Leaving Idanha-a-Nova, we planned to make some distance today, so naughtily jumped on the motorway. This stretch was all fitted with a pre-paid electronic toll rather than péage machines, and as we’d met no one in Portugal capable of explaining exactly how we pay this, and on the advice of others we’d met who said not to worry about it, we drove on regardless. We were told that foreign registered motorhomes are not normally chased for payment, as they were considered to be bringing in much-needed tourist euros to the country, and that the UK DVLA does not share their database with them, so it’s simply too much hassle for all parties to enforce. We hoped this information was correct as we ran up a fair amount of toll fees on the quick run south west across the middle of Portugal, although nothing compared to the stated fines they can hand out if stopped. On this occasion we cruised along with ease and no issues, with barely another car in sight. We certainly covered lots of ground quickly, before cutting off the motorway to utilise motorhome services at a place called Constância and then proceeding north to Tomar.
Once again we were foiled from stopping in the aire we had targeted because the Fun Fair was in town and had taken over the entire space. It was also market day and the other large central car-park was full with busy stalls. So we decided today was not the day for parking in the centre of Tomar. But we had decided to visit Tomar for only one reason, so instead of lingering in the busy town, we drove up the hill behind directly to our target destination – the Convento de Christo.
The complex had its own parking, so we paid for a few hours and after a bite of lunch we went to off to explore. This was originally a 12th century stronghold for the Knights Templar, with a central circular church reportedly modelled on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. In 1190 it was under siege, but resisted being captured by the renowned Moroccan caliph Abu Yusuf al-Mansur, an event commemorated in a plaque on the surrounding stone walls.
The weather was bright but cloudy as we approached, but soon after cleared into a pleasant sunny afternoon as we strolled through the autumnal ornamental gardens, highlighted by red-leafed ivy, which surrounded the convent buildings. We walked a loop of the impressive outer walls, which offered expansive views across both the monastery complex and the town of Tomar below. The boundary walls had arrow slits constructed in the shape of crosses, a typical Templar detail. We enjoyed the gardens and grounds around the main church, but decided not to pay the entry fee to see the interior on this occasion, as we were on the limit of our cultural information absorption. We had a brief explore around the complex outside, enjoying the views and the warm sun, before returning to Benny.
After our fleeting visit, as we couldn’t stay in our planned aire in Tomar, we decided to push on a little further to the pilgrimage city of Fátima. We were a little concerned about where we might stay here, as there were only five places noted in the aire, but on arrival the main facility had an enormous, and almost empty, car parking area. The five official, very generously sized, motorhome spaces were already occupied, but there were already several more motorhomes parked in nearby car-park bays, so we joined the line-up and parked up, with very decent views of the main basilica and grounds. In was quite incredible that we could park, free, safe and comfortable, this close to such an important pilgrimage site; we were barely 50m from the back of the basilica.
The bells from the church rang out on the quarter, every fifteen minutes a new lyrical tune. We assumed they would get tiresome very quickly, but with the softness, musicality and variation of each play, they provided a quite soothing background to our exploration. Walking around, the beautifully soft afternoon light lit up the sanctuary tower and basilica of Fátima. Its pale external walls towered above us and then descended to the low cloistered area across the front of the basilica once we’d passed through an adjoining archway. This led us into the enormous basilica plaza area, the Recinto do Santuario main space (540m x 160m), which apparently accommodates 300,000 visitors during peak pilgrimage times, the last of which was only one week prior to our arrival. We were relieved to have missed it and found it difficult to imagine what it would be like with so many packed into the square. It was, in comparison, empty now, with only a small number of visitors and pilgrims still enjoying the spaces.
We observed devout pilgrims crawling on their knees around the central shrine, the Capela das Apariçoes, a covered seating area containing a statue to Our Lady of Fátima. Others stood with their backs to walls, shaking and reciting their prayers whilst tightly gripping their rosaries. Our eyes absorbed the location, activities and atmosphere as we wandered. A rather large fire spewed out black smoke and a smell of wax, having broken out in one central bay where pilgrims were carelessly placing lit candles, caused seemingly from a melting candle collapse. No one seemed to bother with it and lit candles instead at the far end of the building, so it must be a regular occurrence and simply be left to burn out in its own time.
There was a modern interpretation of the crucifixion featuring a stick-man Jesus, the New High Cross installation by Robert Schad, featured at the top end of the vast esplanade. This was set adjacent to a more conventionally realistic bronze statue of Pope John Paul II, both in front of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.
We passed a pleasant evening strolling around the town of Fátima, although beyond the church there was little other than tacky tourist gift shops and run-down apartments to see. The bells continued to ring, four times an hour, throughout the night, like a lullaby.
The following morning, as an extra stopover on a lazy day heading west to the coast, we decided to call in and see the town of Batalha. It was only half an hour or so from where we awoke in Fátima, so a quick drive and we arrived in a spacious car-parking area, with one row retained specifically as an aire for visiting motorhomers – very cordial.
Just moments away, we were graced with the domineering view of a huge, beautiful gothic cathedral, the Concelho da Batalha, similar to many we had visited in England. The morning sky was a deep blue and the streets lined with shapely pollarded trees, leaves turning bright yellow and their bark peeling into pale desert camouflage. These trees contrasted beautifully with the fading yellow ochre stonework of the cathedral behind. We had arrived early enough to be the first visitors in the main square, and we smugly sat on a bench to absorb and observe.
It was calm and restful and the generous, spacious plazas surrounding the cathedral really helped to give a full appreciation of the scale of this immense building. In so many other places the church is tightly packed into the narrow lanes of the medieval town centre and the full majesty of it cannot be appreciated externally, but here was different. Although only a few minutes later a trickle, then a stream, of people arrived. They were bussed in on organised tours, filling up the plazas and disrupting our selfish solitude.
We moved inside to avoid the sun and the crowds. Here we found a simple, clean aesthetic, with tall, plainly fluted columns of a lighter stone and an unadorned vaulted roof structure. The space was all the more impressive for its simplicity, as nothing distracted from the height and volume of the cool internal spaces. The cathedral was built as a symbol of the heroic victory of Portuguese troops over their Spanish neighbours during the battle of Alijubarrota in 1385. This battle was decisive in gaining Portuguese independence. A large statue of the victorious battle commander, D. Nuno Alvares Pereira, dominated the plaza to the side of the cathedral. It was from here that the specific Portuguese New Gothic style, or Manueline, emerged and spread throughout the country.
We enjoyed a few more moments in the sun, sitting overlooking the cathedral, before ending our historical, cultural tour and heading off in search of some west coast beaches and sunsets.