Castles and Walled Villages of Central Portugal

There is such an abundance of interesting, historical sites in Portugal that it would take quite a while to visit most of them. As an indication, Wikipedia lists 200 castles that exist in Portugal, plus 80 assorted watchtowers and forts. And there are many other historical sites beyond those.

On this, our most recent road trip, we got to sample some of the castles and old walled villages/towns that can be found in the Centre Region of the country.

Ever mindful of social distancing, in this unusual period that is 2020, we scheduled our trip for mid-week, to avoid the busier weekends. And travelling by motorcycle keeps us away from crowded trains or planes.

Day One – Porto to Marvão

Our first destination was a little south of the Centre Region, located in the Alto-Alentejo. Marvão has been described as one of the most emblematic and lovely towns of the Alentejo. As the highest territory in the Alentejo, with sweeping views of its surroundings, it was an obvious choice to locate a castle. And it was the impressive castle, built high on a ridge, that compelled us to visit Marvão.

Having attracted settlers in pre-historic times, Marvão was subsequently occupied by the Romans and the Moors, before being recaptured by the Portuguese during the time of the Reconquest.

To get there, we had a 302km ride from Porto, arriving at our hotel inside Marvão’s old town walls in the early afternoon. Unable to check-in until 3.00pm, we took a little walk around the narrow lanes and had lunch at the Varanda do Alentejo restaurant. A lovely plate of venison with chestnuts for me and bacalhau (codfish) with shrimps for Bev. A nice start to the trip.

Satiated by our lunch, we returned to the El-Rei Dom Manuel to check-in. This small hotel is perfectly located, alongside the old village wall and below the castle, overlooking the surrounding countryside. The French doors in our room opened to provide an expansive view. The hotel has dedicated parking bays in front, so I felt confident in the security of our motorcycle and trailer.

We headed out to visit the castle. It can be reached via the town’s cobbled streets but where is the fun in that, when you can climb the ancient walls? From the town’s old entrance gate, the walls rise steeply up the ridge line, towards the castle. It was quite a thrill to be able to climb the steps on the inside of the wall, imagining how the town’s defenders might have done the same, so many years ago. It’s more strenuous to get to the castle this way, but well worth the effort.

The castle dates back to the end of the 9th century, when its construction (between 876-877) was initiated by Ibn Maruan (aka Ibne Maruane) who was a military and religious leader. In the 12th century, King Dom Afonso Henriques claimed Marvão from the Moors, during the Reconquista, and the castle became an important stronghold for the new kingdom of Portugal. Its strategic location near to the Spanish frontier gave it an important role in border control. The town received its first charter from King Dom Sancho II in 1226. The castle was enhanced, and the town was fortified in the 14th century, under the orders of King Dom Dinis. The castle went on to play an important military role in several conflicts, ranging from the War of Restoration (1640-1668) to the Civil War (1832-1834) and the Rebellion of Maria da Fonte and Patuleia (1846-1847).

The castle walls are an impressive sight to this day and must have been quite formidable in their heyday. There is a small admission fee to access the castle. We took advantage of a package deal that also gave access to the Church of Santa Maria and the small Municipal Museum.

Upon entering the castle, one of the first points of interest is the old cistern which is one of the largest in the castles of Portugal. At 46 meters long and 10 meters high, it could hold enough water to last six months during times of siege. Passing through a couple of internal walls and watch towers, access is then gained to the Albacar (parade ground) which is the largest area within the castle. Further into the castle is the keep, the most impenetrable structure that has no windows – only arrow slits. Walking along the walls and ramparts affords panoramic views in all directions.

The Municipal Museum is housed inside an old church building. It displays a mix of religious artefacts, historical clothing and military memorabilia. A visit only takes a few minutes.

The Igreja Paroquial de Santa Maria de Marvão (Parish Church of Santa Maria) dates back to the 14th century. The interior includes a beautifully ornate ceiling and a carved altar.

We spent some time walking around the town, enjoying its narrow lanes and its old buildings. I marvelled at the low height of some of the doorways and enjoyed finding some of the old granite mail slots on the walls of some houses.

After nightfall, the town seems to go to sleep early. After eating dinner at the hotel, we had a wander around the lanes, but all was quiet and the streets were empty. One of the castle walls is illuminated at night though, with revolving colours.

Day Two – Monsanto, Sortelha and Belmonte

The next morning, we left Marvão with low clouds bathing the castle, for the 153km ride to Monsanto. But just a few kilometers away from Marvão, we stopped briefly to take some distant photos of another hilltop castle, at Castelo de Vide. Within minutes, the clouds lifted from over the town, revealing a bright sky. A proper visit will have to wait for another trip to this area – so much to see!

Our first destination for the day was the iconic village of Monsanto that, in 1938, was named the most Portuguese village in Portugal. Human occupation can be traced back to the Paleolithic age and archeological evidence points to Lusitanian, Visigoth, Roman and Arabic occupation. The village is built on a boulder-strewn hill, with several of the houses incorporating the boulders into their structures.

Navigating the narrow, cobbled streets on a large motorcycle with a trailer attached is not advisable. Upon realising the difficulty posed by the roads, I turned around and parked the bike in the Bulwark parking area, on the main road into the village, with its cannon pointing to the surrounding countryside. We then walked back up the hill to explore on foot. The tourist information office was closed, so our hopes of obtaining a map were dashed. But, as we wandered around, we found that several points of interest had information signs posted, in both Portuguese and English.

Most of the village houses are built in the traditional manner, using granite blocks. They sit alongside meandering cobbled roads and footpaths, that contribute to an enjoyable walk through the village. But the most fascinating of the buildings are those that are built around or under huge boulders. I had to admire the ingenuity of the builders, who realised that, rather than being an obstruction, the huge rocks provided an opportunity to save on building materials, as the boulders themselves became walls or roofs for the homes that they built. The process also required enormous faith that the boulders will not shift or fall!

Moving further up the hill, above the houses, there is a collection of pig pens (furdas). Earlier in the village’s history, the pig pens were located amongst the homes but, for public health reasons, they were later moved away from the houses, to the paths that lead to the castle. The pig pens are built using a traditional method: a circular shaped shelter built from dry stone walls with a domed roof, with a small patio surrounded by a dry stone wall. Some of the pig pens were also built against existing boulders.

The castle (Castelo de Monsanto) at the top of the hill dates from 12th century and the Order of the Templars had a hand in its construction. It looked like a long slog up the hill to reach it, wearing our motorcycle gear, so we gave it a pass. However, we did enjoy the views from above the village.

For lunch, we popped into the Adega Tipica O Cruzeiro restaurant, located on the main road below the Bulwark parking area. With little visible signage outside, it is easy to miss, as it sits inside a modern multi-use building. But it is worth seeking out, as the dining area has gorgeous views, courtesy of its large windows. And the food is delicious.

Another hour of riding (52km) through beautiful countryside brought us to Sortelha, another of the historic walled villages of the region, that is considered to be one of the oldest towns in Portugal. Sortelha received its charter from King Sancho II in 1228 and was the seat of the municipality until 1855.

Whilst visiting cars were parked outside the old walls, we rode through the historic gate (wide enough for a car) and parked in the shade of an old Southern Nettle tree (Celtis australis) with a height of 17 meters and a crown diameter of almost 19 meters.

The tourist information centre provided us with a map that helped us find out way around the village. The main point of interest was the 13th century castle. The walls and the keep of the castle are still intact and make for an interesting visit (with no admission fee).

The old wall still encircles the village, with three gates providing points of access. Outside the Nova Gate is a cemetery, as well as a church and a chapel. Within the walls, the houses are built with granite and feature traditional red-tiled roofs. It is considered to be one of the best preserved of the historical towns.

After enjoying a cold beer at a small outdoor bar in the village, we moved on to our final destination for the day.

The historic village of Belmonte and its castle are located half an hour (20km) from Sortelha, but our destination was on the outskirts of Belmonte. The Pousada Convento de Belmonte is a converted Franciscan convent from the 13th century. It now serves as a hotel and restaurant whilst maintaining many of the historical features of the building.

Rather than walk the 1.8 km to visit Belmonte and the castle, we opted to stay at the pousada where we enjoyed afternoon cocktails followed by a very tasty dinner. It was a nice way to relax after a couple of days on the road.

Day Three – Centum Cellas, Castelo Mendo, Trancoso and Marialva

It had rained throughout the night but we were greeted by rainbows in the morning. We hoped that they signalled an end to the bad weather but we were wrong. One of the benefits of travelling with a trailer is that we can carry riding gear for different weather situations. So, we switched to clothing for cold, wet weather and set out for the day.

Just a few kilometers away from the pousada is the Tower of Centum Cellas. This Roman structure dates back to the 1st century AD and is perhaps the best preserved Roman structure in Portugal. There has been some debate around the purpose of the structure, with suggestions including a prison and a temple, among others. But excavations around the structure reveal that it was actually part of a larger building, leading experts to conclude that it was the villa of Lucius Caecilius, a wealthy Roman citizen and tin merchant. The two-floored tower is believed to have been the grand central feature of the villa. It is impressive that it has survived for around 2,000 years. [source] The rain held off enough for me to walk around the structure and take some photos.

We left Centum Cellas to continue the 63km ride to Castelo Mendo, but the weather was horrendous. The wind became very strong and I had to contend with a mix of strong gusts that wanted to push me across the road, and sustained cross winds that required me to lean into them to maintain a straight line. The winds had also blown branches, pine cones and other vegetation onto the roads, furthering the hazardous conditions. If that were not bad enough, the temperature had dropped to 9 degrees (48F) and there were occasional rain squalls. It was extremely unpleasant and resulted in me reducing my speed for our safety. The ride to Castelo Mendo took about two hours instead of the expected one hour and ten minutes. I was glad to reach the village and get off the bike for a while. At least the rain had stopped by the time we reached the village, allowing a more pleasant experience as we walked around the narrow lanes.

Castelo Mendo is another old walled village with cobbled streets and granite houses. It has been settled since the Bronze Age and is known to have been subsequently occupied by the Romans. The current layout and fortified nature of the town dates back to the medieval period, when the town was part of the Christian Reconquest in the 12th and 13th centuries. Whilst the town did have a castle, little of it remains – mostly a wall with a gate. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our visit. Whilst there, we popped into a little shop selling local crafts. Bev picked up a pair of hand-made sheepskin mittens for only €5 – an incredible bargain! They were immediately put to use for the next segment of the ride.

We had another 63km to ride to Trancoso, still with a mix of cold temperatures, occasional rain and gusty winds. Yet again, as we reached our destination, the rains stopped. Trancoso is another walled town, but has wider streets and seems more modernised than the others. It is now encircled by a larger, modern town of the same name. It was of strategic military importance throughout the Medieval period. It was involved in conflicts between Christians and Muslims and, subsequently, between Portugal and neighbouring kingdoms. The village was fortified between the 14th-15th centuries and played a notable role in Portugal’s  history.

Our main focus was to visit the castle which is said to have been one of the most important fortifications in the region, between its foundation in the 8-9th century, until the 15th century, during which time it was the stage for numerous conflicts and battles. The donjon defensive system, from the period between the 9th and 12th centuries, is still present and is considered to be one of the best preserved systems of the period in the country. Following alterations in the Gothic period, the donjon includes five rectangular towers built into the wall. Whilst we were able to enter the keep, access to its roof was closed due to the high winds. Archeological excavations are currently taking place within the walls of the castle.

After visiting the castle we were ready for some food, so we popped into the nearest place we could find – Cantinho dos Arcos – for some lunch. We had a brief walk around the town but didn’t stay long. We still had to battle the elements for another 24km to Marialva.

Marialva Castle is located at the top of a hill and is somewhat accessible by narrow cobbled streets. With the trailer attached, we opted to park next to a small café below the castle and walk the rest of the distance.

Marialva was settled by the Aravi, a Lusitanian people, it was later conquered by the Romans, then the Arabs until the final victory of King Fernando the Great in his historic conquest of the Beiras in 1063. It consists of three distinct areas: the citadel inside the castle, now depopulated; the Arrabalde that extends the village beyond the walled area; and Devesa, located to the south of the citadel, which extends across the plain to the Marialva stream, and is based on the ancient Roman city. [source]

This citadel area was the most intact castle that we visited as, in addition to the walls and keep, many of the structures within the castle walls were still present (albeit mostly in ruins). This made it easier to visualize the castle functioning as a community within the walls. We had arrived about 4.30pm, and the castle closes at 5.00, so we had to rush around to see most of it. Nonetheless, it was an interesting visit. It would have been better with more time and a guide map that explained the functions of each building.

Another 15 minutes on the bike and we reached our accommodation for the night, Casa do Redondo in the Quinta da Bacelada, situated in the village of Rabaçal, near to Meda. This guest facility currently has five guest rooms (with an intention to add four more in the future), and is part of an 18th century manor. Also located on the grounds of the quinta is an equestrian centre with a riding school and stables. It is also equipped to host social events, such as weddings.

After being shown to our room, we were given a tour of the facilities. Opposite the guest rooms is the main house. The owners of the property live upstairs, but the ground floor is entirely accessible to guests. It includes a lounge, a games room, a breakfast room and a bar. There is also a nearby pool.

We were taken to visit the stables where we admired the beautiful Lusitano horses – a Portuguese breed that is closely related to the Spanish Andalusian horses. At the time of our visit, three of the mares had foals, aged between 2-3 months. The cute albino foal really captured our attentions.

Unfortunately, evening dining options are sparse in the immediate area. Rather than getting back on the bike to another town, we opted to walk to the nearest café – Restaurante Café Santos – about 1.8km away. It is a simple little place with a very limited menu, but the host was gracious and friendly and we enjoyed a basic meal.

Day Four – Return to Porto

After an enjoyable continental breakfast at Casa do Redondo, it was time to return home to Porto. The fastest route would be on the auto-estrada, via Viseu. If the weather had still been miserable, that’s the route we would have taken. But the winds had died down and the weather was dry, so we decided to take a scenic route that would incorporate the N222 road, through the Douro Valley and alongside part of the Douro River. After reaching Regua, we would revert to the auto-estrada for the final stretch to Porto. The ride home covered 200km.

The N222 is a lovely scenic route, as it passes through the terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley. Sadly, there are not many places to pull over to photograph these splendid vistas. But I did manage to find a couple of places to stop.

The entire trip covered a total of 970 Kilometers (603 miles), spread over the four days.