I’ve just spent the last 5 minutes chasing two flies around the bus. I finally managed to get ’em out the door using my finely-honed fly-herding skills. The only ‘problem’ with the sun coming out again, is the insects start appearing, in my book of ‘normal for November’ they should all be fast asleep. It’s all a bit weird, butterfly’s and bees in November. Looking around in the fields, new crops are being planted, as well as oranges, lemons and olives are ripening on the trees, tomatoes still hanging, it never ceases to amaze me.
Further inland, past endless fields of new crops, the town of Tomar and the ‘Convento do Christo’, a castle on top of a very steep hill. Back in the twelfth century it was the Portuguese headquarters for the Order of Knights Templer. Both the town and the castle, Founded in 1160, the fortified church and the town have successfully survived countless attacks from the Moors. To be fair to subsequent owners, the place has been well looked after, even today, there’s little to give away it’s turbulent, violent, colourful, history. It took us more than 2 hours to stroll around the castle, good value at €6, which seems to be the standard entry fee. We didn’t know at the time, but we could have bought a combined triple ticket for Christo at Tomar, Batahla & Mosteiro de Alcobaca all for €15, saving €6 overall, but never mind. At this point, we didn’t know we were going to get around to all three.
We love a quirky museum (it’s possible we’re quirky people!), Tomar is not only home to murdering, crusading, Christian fanatics on horse-back, wearing chain-mail and over-sized white T-shirts with a red cross, but also home to a very unique museum. The Muso dos Fosforos. Europe’s biggest Matchbox museum. Started in 1953, the collection now holds over 40,000 matchboxes from every corner of the planet. It took us over an hour to scan through all the matchboxes, excellently displayed, we loved it, and did I mention …it’s free!
We had a few free nights at Tomar, there’s a blown-out campsite perfectly located near the edge of town, it’s missing hot showers and EHU, but the toilets are still cleaned, the bins are emptied and…it’s free! If you ever do try to find it, best advice would be to follow the road signs for the camp, not your sat-nav, you may end up down a one-way road looking at a 2m high bridge. (Ahem…no…not me, honest).
Fatima: Other than Angie’s Moroccan nick name, I didn’t know of another Fatima. What a surprise when we turn up to find a shrine and Basilica that’s bigger than St. Peter’s at the Vatican. This place is the Portuguese equivalent of Lourdes. The whole area is surrounded by hotels, B&B’s, car/coach parks, which are free in winter, on the ‘cons’ side of the coin, unfortunately the town is littered with tat-shops.
The saint Fatima story goes, back to 1917, the Virgin Mary pops up and suddenly announces herself to three young children, 5 further apparitions followed. Crowds gathered but only the 3 children ever saw the Virgin Mary. This, of course changed this small insignificant hillside farming town forever. Fatima’s (massive) basilica now attracts followers/pilgrims from all over the world, just as Santiago de Compostela attracts pilgrims, here too, the devoted walk from all over the country, some shuffling along their on knees for the last kilometer or two, as if in penance. Two of the children who were witness to the apparitions died young, the death and subsequent burial of the last surviving child witness in 2005, brought the whole of Portugal to a standstill in collective grief.
Just down the road, Bathala and a smaller but more ornate affair, the ‘Monsteriro da Batalha’. Over a hundred years in the making & it’s still never been completed. To be fair, it’s only the additional add-ons that have not been finished, the ‘Unfinished Chapels’ do look very distinctive, the towers were to hold up a huge elaborate roof, but it never got finished .. the towers just stop. The rest of the building looks like thousands of elves have been hard at work fashioning stone in every shape imaginable. Ornate columns, delicate almost lace-like fret-work decoration around the cloisters which must have taken years to design & make and the scariest gargoyles I ever seen. The free Aire is within a stones throw, and just €6 to get into the Monastery.
Time to visit a completely natural beauty for a change. Back in 2003 we had a fantastic family holiday in Australia, part of which included visiting a deep natural cave system out in the bush, can’t remember exactly where. A well organised & narrated tour, guided you through tunnels of stalactites & stalagmite strewn caves, it was the first time we’d seen this sort of thing and it was great to see such a natural attraction that took millions of yours to complete. Mira de Aire, boasts the largest (tourist accessible) show cave complex in Portugal. It’s a pleasant drive through wooded hills littered by giant boulders, traditional dry-stone walls make a sudden appearance. A huge car park and free Aire outside the attraction (must be heaving during the summer months), but in November, just us and one other Portuguese family on the tour. The cave system is a jaw dropper, vast well lit caverns, stalactites and mites galore, water constantly dripping everywhere and it’s superbly lit. There’s even a little river that’s still flowing through it all. After an hour and 150m decent, listening to descriptive explanation in Portuguese and English, we find an added bonus, a lift back up to the surface, within a few minuets we were back outside, wincing at the bright sunshine. For €6.75e this attraction gets 10/10. It was a toss-up between these caves, or 175 million year old Sauropod tracks preserved in mud. Sorry dino…maybe next time.
Tomar: n39.60740 w8.41040 Failed campsite, water/waste & w/c. (no EHU or Hot water) Short walk to town. Free
Fatima: n39.63530 w8.67260 Large Aire within sight of the Basilica, all services. Free
Mira de Aire (caves): car park, n39.54020 w8.70320 (Aire up the hill a bit, all services) Free
We’re loving all the free parking and services here in Portugal, most of them are slap-bang next to the attraction we want to visit.