The Costa de Prata, a region of sharp contrasts, occupies the coastal strip between Lisbon and Porto. It has a rich heritage of centuries-old monuments that testify to the coming together of peoples and cultures.
This walled town, with its narrow streets spreading from the foot of the castle, still preserves all the atmosphere of a 16th-century medieval town. The Jewish quarter, an area was once inhabited by traders, artists, and scientists, was in the center of the town, close to the Rua Direita and the beautiful 16th-century Renaissance church of Santa Maria, where it is possible to appreciate the paintings of Josefa d’Obidos, one of the most important 17th-century Portuguese artists. Since it was the property of the queens of Portugal, Obidos always enjoyed special protection from the royal court and, at one time, had a school of arts and sciences. The effects of all this culture are clearly evident in its artistic heritage, in particular the Manueline palace that was built inside the castle walls (now converted into the Obidos Pousada).
This town was the headquarters of the Order of the Knights Templar in Portugal until the 14th century when the order was extinguished and replaced by the Order of Christ, founded at that same time. The first Jewish settlement in the town also took place in the 14th century. The Jewish quarter only occupied one street: the present-day Rua Dr. Joaquim Jacinto. Nonetheless, despite its small size, it was a prosperous community, and its influence was to increase greatly in the 15th century, in the period of the Discoveries, when Tomar was already the headquarters of the Order of Christ and its governor was Prince Henry the Navigator.
At #73 on the same street was the synagogue, which remained in use until 1496, the date when the order was given to expel the Jews from Portugal. Today it houses the Abraao Zacuto Portugueuse-Hebrew Museum. Even today, clay pots are still kept embedded high in the four corners of the chamber of worship as part of a traditional technique for improving the room’s acoustics. In the 20th century, through the efforts of Samuel Schwartz, the synagogue was restored and given to the State, and since 1921 it has collected not only the local heritage of documents and epigraphs but also tombstones with Hebraic inscriptions from other parts of the country. In 1985, fresh excavation work was undertaken at the synagogue, leading to the discovery of an oven for the heating of water and a wall that gave access to the holy baths designed for purification purposes.
Classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, the Convento de Cristo, surrounded by medieval walls, with its seven cloisters and emblematic Manueline window, is an essential part of any visitor’s itinerary. In Tomar, the best way to gain an impression of the three separate moments in the history of Portuguese architecture is to visit the churches of Santa Maria do Olival (Gothic), Sao Joao Baptista (with its Munueline doorway and important 16th-century paintings inside the church) and, on the road to the castle, the church of Nossa Senhora da Conceicao (a Renaissance chapel). In the surrounding district, nature lovers will appreciate the great lake created by the dam of Castelo de Bode, with its magnificent views and the chance to enjoy water sports.
Dominated by its proud castle, the former royal palace conquered from the Moors in 1135, the city developed at the foot of the hill, bordered by the river Lis and spreading out from the old Rua Dur in keeping with the typical structure of medieval towns. The Jewish quarter was to be found in the area now occupied by Rua Dom Afonso Henriques, Rua Dom Dinis, and Largo da Se and would have dated back to the 14th century, in the reign of Dom Dinis (1279-1325). It was in this old part of the city, close to the Cathedral (begun in 1550 with an Archeological Museum now attached to it), that one of the first Jewish works in Portugal was published: the "Almanach Perpetuum" by Abraao Zacuto, printed by the equally Jewish Arbaao d’Ortas. Other interesting places to visit are the Igreja da Misericordia, under which the Old Synagogue is thought to lie, the Igraja de Sao Pedro (a 12th century Romanesque church), the Municipal Museum and the 16th-17th century shrine of Nossa Senhora da Encarnacao with its panoramic views.
Situated on the north bank of the river Mondego and one of the most important European Jewish quarters was to be found in the cities in the middle ages, Coimbria is best known for its University, which enjoyed royal protection from the moment of its first implantation in Coimbria (after its foundation in Lisbon in 1290). At one time, the city had three Jewish quarters in the parishes of Santiago, Santa Justa, and Pedreira. With the epidemic caused by the black plague in the 14th century, the population decreased significantly, becoming concentrated only in the Jewish quarter of Santa Justa, which, after the order was given for the expulsion of the Jews in 1496, came to be known as Rua Nova. The most important synagogue was situated in the Judiaria Velha de Santiago, the Jewish quarter close to the Igreja do Corpo de Deus. A walk around the medieval quarters of this city is evocative of the traditions which are still kept alive today and also provides a number of interesting surprises: amongst tile arches and steps are to be found the St. Velha (the Old Cathedral, originally built ill the Romanesque style), the Mosteiro de Santa Cruz (a 12th-century monastery, containing the tombs of the first kings of Portugal) and the Almedina Gate. The cultural heritage of the Jews was carried on into many families of converted or so-called -New Christians," contributing to the scientific and humanistic advancement of the University, symbolically situated on the hill overlooking the city. Any tour of the city must also include a visit to the university’s fabulous Baroque library, which contains more than 150,000 volumes, and the Sala dos Capelos (Ceremonial Hall). Nearby is the Museu Machado de Castro, with its Roman Cryptoportico, which contains impressive collections of paintings, Renaissance sculptures, and gold jewelry (12th-19th centuries). The National Science Museum exhibits the inventions and instruments used in experiments that led to the that led advancement of modern science, in which men such as the scientist Pedro Nunes (1502-1578), a New Christian and university professor in this city, were to play such an important part.
At Conimbriga, in the surroundings of Coimbra, are the most important Roman ruins in Portugal, and 29 km. from the city, can be found the spa of Luso and the extremely beautiful forest of Bucaco with its neo-Manueline hotel-palace.
A visit to the Costa de Prata represents the chance to discover two of the major causes of the great pride that is frequently felt in Portuguese architecture, both of them classified by UNESCO as World Heritage: the Monastery of Alcobaca and the Monastery of Batalha. The first is a Cistercian abbey founded in 1152, with an imposing nave and austere cloisters. The Monastery of Batalha (14th-16th centuries) is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture, famous for its unfinished chapels and the beautiful stained glass windows of the Founders’ Chapel, which houses the tomb of Prince Henry the Navigator, who had such a close and open relationship with the Jewish community.
Source: Journey to Jewish Portugal courtesy of the Portuguese National Tourist Office.