Monthly Archives: November 2014

Knights Templar in Tomar

In cycling to Tomar I had crossed the 40th parallel north. This means I am now  well south of Istanbul and at about the same latitiude as Beijing.

Tomar has a fortified castle built in 1160 by Gualdim Pais, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar. Presumably he had some help of other people as well. The Templars were fighting alongside secular forces against the Moors during the Reconquista.

In 1312 the order was dissolved on demand of Pope Clement V, but, at the request of King Dinis, a new order was reinstated some seven years later. It was called the Order of Christ. Same meat, different gravy. In the 15th century, Henry the Navigator became the Grand Master of the Order of Christ, and it is suggested that he used the Templars knowledge for his naval discoveries.

In the church of Santa Maria Olival, the Grand Masters of the Knights Templar were buried. In a niche in the wall a skull was displayed. I made a photograph of the skull as you can see below:

Skull in church

Skull in church

I do not know who the owner was.

Another interesting building was the synagogue, built somewhere between 1430 and 1460, but it was only in use until 1496 when Jews were told to either leave Portugal or convert to Christianity. The synagogue was turned into a prison. Interestingly, the Jews who had chosen to convert to Christianity, the so called ‘New Christians’, could not by law be imprisoned in the former synagogue…
Later the synagogue was used as a hay-loft.

In the afternoon I visited the  Convent of Christ.
I have taken to photographing gargoyles, who have the benefit of sitting perfectly still:

Gargoyle three




Travelling for a while on the Iberian peninsula, it is inescapable to wonder about the linguistic variety of the area.

Similarities between Spanish and Portuguese are obvious when reading a text in those languages. Things get different when you hear Portuguese, which to me has a peculiar slavic intonation and I find it hard to understand. Spanish and Portuguese have about 89 % lexical similarity. The rest must be Russian.

The road less travelled

Street sign in Portuguese

One of the remarkable differences is the most ubiquitously used expression thank you: obrigado in Portuguese and gracias in Spanish. At first, entering Portugal, one is still saying gracias, but that is to be swiftly replaced by obrigado. It makes people smile.

In my guidebook I read a topic covering the New Cathedral of Coimbra which mentioned The Jesuit college of the Eleven Thousand Virgins. That seemed like a lot of Virgins to me. I did some research and found out that is was connected to an interesting myth of St. Ursula who was martyred in the German city of Cologne. According to legend a twelfth century stone was found with the inscription: S. Ursula et XI M. V. This was enthusiastically interpreted as St. Ursula and her XI Thousand Virgens, mistaking the XIM for Romain numerals. instead of St. Ursula and her eleven martyred Virgins. Eleven thousand Virgins! What were they thinking!

In Coimbra I strolled through the Jardim Botânico which was filled with amateur photographers, taking pictures with lenses of outlandish size. The weather was gray but that didn’t seem to hinder the ardent photographers. I was surprised at the height of Brasilian Palm trees that seemed to flourish in this Southern European climate.

My cursed knee and that damned rain. Looking outside only to see wet cobblestones in the dark and dancing umbrellas. I drink my wine in sober contemplation.

I leave for Tomar. When I wheel my bike outside it rains. I hesitate, I hate to leave in the rain. But I’m all set and packed, so I go. The rain is very light, it’s somewhere between drizzle and fog, but I get wet nevertheless. Just outside Coimbra, I’m in the hills and follow little  roads winding up and down, it’s dificult to find the right way. I despair when at first I make little progress every time I check my  map. Then I get on a main road, the rain stops and the landscape flattens out.

Half past three I arrive in Tomar.

Of Romans and Ruffians

The next photograph was taken from the window of my dormitory in Coimbra. It’s a detail of the Old Cathedral depicting what looks like some poor gargoyle suffocating in weeds. The building itself is a formidable example of Romanesque architecture built in the twelfth century. It looks like an impenetrable fort and that’s because that is exactly what it was: an impenetrable fort, built to keep the Moors out. It was the period just after the Reconquista and the Moors couldn’t be far away.


Detail Old Cathedral

For once, the weather looked promising, so I cycled to the Roman ruins of Conimbriga, some 15 kilometres south of Coimbra. To get there, I followed the IC2, a road that seemed to be solely used by truck drivers having their minds set on scaring the living daylights out of day-tripping cyclists.

The museum was small but pleasant, with some lovely artifacts. Among them a collection of oil lamps which were first imported from Italy, but later from North Africa, where they were then mass produced. An early example of moving production to countries with cheap labour.

In the museum I made a photograph of a bust of the deified Emperor August.



In the 5th century the city was besieged by the Suevi who came from the North. They had moved south, I assumed, because of the incessant rain pouring down on their native Galicia. Besides, the Suevi were always in for some killing, raping and pillaging which made a welcome change from plodding behind their oxen in the rain. As is still clearly visible today, the inhabitants of the city built an enormous wall to defend themselves, but to no avail. The city fell in 465 AD.

Mosaic Conimbriga

Mosaic Conimbriga

The photo above shows a mosaic of the Minotaur lurking in the heart of a labyrinth. Interestingly, if one follows the path, it inevitably leads to the Minotaur. In the classical sense, labyrinths were not designed to get lost in… Another example of things learnt while travelling.



To keep in the tradition of 19th century travellers, I try to develop an interest in the flora and fauna of the lands I travel through. Hence this photograph. I have also successfully identified olive trees at the excavation site.

Central Portugal

On my last day in Porto I met some friends and we took part in some Port wine tasting. A woman explained about the origins of Port wine and showed us the oak barrels which were used to store the port. The big ones for the Ruby and the small ones for the Tawny which explains why Ruby tastes of fruits (it’s made of fruits) and Tawny  tastes of wood (it’s stored in comparably more wood). I asked about the White Port, but nobody knew where that was stored. We also tasted a few glasses of Port which was nice.

The weather forecast for the day after looked good and so I left for Aveiro. It was a pleasant ride along the coast. and then inland. Aveiro is nicknamed the ‘Venice of Portugal’ because it has a canal. The next day I cycled from Aveiro to Coimbra through more rain. I detest rain. And so I arrived drenched once more at the door of a hostel, After a long hot shower I went to the supermarket and it started to rain again. This time I was out on my sandals, because my shoes were soaked, and without my rainjacket. Getting wet for the second time that day left me miserable beyond description


On the road


On the road

According to the internet the hostel in Coimbra would provde me with a ‘traditional’ breakfast, and so I had braced my self for chicken feet and fish head soup. But apparently the people of Coimbra traditionally eat cornflakes and breadrolls with ham and cheese, so that was alright.

The hostel is bang in the middle of the old town ,on the top of a hill. You notice this when you are cycling. Getting around involved a lot of stairs, some of which have nice names like Escadas do Quebra-Costas, meaning Broken Ribs Steps.

I decided to see more of this city.

Porto II

Some things I’ve learnt:

Vinho Verde is not, as the name suggests, about the colour of the wine. In fact it comes in different variations, red and white. It is young wine as opposed to Vinho Maduro, it is fresh and sparkling with a lower alcohol percentage.

There are more than two hemispheres. There’s a Northern and a Southern hemisphere, but also an Eastern and a Western hemispere. In fact, one can divide our planet in any two hemispheres depending on which prime meridian one chooses.

By taking Greenwhich as the prime meridian (as is most commonly done these days), I have cycled already in two hemisperes!

I’ve also learned how to write my name in Korean.

In Porto

Looking smug in Porto

My days in Porto are not very demanding: I wake up, take a shower, get down for a lazy breakfast, watching CNN, BBC or SkyNews, and drinking lots of coffee. Some days I stroll around town for a prato do dia or a beer.

I visit the Wine Museum which is just fine for killing time on a Saturday afternoon when it’s free.

I have prolonged my stay in Porto, because my right knee still feels a bit wobbly and the weather hasn’t much improved since I arrived. Besides, living here in Portugal is very affordable.

In the hostel I practise both my Spanish and my French with other guests. Sometimes with a few words Portuguese thrown in. Actually, I throw in a lot of words that I doubt exist in any language…

Dolce far niente.

And reading. Haven’t done much reading on this trip so far. Bicycle touring leaves surprising little time for leisure.

When going steeply uphill in low gear my bike made a creaking noise so I visit a bike-shop and we have a look at the bike. I decide to get a new chain (a cheap Shimano), though the old one is still good enough. For peace of mind I keep the old one as a spare. Overall, the bike looks good and after loosening the hind wheel and cleaning it, the creaking sound is almost gone. I just love this bike: it’s unbelievable how little mantenance it needs!


I was invited to lunch with the staff of the hostel, but lunch didn’t start until 3 in the afternoon, so I had time to look up some interesting facts about Portugal.

In Portuguese the common interjection oxalá is used, derived from the Arabic Inshallah. It means ‘let’s hope’.  As in ‘let’s hope lunch will be ready soon’.

About half of the world’s cork is produced in Portugal.
Not sure if this counts as an interesting fact. It sounds quite dull to me.

In Portugal, it’s against the law to pee in the ocean.
This is definitely interesting. I took a picture of the ocean to show how futile this law is.

I photoshopped it. There was a bird in it I didn’t like.
It had to go.

Lighthouse at Porto

Lighthouse at Porto

It’s the Farol, Foz de Douro, or the lighthouse at the mouth of the Douro. This is the river that is used to transport the famous Port wine around the world. It was a nice bicycle ride from the hostel. A little further upriver, the famous Dom Luis bridge spans the Douro. It was designed by Gustave Eiffel and it has two decks.


To Porto

I read the weather forecast for Porto: In the morning showers, then rain.

Unfortunately the forecast proves to be correct: the day I cycle to Porto the weather is miserable. First I ride on the main road, but after that I decide to follow the blue arrows which lead me over cobble stones. Portugal is full of cobble stones. They must have a gigantic cobble stone mine somewhere.

The rain never stops. It ranges from a continuous drizzle to downright  torrential rain. Closer to the sea, the wind picks up and the rain finally eases. I stop at the side of the road to wring out my socks, but it doesn’t take long before it starts raining again. Nothing special, just a steady downpour and water is sloshing in my shoes once more.

Porto is a big city and I cycle through quite some more rain until I arrive at the hostel.

When I wake up the next morning I get to the bathroom and make some wild moves in the dark before I realise there’s no motion sensor and I start looking for the light switch.

hostel porto

Hostel life

Balconies in Porto

Balconies in Porto

Downtown Porto

Downtown Porto

This photo sums it up: churches, cobble stones and washing.