Tomar, the town the tourists haven’t discovered yet

With a rich culture, friendly people, affordable prices, and a salty setting on the edge of Europe, Portugal understandably makes a rewarding destination for travelers. Bustling Lisbon and the sunny Algarve coast are well known to tourists (for good reason), but quieter places also offer tantalizing tastes of Portuguese flavor.

About 90 miles northeast of Lisbon, just east of the pilgrimage site of Fátima, is lushly green Tomar – a quaint town of about 20,000 residents, set under a historic fortress. It’s a place with lots of local ambience, yet remarkably untouristed – and well worth a stop.

While there was a settlement here in Roman times, Tomar’s importance started in the 12th century with the construction of a hill-topping castle, the Convento de Cristo. Gualdim Pais, a Grand Master of the Knights Templar religious order, put Tomar on the map by building the castle with Middle Eastern architectural techniques picked up during Crusades to the Holy Land.

Walls surround the Convento de Cristo, a onetime stronghold of the Knights of Templar.

To get the lay of the land, I strolled Tomar’s riverside. The tiny Nabão River, running north-south through the middle of town, is all Tomar’s – it starts nearby and flows just a few miles before emptying into the Tagus River outside of town. Mid-river, a peaceful island with a pleasant park and a rebuilt medieval waterwheel shows off what must have been impressive technology in its day. At the old bridge, Ponte Velha, I headed right through the old town to the main square, Praça da República. The town’s easy-to-navigate grid is a reminder that Tomar was a garrison town built to defend the castle.

Praça da República is a tempting spot to slow down and nurse a drink at a café, enjoying the relaxed tempo of local life. Children on bikes test their training wheels, pigeons strut as if they own the place, old-timers shake their heads at today’s fashions, and tuk-tuk drivers hustle business (negotiating short town tours on motorized rickshaws). The neighborhood offers plenty of inviting spots to grab a bite or a drink, such as the classic Café Paraíso, a time-warp eatery retaining the humble vibe of mid-century days.

Tomar's Praça da República is a classic Portuguese square where you can relax at a café and enjoy the Old World scene.

Since Tomar is inland, pork and beef are staples on any menu here. All over town, I noticed loaves of bread stacked into a very tall “crown,” decorated with flowers. Women carry these on their heads in a festival every four years, incorporating pagan and harvest rituals into the Catholic celebration during the Festa dos Tabuleiros (Festival of the Trays) in late June or early July. Thanks to this tradition, expect fantastic bread with any meal here. Sip a glass of local Tejo wine or try a Portuguese craft beer as you take in the warmth and history right beside you.

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