The defenders of this fortified hilltop village on Portugal’s border with Spain were able to spot any Spanish invaders in the 17th century from miles away. That is, on a clear day.
On the kind of day my wife and I visited — freezing horizontal rain and fog so dense I could barely see past my thumb — every single Spaniard on the Iberian peninsula could have easily sneaked up on the defenders and slit their throats.
That crummy weather taught me two important vacation lessons. 1) If you’re hoping for the vast vistas, avoid the rainy season. 2) But if the food, wine and people are excellent, it’s a worthwhile adventure even in a blizzard.
Hilltop fortresses have always fascinated me, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s the sense of safety they provide — say, a castle, even a drafty or ruined one. Perhaps the five-mile views give a sense of command over our world. Perhaps it’s because their residents are so isolated that they are exceptionally welcoming to outsiders. During a recent trip to Sicily, we enjoyed a couple of truly wonderful nights in the uber-charming fortified towns of Modica and Ragusa.
So when we decided on a Portuguese vacation, we set aside four days for a swing through a few of the country’s best-known fortified villages. Europe is chock-a-block with walled towns, built high above valleys because of the continent’s many bloody wars. And Portugal is no different. One tourist guide lists 27 castles and fortresses, virtually all on hilltops. We picked three villages strung along the eastern border with Spain, Portugal’s historical enemy, and the walled city of Evora, capital of the east-central Alentejo region justly famed for its food and wines.
Europe is chock-a-block with walled towns, built high above valleys because of the continent’s many bloody wars. And Portugal is no different.
Juan O. Tamayo
Evora is a quick 90-minute train ride from Lisbon’s Oriente Station, a hub for trains, subways and buses built in 1998 as a dazzling cathedral of transportation — think Gothic pillars and arches and a glass roof designed by acclaimed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Our guidebook made no mention of this gem, but it’s most definitely worth a long look before boarding the train.
The old town of Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a pleasant maze of narrow cobblestone streets and pocket plazas from the 15th to the 18th century, best initially explored aboard the red tourist buses run by Evora City Tour. Grab a bench on the central Plaza do Giraldo while waiting for the bus and enjoy the passing flow of university students, shoppers, business people and retired men arguing about the latest soccer games.
Once oriented on the town, we spent three days touring the ruins of a Roman temple from the first century AD, the town’s Gothic cathedral and its spectacular museum for sacred objects. The defensive stone walls that ring the old town are not the most impressive, but there’s a stunning collection of 18th century painted tiles known as azulejos at the Igreja (church) dos Loios.
Also stunning is the macabre Capela dos Ossos — Chapel of Bones — at the 16th century Igreja de Sao Francisco. Designed to make visitors reflect on the fleetness of life, its walls are covered top to bottom with thousands of skulls and leg and arm bones. A morbid sign over the entrance reads, “We the bones that are here await yours.”
The walls at the macabre Capela dos Ossos — Chapel of Bones — are covered top to bottom with thousands of skulls and leg and arm bones.
Evora offers a choice of hotels, from the luxury Pousada dos Loios in a former convent and monastery to the cheap but lovely Solar de Monfalim, a 16th century manor house with a cozy arched gallery that overlooks a tree-shrouded plaza.
Food options are even broader, honoring the Alentejo’s reputation as the home of Portugal’s best dishes, from luscious chops from porco preto — the same black pig that Spaniards use for jamon Iberico — to creamy cheeses and dogfish soup. I confess, however, that I most enjoyed grazing my way through the bakeries that offered dozens of variations of pasteis — hockey puck-sized pastries filled with everything from custard to chestnuts and fruit compotes that should be enshrined in the Dessert Hall of Fame. All prices were astonishingly low, and many people in tourist spots speak English.
To be honest, after the Chapel of Bones, we were ready to leave Evora. Many bus lines ply the Alentejo region, with good roads lined with picturesque stands of cork trees. But they are slow and infrequent, and it’s far more efficient to rent a car. Ask for an automatic shift unless you get a perverse kick out of shifting gears on steep, wet and winding roads.
Marvao, a village of barely 150 people, sits on a dazzling rock outcrop only about 800 feet wide, 1,700 feet long and 2,800 feet above the surrounding Sever River valley, an important Roman-era trade route. It lies at the end of a steep, 1 1/2 lane road with dramatic switchbacks and breathtaking views that prompted my petrified wife to repeatedly tell me, “It’s gorgeous. Don’t look. Slow down.”
150 Approximate population of Marvao, a village that sits on a rock outcrop only about 800 feet wide and 1,700 feet long
Its ring of 17th century defensive stone walls tightly embraces the village’s dozen cobblestone streets, barely wide enough for one of those midget European cars and lined with brilliantly whitewashed and red-roofed homes.
Its stone castle, started by the Moors in the eighth century, was expanded by King Dinis in the 13th century to watch over possible invaders from the neighboring Extremadura region of Spain, Portugal’s traditional enemy. Visitors can walk around the castle ruins and defensive walls, and a museum in the nearby Church of Saint Mary displays an engagingly oddball collection of religious icons, traditional costumes and ancient weaponry.
There’s no question Marvao offers stunning views of the plains of Spain. Photos on the Internet prove it. But within seconds of our arrival, the village was wrapped under a full-blown storm of driving rain that pummeled us as we ran to the museum and castle, then quickly scurried back to our hotel, the Pousada de Marvao. We saw little else but fog before we left the next day. Residents told us the best time to visit is in the spring, but there were three pluses to visiting in November: very few tourists, lots of parking inside the walls and high season for deliciously roasted chestnuts.
Residents told us the best time to visit is in the spring, but there were three pluses to visiting in November: very few tourists, lots of parking inside the walls and high season for deliciously roasted chestnuts.
Juan O. Tamayo
Just six miles to the northeast, the larger fortified town of Castelo de Vide drapes over two hilltops and the saddle in between, with a Gothic castle dominating the northern end and sweeping views to the east of Spain and groves of olive and chestnut trees. And yes, the skies cleared a bit during our stay.
The castle is partly in ruins — the accidental explosion of its gunpowder stores in 1705 didn’t help — but it’s a good place to start an exploration of the town’s cobblestone streets, some of them way too narrow for a car. Its many Gothic door arches are flanked by potted flowers, vividly colorful against the whitewashed walls. One lane leads to the town’s emblem, a canopied fountain fed by a spring that also fills the several swimming pools that attract summer tourists.
One particularly steep and winding lane cuts through the juderia, the Jewish quarter, which grew to 4,000 members as Jews fled the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s. A small 13th century synagogue, on an easy-to-miss corner house, has been excavated and turned into a museum offering a well-documented tale of how the Portuguese embraced the Jewish refugees as they settled in the town.
A small 13th century synagogue in Castelo de Vide was excavated and turned into a museum that tells how the Portuguese embraced Jewish refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1400s.
Castelo de Vide has a narrow selection of hotels, but the Casa Do Parque, where virtually every piece of furniture is made of chestnut, is quite comfortable and includes a swimming pool. Two blocks away is the O Alentejano restaurant, where the lamb chops and venison and a smooth Alentejo wine set us back just $15. During Holy Week, shepherds in traditional costumes drive their sheep into town to be blessed, just before they are sold and slaughtered.
Castelo de Vide can also be a good base for day trips to nearby points of interest, especially the 17th century Paço Ducal palace in the town of Vila Viçosa, unquestionably the most “homey” of all of Portugal’s royal residences. There’s no electricity, the closets are full of clothes, and the dinner dishes and kitchen’s copper pots and pans are all on their shelves and hooks. It looks like the king just went out one day and never came back. Which is, sadly, exactly what happened. King Carlos spent his last night here in 1908. The next day, he and his son were assassinated during a public appearance in Lisbon.
Thirty-six miles to the west is the town of Arraiolos, known since the Middle Ages for its embroidered rugs and tapestries in Persian designs, and 20 miles to the southwest is the Coudelaria de Alter, a 2,000-acre horse farm founded in 1748 to preserve the Lusitanian breed. You can watch these gorgeous horses being put through their paces on an open-air rink, watch the foals feeding or take a tour about the breeding program. Even closer to Castelo de Vide is the Coureleiros Megalithic park, a collection of massive stone structures put together by Celtic people more than 4,000 years ago.
A short drive to the south lies Monsaraz, the smallest and most endearing of the fortified hilltop villages on our itinerary, a gem of a hamlet with a reported 120 residents and just two real streets maybe two blocks long. The red clay roofs and black cobblestones provide a lovely bracket for the white walls of the single-story homes, interspersed with red bougainvillea and geraniums.
There are two churches, three tourist shops, a half-dozen guest houses and no room at all to park a car. A 13th century castle in semi-ruin with a five-sided tower tops one end of the village, and it takes maybe two hours to walk the stone walls that ring the village.
We lunched on goat and Iberico pork chops at Lumumba, a cozy restaurant in one of the ancient homes, with an outdoor terrace that overlooked the Guadiana River Valley below and the Barragem do Alqueva reservoir, the largest lake in Portugal, which straddles the border with Spain.
Of course, it was foggy and we could barely see the reservoir. The sun did eventually burn off the fog — about the time we returned to Lisbon.
Portugal’s hilltop fortresses: where to stay
Pousada dos Loios: A former convent and monastery, expensive for Portugal, with rooms starting at about $137. Largo do Conde de Vila Flor. 011-351-266-730-070; pousadasofportugal.com/pousadas/evora
Solar de Monfalim: A 16th century manor house with rooms starting at $56. Largo da Misericordia. 011-351-266-703-529; solarmonfalim.com
CASTELO DE VIDE
Casa do Parque: Small, clean hotel overlooking the central park, with rooms starting at $45. A great base for touring the Alto Alentejo. Avenida da Aramenha 37. 011-35-245-901-250; casadoparque.net