and Constância

By José LuísPeixoto

José Luís Peixoto

“At that hour, as it crossed the town, the river had given up any impatience it might have expressed elsewhere on its path.”

Scroll to learn more about the author

MeetJosé Luís Peixoto

In 2001, at the age of just twenty-seven, José Luís Peixoto was awarded the José Saramago Literary Prize for his first novel, Nenhum Olhar (Blank Gaze). Since then, his works have been translated into countless languages and widely published throughout the world. Recognition from both public and critics has established him as one of the most distinguished authors of contemporary Portuguese literature. “Telling of myself through another and telling of another through myself, that is literature”. This statement is found in the novel Autobiografia (Autobiography), in which Peixoto fictionalises José Saramago, by integrating him, in his work, as a character, thereby acknowledging the impact that the author of Memorial do Convento (Baltasar and Blimunda), made on him. In this Journey to Portugal Revisited, José Luís Peixoto goes back to the paths travelled by José Saramago, taking a fresh look, in the search for what has changed and what has endured. With a particular focus on our heritage, Nature and culture, each route will be the starting point for literary landscapes that tell us all about ourselves by travelling through Portugal.


To hear José Luís Peixoto read an excerpt on Tomar and Constância, from the chapter “From Mondego to Sado, stopping all the while” from José Saramago's book, Journey to Portugal.

José Luís Peixoto

By José Saramago

Journey To Portugal

From Mondego to Sado, stopping all the while
One Island, Two Islands

«The traveller would like to continue along the bank of the River Tagus, but the highway heads away from it, and it is only beyond Montalvo that the road finds its way back - and this time to not one, but two rivers. This is Constância the beautiful, even more so when seen from the far side of the river, in its magnificent amphitheatre, with its houses clambering up towards the parish church of Nossa Senhora dos Milagres. To reach it, the traveller needs strong legs and a good pair of lungs. But this fine spring weather fills the path with the overpowering scent of roses, so that he does not even feel the effects of the steep climb.

The statues inside recall certain Baroque Italian churches, and this effect is strangely reinforced by the roof painting, by José Malhoa, which shows Nossa Senhora da Boa Viagem blessing the union of the rivers Zêzere and Tagus, and is far less realist than the traveller's school lessons had led him to believe. Malhoa was certainly influenced by the statues he saw around him. The traveller enjoyed the seventeenth-century bas-reliefs brought from the chapel of St Anne, especially the fresh way that the usually solemn Baptism of Christ is treated; while it shows in the foreground the conventional scene, in the background it depicts an earlier moment: that is, when St John the Baptist is taking his boots off and Christ is lifting his tunic over his head, leaving him naked from the waist down, although here naturally enough his body is concealed to preserve the necessary modesty. The whole composition is full of grace - two young men going for a bathe on a hot afternoon, shown plainly with great simplicity of gesture and with a great zest for life.

The traveller walked back down to the river in search of refreshment in the Flor do Tejo, a small restaurant with a roof of cane and greenery, but the child of the house, only four months old, had a bad stomach-ache and did not stop wailing, so the traveller decided instead to visit the house of the poet Camões, which is a little further on. It is known as his house, which could equally well be true or not. The traveller, who is a native of this river, likes to imagine that Luís Vaz de Camões strolled in between the ancestors of these willows, lovesick for Catarina. Would it really be any great historical solecism to reconstruct this house like a sixteenth-century mansion and to put the poet's works in it, and so to recreate the village of Punhete? Surely it is no worse than to say: “In this tomb lie the bones of Luís de Camões” as the visitors to the Jeronomites' church in Lisbon do. Constância has as much right to its Camões as anyone does. And the traveller must confess that, with his own eyes, he saw the shade of Luís Vaz de Camões descending the Escadinhas do Tem-te Bem as if he intended to compose a few poems by the riverside.

When at the castle of Abrantes the traveller admitted knowing little about military strongholds, he was attempting to disguise his complete ignorance of military affairs, but now, seeing the castle of Almourol on the far side of the river, where some soldiers are larking about or reading comics in an olive grove, he cannot help but feel that this fortress cannot have been of much use to Gualdim Pais or those who came after him. What did this castle defend? Even if there are no crossing places upstream or downstream, the Moors could easily have got across in boats, as the north bank is clear of vegetation; and a properly laid siege, which prevented those inside the castle from coming down to the river to fish, would have ended their resistance as soon as they ran out of flour for their cakes. Yet here stands the castle, a triumph of stone and strength, thereby proclaiming there was a need for it. So the traveller admits he must be wrong, with the reservation that it was probably the need for shelter more than any precise military objective which led to all the battles over it with broadswords and longbows. The land on the far side of the river is flat and empty, leaving room to the imagination. So the traveller chose not to cross: castles are always better seen from the outside, and Almourol more than any other.

He is not able to visit the church at Tancos, which is surrounded by houses and low walls in a style that announces the Ribatejo region, but he enjoys what remains of the Renaissance spirit of the building: the niches on the façade, a Nossa Senhora da Misericordia that mercifully has been preserved, and the decorative side doors, one of which bears the date 1685 over the lintel.

Continuing on in this direction, the traveller only has to cross the hills of the Aire and the dos Candeeiros ranges to reach the sea. He will reach it all in good time, but for now, after visiting Atalaia, he turns back the way he came and crosses the bridge over the Zêzere once more, then heads upstream and returns to the river at Castelo do Bode. All this toing and froing is necessary if only because it enables him to visit the remarkable church of Atalaia, with its façade that probably influenced the one at São Vicente de Abrantes, and the fine decorative tiles in its interior. Built at the edge of the village, which fortunately has respected the site as it has grown, the church, and its three real and five apparent naves, is a fascinating construction. It almost makes the traveller feel like playing hide-and-seek behind the huge arches, so pleased is he to discover that architecture has the power of itself to make a man happy.

He does not have the space to record everything that pleased him. So in passing he will mention only the fan vaulting of the main chapel, the imposing Baroque sepulchre on its left, and the image of a Virgin from the fourteenth century, said to be by the elder Diogo Pires, and with that done will have eyes only for the wonderful tiles, above all - ah, above all - for the polychrome panels on the rafters of the central nave. These depict biblical scenes: the Creation, Original Sin, the Expulsion from Eden, Cain and Abel, the Flood, the Entry of the Animals into the Ark. They are imaginative and pleasing in their design, particularly the one showing the Flood, with its rough, heavy ark tossed by the waves. Their intense blues and oranges light up the whole church ceiling; the faithful must often have lifted their eyes to them when the lessons they taught were taken to heart, just as they do now, when we most admire these panels as an almost unequalled work of popular art. It is hard to leave this remarkable church, with its “broad-shouldered” façade which succeeds in hiding the heavy buttresses that support the body of the building. But needs must, and so on to the River Zêzere.

The highway follows the riverbank for three kilometres. Then it starts to climb, and a league later reaches the dam. This is Castelo do Bode. The dam is full in early spring, forming a huge inland sea that stretches into all the surrounding valleys. The traveller is as ignorant about hydraulic engineering as he is about military matters. He is therefore entitled to be astounded that this wall of concrete, however massive it is, however expertly its foundations and submerged structures have been calculated, is able to withstand the pressure of such an enormous mass of water stretching thirty kilometres in a straight line, without any intermediate barrages. Yet the traveller does have one redeeming feature: he is capable of admiring everything he is incapable of doing.

It's not far from here to Tomar, so the traveller decides to turn off at Beberriqueira and to travel through the woods on this side of the dam until he reaches the village of Serra. The detour is very restful to his eyes, offering him as it does extensive views of the cool woods, light softly filtered through the branches: this too is enough to make the traveller happy.

Making his way down to the waterside once more, he has opposite him the island of Lombo, which is like Almourol but smaller, and with no castle, only a small building in among trees, and a serviceable jetty that is too far away to distinguish properly. The traveller supposes that before the dam existed, it was not an island but a hilly promontory jutting out from one bank of the river. That is of little importance, of course, but the traveller likes to amuse himself with this kind of speculation. Now he is in a boat travelling across the clear, deep green waters to the island, and the further he leaves the shore behind, the more he feels freed of care, of timetables, even of his own desire to travel. He's leaving the world behind, entering Nirvana, floating down the River Lethe of forgetfulness. And when he sets foot on the island he can't get it out of his mind what a boon it would be to stay here for two or twenty days, with bed, board and lodging, until the outside world or inside concerns tugged at his ear and reminded him he could not avoid his obligations any longer.

But his stay did not last two hours. This landscape of water and mountains, this Swiss lake, this haven of peace is beyond human measure. It is too overwhelming. So he returns to earth, this time in a rapid launch with an outboard motor, and this too he finds pleasant: the waters flowing past on both sides, the roar of the engine; the visit to Lombo was a short one, but well worth it.

He enters Tomar at the opposite end to the Castle of the Knights Templar, sorts out his lodging and uses the time remaining in the day to visit the church of St John the Baptist and the synagogue. The Manueline portal of the church is made all the more beautiful by the bareness of the stone. The belltower is a heavy mass that refuses to integrate with the rest of the simple exterior. It has its own worth, and tells you so.

The church of St John the Baptist is vast, with three naves of soaring ogival arches. The central nave is highest, but the light coming in from the round window in the façade and the side windows is not enough to penetrate the gloom that encroaches on everything at this time of day. With time and patience though, the traveller can appreciate the panels by Gregório Lopes. This fine painter must have had an excellent studio working under him, and have been a good instructor: this is obvious from the unity of conception in these and other panels, the delicacy of the decorative elements, the easy transition of colour and line from composition to composition. The Beheading, with its theatrical figures, shows a real sense of drama in the halberds crossed diagonally over their heads.

The pulpit, which is meant to be by the same hand as built the porch, reminds the traveller of Santa Cruz de Coimbra both in its individual elements and in its overall design. It's the work more of a goldsmith than a stonemason. The traveller admires it, but is not overwhelmed. As he has already said he thinks that the invisible boundary - which, being invisible, is all too often crossed - beyond which stone still keeps its essential nature, its density and weight, is all-important. In his humble opinion, stone should not be fashioned like stucco; and yet, as he does not have any fixed ideas, he is ready to accept all and every exception to this rule, and to defend them with the same enthusiasm that he employs in his defence of sculpting as against filigree work, chisel rather than scalpel.

He regretted being unable to see the Baptism of Christ in the baptistery. The grille is closed, and however much the traveller tries, he cannot make out anything more than the wine jugs of the left-hand panel depicting the Wedding at Cana. Both baptism and temptation are out of sight.

The sun is already sinking behind the castle. The traveller moves on to the synagogue, where the door is opened by a tall old man who might be Jewish but does not show it from the way he speaks. He is clutching an old, worn and greasy tome, and tells the story of the building as best he can. The synagogue is simple and harmonious in its design, with a high vaulted ceiling resting on four slender but precise columns and corbelled walls. One curious detail is the large water jugs stuck in the plaster at each corner in order to help the acoustics by increasing the resonance. The traveller gives them a standard test, which as usual does not prove much. The builders of the Greek theatre at Epidaurus knew a lot more about the science of making oneself heard.

That evening, he had dinner at the Beira-Rio restaurant. He ate a magnificent, historic steak, with a taste that, having passed through all the subtleties of its sauce, had returned to the essential savour of meat, and stays forever in the palate's memory. And since good fortune never comes alone, the traveller was served by a serious-looking waiter who when he smiled had the happiest face in the world - and he smiled a lot. The city of Tomar should pin its highest award or commendation on this man's chest. In return, it would get one of his smiles, and would be amply rewarded.

Arts of Water and Fire


The entry into the castle walls is by a path which follows the hill round to the entrance on the eastern side. The traveller walks up in a relaxer mood, indifferent to the flowerbeds and fine gravel of the path. He is no radically opposed to them, but if asked his opinion, he would do it differently: to his mind, there should be some common ground between packaging and content. When two things are adjacent to each other, they should respect one another's qualities. These thoughts might seem out of place here outside a castle, but the traveller is simply putting into words the thoughts that arise as he sees things, as everyone does who pays attention to the workings of his own mind.

Here is the portal by John of Castile, one of the most magnificent works of art in Portugal. Strictly speaking, a sculpture, this gateway, or even a simple painting, cannot be explained in words. It is not even enough to look, since the eyes also have to learn to read shapes. Nothing can be translated in this way. A sonnet by Camões cannot be rendered in stone. All one can do faced with this portal is to look, identify the different elements according to the knowledge one has, and try to fill in the gaps in this knowledge - but each traveller has to do this for himself, one person cannot do the seeing and explaining for anyone else. (...)

The Convent at Tomar is the portal, the Manueline church, the Charola or Templars' oratory, the great window, and the cloister. And everything else. What most impresses the traveller is the Charola, because of its antiquity, of course, because of its exotic octagonal shape, but above all because he can see in it the perfect expression of the idea of sanctuary, a secret place that can be visited but is not on display, a central point that is the focus for believers and around which the lesser attractions are laid out. So the Charola is at one and the same time a radiant sun and the navel of the world.

But every sun sets, and navels wither away. Time is gnawing at the Charola with its sharp, ruthless teeth. There is a general air of decrepitude that comes from both age and neglect. One of the most precious artistic jewels of Portugal is in decay, being snuffed out. Either it gets help soon, or we will hear the usual chorus of lament when it's too late. (...)

The cloister seems dry and cold to the traveller. To put it another way: just as Diogo de Torralva, the creator of this project, did not identify with the Manueline, and still less with the Romanesque or Gothic styles, so the traveller, who is faced with the product of this succession of historical styles and tastes, can say that this Roman neoclassical style is not to his taste either, and if he is obliged to say why, he will say it is because it seems to him dry and cold. Of course, this is subjective. But so be it. The traveller has a right to be subjective, otherwise there would be no point in travelling - travel surely is the confrontation of the subjective with the outside world. Let's not get carried away then: it's not a complete rejection, it's simply not a complete acceptance. And the traveller admits to being conquered by one thing in Dom John III's cloister: the doors at ground level, where the windows above them seem to him a triumph of straight lines and exact proportions.

Everything has already been said about the Great Window: which means probably that there is everything still to say. Don't expect any revelations from the traveller. Except for the firm conviction that the Manueline style would not be what it is if the temples in India were not what they are. Diogo de Arruda may not have been near the Indian ocean, but there's no doubt whatsoever that Portuguese ships carried artists with them, and they brought back drawings, sketches, copies: an ornamental style as dense as the Manueline could not have been created, elaborated and refined in the shade of our olive groves: it is a cultural whole discovered elsewhere and recreated here. Please forgive the traveller these rather bold conjectures.


The traveller continues on towards the west. On his way he sees the aqueduct at Pegões Altos, the proof that utility and beauty are not incompatible: the series of perfectly rounded arches above more open false ones reduces the monumental nature of the construction, making it less imposing. In this way, the architect designed a false aqueduct which serves as a support to the real one carrying the water.


As luck would have it, the traveller took the longest way round to reach the palace. A wise choice, as he was able to see the entire town, with its deserted houses, some of them in ruins, others with the windows boarded up, the wayside shrines stripped of their images, places where even spiders go hungry. It is only at the top of the town that the last few inhabitants were huddled, and there were some signs of life: children playing, a restaurant with silly heraldic pretensions that thankfully was closed, because the traveller was tired of all these noble hostelries and other such fantasies.

The palace, of which little more than the towers remain, is the work of giants. It may be true that Lilliputians could pile stone on stone until they built a tower reaching to the sky, but these, which do not have such a lofty aim, give the impression they could only have been built by huge arms and muscles. They must have been powerful builders to have constructed such an original fortress, with its Gothic arches and brick adornments that immediately lighten the feeling of massive solidity the whole tends to create. It seems it was built by Jews from the Maghreb, the same ones who went on to build the synagogue in Tomar and the crypt for King Afonso, which the traveller has yet to visit. He recalls the Cristo de Aveiro, probably built by Moorish hands, throws into the same pot newly converted Christians and Arabs, lets the whole lot stew, with the different traditions, new beliefs and their ensuing contradictions, and watches how new forms of art emerge, sudden changes unfortunately flung together before they are properly developed. The synagogue in Tomar, in Ourém this crypt and the tomb inside, and the palace itself: if we delved deeply into the circumstances of the times, the place, and the people, where would it all end? This is the question the traveller was asking himself as he descended the steep road back down to the plain.»


“That day, the sky was spilling over into the interior of the main cloister. The sun on the stone, the ephemeral over the timeless, the harsh reality over the past, the here-and-now over crystallisation.”

Tomar and Constância

Tomar and Constância

“The Nabão was a mirror. At that hour, as it crossed the town, the river had given up any impatience it might have expressed elsewhere on its path. There, it distilled the morning light, an immeasurable sky over Tomar, and displayed it in that perfect surface, liquid mercury, a mirror furrowed by canoes. These vessels provided vivid colours to the image that could be admired from the Ponte Velha. The children in the middle of the canoes, arms or oars, helped with their voices, also full of the morning. In the distance, the Mouchão Garden took care of the green, willows flowing over the Nabão, poplars shaking their leaves. Going down the steps to the Levada, picking the right doors, I stepped into another world. Inside, the tiles of the old foundry were protected from the heat but let in the accents of the sun outside, cutting it with their own shapes and, in this way, stretching out an incandescent pattern. This gentle glow coated the machines. They were tired of so many years, so much molten metal. There, on that Tomar morning, they were relishing the peacefulness of the museum hub. As a visitor, I wanted to believe that my gaze was caressing their steel. There, dear tools, machines that have given so much, you can now rest. The mechanical lathes with attached motors, the drills, the presses and other machinery reminded me of my father's industrial dreams. In motion, we carry our own baggage, the obvious evidence. So I remembered the way my father used to pronounce the name of this land, Tomar, the way he used it in phrases. I even remembered going past the Levada with him and listening to his explanations. Perhaps he was talking about how hydraulic energy was used here, and also about how the power of the river could be harnessed and used to good effect. In my father's explanations, there were words that were like belts and pulleys, perhaps similar to those used here over the centuries, in the milling, the foundry, the power station.
Returning to the crossing of a very light breeze, I proceeded along with Rua Serpa Pinto, shops on one side and family businesses on the other. Beside the terrace, the open door of the Café Paraíso emanated other days, nights perhaps, time with no clock, people in front of people. In Praça da República, facing the statue of Gualdim de Pais, Knight Templar, founder of the city, with his back to the São João Batista Church, treading on a stone cloak, paved with lozenges, I looked up in search of the Convent of Christ. And, suddenly, I was actually there.
What is usually called the Convent of Christ is, in fact, a group of buildings. The styles they feature would be enough to illustrate the entire history of Portugal. Circulating in this space, many visitors seek the window of the Chapter, stone sailors. Others come for the charola, wanting to utter that word in the presence of the word itself. But there is no lack of reasons to climb this hill, to let the echo of the steps sound in these consecrated hallways. That day, the sky was spilling over into the interior of the main cloister. The sun on the stone, the ephemeral over the timeless, the harsh reality over the past, the here-and-now over crystallisation. These works began in the first decades of nationality, extending into the 18th century and, in a certain way, continue even today in the landscape that is offered from above. Like a permanent work: the city of Tomar through trunks and branches, the distance between the individual and his present. This is the thread that begins all paths, even the streets leading out of Tomar, surrounded by vegetation, tended vegetable plots, small houses from small hamlets. And so we arrived at the banks of the Tagus and, in parallel, we followed its side, also our will comparable to a river. On that line, Tancos on one bank, Arripiado on the other, a boatman linking them. Further ahead, in passing, I watched half a dozen military paratroopers launch themselves from a plane. They floated like a display from the sky, in preparation for the unknown that awaited us: a castle on top of a riverside island, as if that were the entire territory of their small country. A symmetrical world, reflected in the waters, the Tagus is also a mirror. In this way, all the scenery surrounding the castle belongs to it. We go to Almourol castle to be surprised by a mirage. After that scene, like a dream, and following that time, like the time of a dream, I needed to relearn certain notions of horizon. That's what I did on the road to Constância, on the iron bridge over the Zêzere. Portugal teaches us to look.”
José Luís Peixoto

What to visit

Tips fromTomar and Constância

In José Luís Peixoto's revisited journey, these are some of the places singled out by both his gaze and his writing.

Sete Montes National Forest

Sete Montes National Forest

“The city has a forest, or is it the forest that has a city?
As we cross the high iron gates of the Sete Montes National Forest, we pass from one of the major urban areas of Tomar into absolute nature. Suddenly, the sound of our steps on the ground is accompanied by the singing of birds in varying degrees of distance: some close by, more prominent, others in the distance, more subtle and yet participating with equal importance in the symphony that surrounds us.
The countless shades of green mingle with the scent of ash trees, Judas trees, elms and all the plants that feed on this earth and transform it into sap. As we fill our lungs, we realise that nothing here is expendable, even the insects and the stones are needed for this balance to be achieved.
In itself, nature belongs to an essential time, before us and after us. But it is also true that this forest does not exist alone, it is not alien to this city. In the beginning, if I asked who belongs to who, it is because, here, there is history even in the breeze.
Over the centuries, whoever imagined the city always pictured it with this forest. Tomar and the Sete Montes National Forest are inseparable.”

José Luís Peixoto

Discover more

Best ofTomar and Constância

A city filled with echoes of the Knights Templar and the Order of Christ, surrounded by traditional trade, green spaces, and the legacy of the cultivation of crops along the River Nabão. The Convent of Christ reigns supreme as an undeniable symbol of history.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, the Charola, an octagonal Templar oratory built in the 12th century with lavish sculptures, paintings and gilded woodcarvings, and the Main Cloister of this monument impressed the Nobel and Saramago Prize winners on their Journey to Portugal. With a privileged view of the Sete Montes National Forest, the Convent of Christ is full of Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque influences.

The Castle and Convent of Christ
Levada of Tomar Cultural Complex

Levada of Tomar Cultural Complex

At the gates of the River Nabão, this space of former industries and the mirror of a people driven by memories and energy serves as a museum. There are three preserved buildings, the oil presses, the power stations, and the mills, which encircle the imposing Levada area. A clear focus is also placed on expression workshops and exhibitions of emerging artists.

Levada of Tomar Cultural Complex
Abraão Zacuto Synagogue and Luso-Hebrew Museum

Abraão Zacuto Synagogue and Luso-Hebrew Museum

A place of devotion for the Jewish religion, classified as a National Monument in 1921, it has found its home in the inconspicuous facade of a picturesque road, and is the only remaining example of medieval Jewish and Proto-Renaissance art in Portugal. Once through the door, the peacefulness of the place is enhanced by the quadrangular layout, vaulted ceiling, oriental influences, and the symbolism of each carved stone. Not to be missed: the museum collection, made up of items donated by the local community.

Abraão Zacuto Synagogue and Luso-Hebrew Museum
Abraão Zacuto Synagogue and Luso-Hebrew Museum

Nabão River Park

Nabão River Park

A tributary of the River Zêzere, the River Nabão runs through the Templar city and provides one of the most inspiring views of the landscape, which shifts according to various points of view. As well as being the ideal place for family picnics and for watching the local fauna, particularly the ballet of swans, it is possible to make the most of the calm waters by hiring pleasure boats.

Nabão River Park
Nabão River Park

Insensato Café-Bookshop

Insensato Café-Bookshop

A venue for cultural events, such as literary gatherings and workshops, this café-bookshop opened during the pandemic in the historic centre of the city, providing the community with opportunities for well-being and leisure. It would be foolish not to try the menu, which focuses on fresh locally sourced ingredients, and take the opportunity to browse through the latest publishing house releases and second-hand books.

Insensato Café-Bookshop
Insensato Café-Bookshop


Guarda, Pinhel and Cidadelhe

Keep scrolling


Tomar and Constância -