Caves & Castles

Today we drove east from our seaside town to our next place to visit.  All the driving is far has been very easy.  There seem to be very few cars on the road, relative to what we are used to, and the roads themselves are in excellent condition.  We did learn that the Autoroute (big highways) system is privately run for which tolls are collected. We have done a combination of toll-free (to go on some smaller, more scenic roads) and toll roads so far.  

The route we took this morning was very pleasant though some small towns, past some farms and up and over some large hills (won’t call them mountains, but the small car had to work a bit to get up!).  We did chuckle at one sign we saw. We were told that the last snow seen in Portugal was back somewhere around 2003.  We also noticed that most houses were very well maintained which contrasted with what we have seen in other countries.

Our first stop this morning was Grutas de Mira de Aire (Caves of Mira de Aire).  This cave system in the limestone hills was discovered in 1947. We saw the tiny entry hole they used, to repel down about 60 m; not something we would do!   They returned later and went even deeper, camping on a small piece of sand to further their explorations and discovered the system extends for 11 km.  The caves were opened in 1974 to the public to view a small section of that.  Thankfully we had a series of 650 solid cement steps that took us down into these huge galleries full of wonderful formations including stalactites, stalactites, ‘spaghetti” stalactites which are tiny tubular ones, and many other fanciful shapes.  We learned that the stalactites grow at a rate of 1 cm per 100 years.  To see the size of these formations, makes you realize how old this is.  The entire walk is lit with lights and sometimes, coloured lights, which enhance the formations.  It was awe-inspiring to see so many different shapes and formations in these huge galleries and appreciate the power of water and natural forces.  The good news was that we could take an elevator back to the top!

And yes we did visit another castle, but this one was a bit different. The Templar Castle in Tomar was founded in 1160 as the headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar. The fort has some fortification design influences from Middle Eastern influences such as the keep and the reinforcement incline to keep sieges at bay. The Templar design, with the cross, was seen in the fire slots. Another new design introduced in Portugal by the Templars are the round towers in the outer walls, which are more resistant to attacks than square towers. When the town was founded, most of its residents lived in dwellings located inside the protective outer walls of the castle.

The Oratory, in shape of a rotunda was astounding. This round shape was often used in Templar churches, modelled after the Dome of the Rock in Jeruselem. We saw part of an organ still on the wall. The paintings and other adornments had been added much later, in the 16th century. The pictures don’t do it justice, but it was something new for us to see.

When the Order of the Knights Templar was disbanded in 1319, the castle was transferred to the Portuguese Order of Christ in 1357, that later supported the maritime discoveries. New buildings added in the 16th century by King Manual and King Joao III, primarily two cloisters; the cemetery cloister and the Washing cloister. The washing cloister had beautiful blue tiles and while simple in design, was quite lovely to see.

The entrance of the church is done through a stunning door, decorated with abundant Manueline motifs and statues of the Virgin with the Child as well as the Prophets of the Old Testament around 130. The door connects the cloisters and other convent buildings to the original templar church.

There is also a magnificent window with ornate Manueline carvings on the south side:

The visit was fascinating to see the scale of the building; the original templar fort, combined with the 16th buildings and adornments made for a visit that seemed to continue forever and ever. So many churches and other building are not only old but are added on and modified over hundreds of years. This was a prime example, seeing 12th century fortifications and church combined with 16th century buildings and adornments.

We capped the day off by walking on an aqueduct. While one always thinks of Romans when you hear about an aqueduct, this was built in the 16th C to bring water to the Convent. We didn’t walk the entire length but it was a new experience to walk along the top and see the countryside.

Tomorrow we move to Coimbra, home of one of the oldest universities in the world…. stay tuned.

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