Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Obidos, Leiria, and Thomar

There are many places besides Cintra where ancient strongholds are to be found. In a land where there was so much fighting every town had to be protected, and throughout the country you come across old-world places which but for the tumble-down state of the fortifications can hardly have changed since the days when Moors and Christians struggled for supremacy.

One such old town is Obidos, won from the Moors in 1148. I remember it as I saw it last, perched high on its steep and rocky hill, with battlements, towers, and the ruins of the castle standing out dark and formidable against a glowing sunset sky. It is the quaintest little place in the world, carrying one's thoughts back to the Middle Ages, and scarcely a house has crept beyond the shelter of its high, castellated walls. There are only two narrow fortified gateways, beneath whose arches the inhabitants pass in and out. Within the walls are the tightly-packed houses, low and picturesque, and numerous churches. The narrow, winding streets are full of dark-eyed children, gaunt pigs, and straying donkeys, while flowers hang in masses of brilliant colour over every wall and balcony.

In other towns the protecting fortress stands alone on some high outcrop of rock, while the houses nestle at its foot, as, for instance, at Leiria. Centuries ago it was a Roman centre of some importance, and later on Suevis, Visigoths, and Moors held sway there in turn, until it was finally taken by King Alfonso Henriques in about 1135. More than a hundred years later King Dinez lived there, and on the site of the Moorish stronghold he built the great castle the ruins of which dominate the town to this day.

Returning from Market, Leira.


Surrounded by hills, and standing on the green banks of the River Liz, Leiria is now a sleepy, picturesque country town, with a cathedral, a market-square, wide, shady walks skirting the river, and quaint little streets spanned at intervals by arches. It seems strange now to think of the stormy days when knights in armour rode up the winding way that leads to the castle, yet later years have also brought fire and sword to this peaceful valley. In the Peninsular War, between 1807 and 1810, the French troops passed through it no less than three times, and under Marshal Junot and General Margaron it was given over to pillage and violence.

Some twenty miles or more away, beyond hill-tops clothed with pine-woods and heather, and valleys rich with olives, figs, and vines, lies Thomar, another town sheltering beneath a high castle-crowned hill.

This fortress, under whose protection the town first sprang up, was built by the Knights Templars in the middle of the twelfth century. It was the special mission of this order of knights to defend the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, to protect the Christians in that city, and to fight the Mohammedans wherever they might meet them. The Moslems in Portugal were the Moors, who made a mighty effort to capture this Castle of Thomar some sixty years after it was founded. It was a celebrated siege, and an old inscription, let into one of the walls, tells the history of it in a few quaint words. Translated, it reads as follows:

"In 1228, on the 3rd day of July, the King of Morocco came with 400,000 cavalry, and 500,000 footmen, to besiege the Castle for six days, and destroyed all that he found outside the walls. God delivered the Castle, its Master and brethren from his hands. The same King returned to his country with innumerable losses of men and horses."

On the suppression of the Order of Templars in 1312, King Diniz established the Order of Christ at Thomar—"for the defence of the Faith, the discomfiture of the Moors, and the extension of the Portuguese monarchy," as the old records put it. It became one of the wealthiest and most powerful orders of chivalry in Christendom, its knights fighting in all parts of the world, till in 1523 King John III. converted it into a purely religious community of monks, and the heroic days of war and adventure came to an end.

As the years passed by many additions were made to the grim old fortress. A magnificent new church was added, chapter-houses and cloisters, dormitories and kitchens. There are no fewer than eight cloisters, of different dates, styles, and sizes, and all these oddments of architecture, each one beautiful in its own way, have mellowed with age into a rambling, fascinating whole.

The town below contains several churches of interest, and many factories and cotton-mills. The River Nabao runs through it, passing beneath a fine old bridge, and turning numberless picturesque water-wheels as it flows along. On its banks poplars rear their tall heads, willows dip their long branches in the cool stream, and rows of peasant women may be seen standing in the water, hard at work washing. They rub and scrub the clothes ruthlessly on hard stones, rinsing them in the running water; but one feels quite reconciled to see the garments being worn out and ruined, if only one may be allowed to watch these charming, brightly-dressed laundresses, and to listen to their merry talk and laughter.