An hour’s drive from Lisbon, Santarém grips a plateau above the Tagus river, the city’s fingers fanning out and reaching for the edge. It’s a place whose buildings and vestiges tell tales dating back to the Iron Age, where layers of Roman, Visigoth, Moorish and Christian history can be peeled back and the keen eye can spot windows to the past.
1. Statue of Marquês da Bandeira
A sensible place to begin is Marquês da Bandeira Square. A plaque on one house marks the birthplace of Bandeira in 1795, who was Prime Minister not once, but several times, and who awarded Santarém’s charter in 1868. He was also the person responsible for the abolition of slavery in the Portuguese colonies.
Take note of his statue in the square showing him without his right arm, which he lost along with his hearing. This extraordinary man wanted to be buried in the town of his birth and asked for his final resting place to be in the shadow of a nut tree, which can still be seen in the cemetery.
2. A mysterious window
A five-hundred-year-old Manueline window overlooks the square. Nobody knows whether it belonged to the King or someone who worked for him. Perhaps it was looted from the palace, but its late Gothic Renaissance sea-faring and harvest details suggest wealth. And imagine the sights that have been seen through its frame!
3. Nossa Senhora da Conceição Cathedral
Behind you on the same square, the site of the 13th century royal palace has a typically storied background. Once it was a royal hunting centre, with easy access for travellers via the Tagus river. Tragically though a young Prince, the only legitimate son of King John II, died after a fall riding near the river, and the place was abandoned due to superstition. King Manuel I built a new palace on the other side of the river. From the end of the 15th to the mid-17th century, the palace fell into disrepair.
Finally Jesuits took over, but the King imposed one condition. Whenever he wanted, they must let the monarch come stay as their guest. Whatever they did with the place, it needed to be fit for the King!
Jesuit saints are represented on the typical Jesuit façade and the city’s guides will be able to tell you a sort of nursery rhyme passed through generations to help you remember them all. Meanwhile, Our Lady of Conception is the towering centrepiece – made out of ceramic and two metres high.
And inside? Even if you’re not interested in churches, it’s hard not to find the interior absolutely jaw-dropping, stuffed full of ornate artwork and statutory, including Saint Francis Borgia. Unable to deal with his beloved losing her earthly beauty after her death, he turned to religion and is featured clasping a skull as a symbol of his renunciation of worldly goods – which is perhaps an irony, given the amount of material splendour on show here.
There are two pulpits due to the church’s role in education, meaning that not just sermons but debates could take place. Other than around the tabernacle where the inlay is real, the stone is painted to look like inlaid ornamentation. Can you tell the difference? Also, don’t forget to look up. Among the wooden ceiling tiles are holes where children used to scatter petals onto the congregation.
The view from the roof and bell tower is breathtaking, encompassing the mighty Tagus river, the city’s tiled rooftops, former walls and monasteries, and the mountains beyond. It’s easy to grasp why Santarém was so strategically important. There was also an observatory, where the Jesuits studied the stars.
4. Museu Diocesano
Next to the Cathedral is the Diocese Museum. Don’t be fooled. This is not some stuffy religious edifice. Refurbished and inaugurated in 2014, the building glows in the sun. Along with discoveries from on-site archaeological digs, like a medieval cistern, it contains stunning artefacts from the surrounding parish churches gathered conveniently into one place so they can be appreciated. One gorgeous 16th century artwork was being used as stairs before being recovered!
The rooms are not organised by date but by theme, such ‘the beautiful woman’ dedicated to depictions of St Anne – Mary’s mother and the patron saint of unmarried women, pregnant women and grandparents. The museum guides have all sorts of ways to engage with their younger visitors; for example, with ‘safaris’ where you can spot the animals among the artefacts. Particularly moving is a sculpture of baby Jesus, depicted not in a manger or a pillow as usual, but on the cross.
When the Jesuits took over the palace, they needed to work out a water supply, and the answer was all the way back in pre-Christian times. Over a hundred cisterns stored and supplied water around the town. One can be found on the patio of the Patio da Graça restaurant.
Other ingenious solutions from the past can be found in Santarém: during excavations, grain storage holes made by the Muslims were found. They are probably one of the reasons why Santarém became so important. Apart from being a great defensive position above the river plains, they had stores of food and water to outlast sieges, which made it a difficult place to defeat.
6. A Gothic feast
Apart from the cathedral, Santarém’s many other churches and monasteries tell a story of Gothic architecture. If you have limited time, I would prioritise Santa Maria de Marvila whose tiled Manueline interior is extraordinary, and Santa Maria da Graça, where Pedro Alvares Cabral, Portugal’s Age of Discoveries hero credited with ‘finding’ Brazil, is commemorated.
7. Jardim das Portas do Sol and Casa Museu Passos Manuel
History buffs will also be drawn to the Jardim das Portas do Sol (Sun Gate Garden) at the end of the city’s index finger on the map. Here they’ll find glorious river views from the defensive walls. Roman and Moorish vestiges have been uncovered, evidence of a large house, temple and tower, as well as more cisterns dating back to 100 AD, addressing Santarém’s perennial water problem.
Tantalisingly, the vestiges are known to extend beneath the nearby house of Pedro Canavarro – a museum and art gallery where objects relating to Canavarro’s travels, family history and the Prime Minister’s great-great-grandfather are displayed. Canavarro offers tours himself and is a warm and erudite host, who says excavations can go ahead after his death but he wants to sleep safely in his own bed for now. Fair enough. His home is another must-see for any history lover, treading in the footsteps of 19th century writer Almeida Garrett, who famously wrote about Santarém in Viagens na Minha Terra.
8. Portas do Sol
Speaking of footsteps, the Portas do Sol or the ‘Sun Gate’ is an archway leading to a path along the escarpment on which Santarém sits. Records suggest it used to be possible to walk one’s horse beyond the gates. There is not enough land available now for this, testimony to the city’s earthquakes and gradual erosion.
9. Jewish quarter
Heading back towards the historic centre, there’s still more to see. Santarém was once the rabbinical seat of Estramadura. Wind through narrow back streets, believed to be the town’s Jewish quarter in the Middle Ages when Jews suffered judicial discrimination and were forced to wear badges and live in one particular neighbourhood.
10. Mercado Municipal
20th century history can also be explored, for example, at the marketplace. Built in 1930 in iron and brick, it replaced the old open-air marketplace. Blue azulejo tiles depict regional tourism and agricultural motifs from the early 20th century and are the main attraction. Refurbishment has been taking place, so enquire before you visit. Many of Santarém’s buildings are officially ‘listed’ for their historical value, making renovations a lengthy and difficult process. But this gives an exciting sense of a city on the border between modernity and history – a bit like Cuba’s Havana a few years ago.