glad of the jumper packed as an afterthought.  The town climbed up, and up, to Ano Symi, and for once I refrained from hauling us all up there.  It was enough to dodge the wind and retreat to a cosy cafe, where James tried to tempt the local cats with spaghetti.  They didn’t seem to have the same taste buds as their Rhodes compatriots.

Ah, well!  Another island adventure over.

Enchantment at Almourel

Almourel Castle

Romantic Almourel

Hidden in Portugal’s quiet depths we found another Templar treasure.  A more serene setting I have yet to find, wholely at odds with the history of the Knights and their battles against the Moors.  We had travelled from Constancia in the Ribatejo, at the junction of the rivers Tagus and Zezere (a name that delighted me), so we knew all about sleepy and tranquil.  Still, nothing prepared me for this.

A little before 10 in the morning we rounded a corner and there it sat, with barely a ripple reflected in the water.  A tiny ferry boat lay at anchor, awaiting a boatman and maybe even a passenger or two.  Castles just don’t come any more enchanting than this.  Nothing to do in the still morning air but to breathe in the calm and admire.

Almourel Castle

The ferry boat awaits

How and why was it here?  The name seems to derive from the Arabic, almoran meaninghigh rock”, appropriate for a huge chunk of granite.  The site was known in Roman times, and used for defence purposes then.  It was during the Reconquista period, when the Portuguese were trying to break free from the stranglehold of the Moors, that it came into it’s own.

The Knights Templar were entrusted with the rebuilding and fortification of the castle, in a line of defence of the then capital, Coimbra.  Like the mighty Convento do Christo at Tomar, they gave it nine circular towers, enclosing a quadrangle, and a jail tower at the centre.  It was completed in 1171, two years after the castle at Tomar.

Convento do Christo at Tomar

Convento do Christo at Tomar

With the Moors evicted from Portugal, Almourel was abandoned and fell increasingly into disrepair.  Further damage was inflicted by the 1755 earthquake, but all good castles have a happy ending.  The castle became a listed building in 1910.  Further renovations took place and during Salazar’s dictatorship events were held there.

Today there is no sign of any conflict…. just a ferryman plying his craft.

Almourol ferry

The lone ferryman

Naturally there’s a legend befitting the castle.  A tale of Moors, Christians and treachery.  The Arab lord of Almourel’s daughter fell in love with a Christian knight, and gave away the secret of a passage into the castle beneath the Tagus.  When the knight ambushed the castle, the lord and his daughter flung themselves from the ramparts rather than face capture.

There is no charge to visit the castle, generally open from 10am till 5pm.  Simply pay the ferryman his minimal fee.

Festa dos Tabuleiros- a hot one!

The pretty Portuguese town of Tomar is transformed once in every 4 years by the Festa dos Tabuleiros.  Festival of what, you may ask?  Well, if I said trays or breadbaskets, you might get a clue.  I doubt, though, if you could imagine this spectacular feast of bread and flowers.  It’s a sight you need to see to understand why it only takes place every 4 years.

Melting in the heat of the crowded street, I began to seriously wonder if this was going to be worthwhile.  Down in the Algarve the gentle breezes had made 35C seem desirable, even pleasurable.  Here, in Central Portugal in July, a breeze was an unknown quantity.  Scrunched into a minute patch of shade, with still an hour to go till the promised spectacle, young and elderly alike were bonded together in a peculiarly Portuguese version of the game of Sardines.

Early on a glorious morning, we had been diverted by well-meaning policemen again and again around the outskirts of Tomar– a city we knew only by reputation.  A smile glued in place, I reassured my driving husband that all would be well.  Sceptical would barely do justice to his look in response.  Yet he gamely abandoned the car, with dozens of others, in an unknown field, and set off to limp in the downhill direction pursued by those in the know (we hoped!)

The limp had been acquired the previous day, and was wholely inappropriate to a day I had been anticipating for 6 years, and which was to be spent largely…you’ve guessed it…on foot!  I’d like to say he thrives on adversity, but that wouldn’t be strictly true.  On this occasion though, like so many others, he didn’t let me down.

In fact, the foot was almost forgotten, as we absorbed the splendour that is Tomar during the Festa dos Tabuleiros.

I had a plan– of course I did, though they regularly unravel on me.  Even for me it was simple enough to find the Tourist Information Office, on Avenida Dr. Candido Madureira, though Portuguese street names are rarely simple.  In this case it was the first main street we came to.  A bright and smiling young lady issued me with some historical details, together with a map of the route for the procession, in the most beautiful old TI building.

Already wilting in the heat, we were dismayed to find that said procession was not till 4pm.  Dismay soon turned to delight, and then astonished wonderment, as we stepped into the riot of paper flowers festooning the streets of the old town.  I was no stranger to paper flowers, liberally used at small local festivals in the Algarve.  Still I found myself enchanted by the depth and variety of colour, and the imagination that had transformed these narrow streets.  Our cameras clicked, clicked and clicked again.




Floral pictures decorated most of the shops and balconies as we headed for the bridge over the River Nabao to the green shade of the Parque do Mouchao.  Needless to say we were not alone, and we collapsed onto the first available bench, clutching beer and water, to get our bearings.  It would have been an idyllic spot on most sunny days, with bright canoes moored by a tumbling weir.

Temporarily refreshed, we resumed our exploration of the old town, exclaiming and pointing as we made our way beneath petals, softly fluttering on the occasional blessed breeze.  Rua da Serpa Pinto is the main, pedestrianized shopping street, with views to the lofty Knights Templar castle. This is dominated by the 16-sided Convento do Cristo.  We had gazed in awe the previous afternoon at the elaborate Charola where the Templars had arrogantly attended mass on horseback.

Praca da Republica is the main square, a vast open space currently decked out with seating for town officials to watch the parade.  It’s overlooked by Igreja da Sao Joao Batista; cool and serene inside with a huge wedding cake of an altar.  We saunter down adjacent Rua de Sao Joao, and Michael spots a tiny sandwich bar.  We sit beneath the white and yellow flowers, with much needed water and substantial baguettes for just a few euros, watching the lady owner patiently threading fresh flowers into the door grill.



Time to find a good viewing point along the route.  We look at and discard many options- some in full sun, some too busy.  My ever practical husband thinks we should be in a position to make a quick getaway.  It all becomes too much, so we retreat into a bar for shade.

We finally decide on a spot. Elderly ladies perch on folding stools and smile wearily at me as they edge up to make room.  The endless but good natured wait begins.  I try to make light hearted conversation in my sparse Portuguese.  As the heat builds and the press of people increases, helicopters buzz overhead and ambulance sirens wail.

At last we hear the drums and trumpets heralding the approach, and finally see the tabuleiros rounding the corner.  A small miracle of endurance, 400 couples or more parade the streets.  The lady carries the 4ft high bread basket, adorned with flowers, on her head, while her partner keeps a watchful eye.  Endlessly they stream past us, the crowd quick to praise and sometimes recognise their own.

And then, it’s all over.  A quick getaway?  No, you thought not!  The intention was there, but our way was barred by cars parked end to end on the main thoroughfare.  So we joined the collective shuffling, back uphill, in the direction of our lonely field.

Was it all worthwhile?  Undoubtedly!  But maybe we’d do it differently another time.  We had opted to stay in the nearby village of Constancia, a quiet and lovely place at the junction of two rivers.  My first choice of hotel, Estalagem de Santa Iria in Tomar, had been fully booked.  It might have been better staying in Tomar, for the fireworks and night time atmosphere, and to look more closely at the Tabuleiros.  But then we would have missed meeting our genial and hard-working host at Casa Joao Chagas, and the lovely American lady we talked to at breakfast.  Not forgetting my delicious quejinhos do ceu, almond confectionry special to the area.


Maybe we’ll go back someday.  Tomar is beautiful in its own right.  But we’ll certainly never, ever forget the Festa dos Tabuleiros.