There are heroic tales aplenty, in Portugal. Tales of indomitable people, resisting and fighting with unbreakable courage; countless episodes of a fiercely independent character, which will rather break than bend. Tomar had its share of fights, of valorous knights, of successful and failed sieges, and it was taken by force now and again. If one is to look with the distance that time affords, though, the history of the city seems to be marked rather by an uncanny ability to adequate itself to the surrounding circumstances. Adaptation became the form of resistance that Tomar developed. It is not a matter of complacency or lack of spine. We would dare say that it is a blend of survival instinct and of the laziness that comes with comfort. For who would find fault, indeed, in such a beautiful and meek valley, so decorously courting the river that runs through it? Which values would justify sacrificing such a pleasant mode of existence? Not that many, apparently. And so the city developed a kind of aloof cosmopolitanism, welcoming all while knowing that time would take upon itself the task of sorting out those who were eligible to belong and those who, being in love with novelty and seeking excitement, would quickly be satiated of the perennial and timeless way of being of Tomar. If the city doesn’t seem to believe that something must change so that everything must remain the same, it does seem to embrace the idea that everything must remain the same in the event of a change. It’s not (just?) conservatism, it’s a particular kind of contentment. Its joints may hurt from all the bending but luckily, both for us and for you, not that much has been broken.
No other monument could better represent such an outlook on life than the Templar Castle and the Convent of Christ. A tale never loses in the telling and the Convent is a perfect example of such additionality. The same tale again and again retold, in successive revised and enlarged versions – maybe that’s the very nature of Tomar.
Go up to the Convent and look down at the city, from there: the relationship that Tomar maintains with power becomes transparent. Apparently uninterested, with occasional darting glances, the city resembles a child who, daring to widen the area where it plays, is still cautious not to go beyond the limits defined by those in charge. Tomar is not “in the shadow” of the power projected by the Castle’s walls, it is rather ad latere, parallel to it, in a not-so-Latin familiarity where one doesn’t really touch another. Even the many and beautiful symbols that the secular and religious powers have built throughout the city have been appropriated or reclaimed by Tomar’s way of being – so much so that they end up being symbols of that, rather than of the powers which erected them.
Charming as the historical center of the city is, it’s well worth it to explore the area of the city with a less lengthy history (it would be misleading to call it “new”, in a place like Tomar). One can see, there, the faces that the city imagined for itself: there are no raptures or flights of fancy, just this solid (and uninspired, once in a while, we’ll grant that) attachment to a “normal” life. And there, too, one can witness how convenient the scale of the city is, how easy to navigate, how easy to manage one’s time so that one can stop at a café for a little breather whenever one feels like it. There is a palpable tranquility, in Tomar, and something different in the way time seems to pass, as if outside of time. If you try hard enough, you can manage to have a tiresome day in the city – but there’s no way around it: Tomar is perfectly suited for the craft of resting.
The city doesn’t create much but it gets things done properly. Aside from the sweets, there isn’t really a genuine ‘typical dish’ in Tomar’s gastronomical tradition – but all the cooking is careful, generous and talented. Tomar does the best it can. Could it do more? Probably, but the prevailing spirit is the do one’s best in whatever there is to be done. That’s also why the city organizes the Tabuleiros Festival every four years, instead of annually: so that it can be properly done. That is, if you want, the excessive underbelly of this otherwise apparently orderly city: the degree of committal, the pure expenditure in its dedication to what there is to be done, be it decorating a street with paper flowers, making sausages, roasting a lamb, manufacturing paper or the special pots to bake the Fatias de Tomar.
Houses tend to live longer than those who build them. Such is the case for this one. Back in the 18th century, some family sought to affirm beyond any doubt that they belonged in Tomar and that they were due a prime seat at the very axis of power, in the street that linked the square where the Town Hall faces St. John’s Church to that other square where the pillory ominously pontificates. Its windows are mostly facing the Convent of Christ, as if guarding the ones who guard us.
Generous in its openness to the street, this house has surely seen much: parades, processions, rehearsals of the neighboring brass band (Sociedade Banda Marcial Republicana Nabantina, for the sake of completeness), Sunday strolls, everyday toils, loves, collusions, collisions, envies, deceits, glories, laughter and many, many lives. Designed as a family home, the house has also been a school, for a while. Either with open doors or more reserved, the house became a part of the city’s very breathing. It now opens doors and windows like arms, waiting to welcome you. That’s precisely what those of us who now call it our house aspire to: to make it a home, for us and for you, with all that a home entails – memories, warmth, shelter, celebration, conviviality, tranquility, comfort. And, being a house in Tomar, it was mandatory that everything should remain the same, as much as possible, while change took place, so all the valuable architectural elements have been carefully preserved. The rest is easy, since these walls have more than 200 years of experience in the art of welcoming guests.
Romans, Arabs, the Templar Knights, the Knights of Christ, Prince Henry the Navigator and the planning of the Portuguese sea expeditions, the Royal Courts during the union of the crowns of Portugal and Spain, the Napoleonic Invasions – the history of Tomar is incredibly rich in big events. They have all left traces, heritage or scars, but there’s more to a city’s character than that. Tomar is more than the sum of its monuments. It’s a veritable potlatch of time and of the urge for doing things properly, in a mute and discreet passion for “continuing”. Is it just a coincidence that the word Tomar, in the Portuguese language, is also the infinitive of a verb?
The city’s rich history will surely be one of the main aspects of your visit to Tomar. Therefore, we had no wish to highlight it. At Casa dos Ofícios, we are inspired by that passion for doing well what there is to be done and we honor those who have done so in the past. Each of our 14 rooms looks at one of the many arts and trades which in the past have shaped the history of the city, adding up with their daily labor to the monumentality of one of the most beautiful cities in Portugal.
We don’t aim at compromising your rest with thoughts of work; we have not aspired to blend an hotel and an ethnographic museum; and we certainly don’t intend to sell you “handcrafts” of dubious origins. With something like small cabinets of curiosities, we just keep and display fragments of the ways used to do one’s best in several activities, memories of a not so distant past and of those who helped in building the setting of our present.
We honor the tradition of joiners and cabinet-makers, master carvers and rulers of the art of diving forms. We recall the tillers and tinkers and the scope of their craft, from the science of the pots for the Fatias de Tomar to the perennial elegance of tin oilers. Going down to the river, we remember the washerwomen with hands worn from beating the clothes against the rocks, carrying the fresh linen in their low trays – and listening, quite likely, to the banter and pleasantries of the shoemakers and cobblers, tongues sharp as awls, watching everything from their low stools and knowing better than anyone else the forms upon which Tomar is planted. We don’t forget the potters, who could be only practical but were sometimes exuberant – unlike the blacksmiths, which we also recall, which the scorching heat of the hearth made somewhat more ascetic. From the time in which this house was a school, we keep the memory of the spinners who worked at the beautiful spinning factory set up by Jácome Ratton (it lays in ruins, today – an exception of something that did get broken in Tomar). Fine as threads or rough as bristles, hairs were trusted to the barbers, whose shops were the tabloids of the day. We remember the millers, who might or might not be in cohorts with the apothecaries in the supply of flour for some placebo, when the disease was more willed than otherwise (the house hosted, for several years, a pharmacy which was always “new”, in its name). Back to the river, we remember the smelters. Tomar’s pride in doing things properly was also shown in its industry and such was the case at the four paper-mills around the city: they produced the blue paper required for official documents or the paper trusted by the Bank of England, for several years, to print their money. The same was valid for ceramics. And finally, since we are at what is now called the Silva Magalhães Street, after the first photographer of the city and co-founder of its first newspaper, we remember those who help us remember: the photographers, keepers of verisimilitude, with the power to choose what we will see (and what we will not).
It was and is also through their work (and that of so many others) that Tomar was and is made, in this pleasant and leisurely way of exercising the art of existing. And their memory inspires us to do our very best for the privilege of welcoming you.