Back Roads – Marvão to Monsanto – Discovering the Portuguese Frontier

Watching a dreamy sunrise cast the day’s first light on the castle walls, we descended into a misty valley just awakening.  Sheep filled the road as a shepherd led his flock through a gate onto the steep slope below Castelo Marvão.  For how many centuries has this daily ritual been happening?  Layers of history abound along the remote Portuguese frontier with Spain, and visual remnants of it are around every twist in the lane.  At the foot of Marvão, the village of Portagem takes its name from an old toll bridge over the River Sever that was the entry point into Portugal for Jews expelled from Spain at the start of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. If they couldn’t pay the toll they stayed in a refugee camp along the border.IMG_8356Monsanto, a village where the homes are built under, between or above gigantic boulders was our day’s main destination, 134 km (83 miles) away, leaving us plenty of time for whims.  And if we still had energy and gas, we’d do a quick border crossing into Spain, just because we were so close and have never been, before backtracking to spend the night in Castelo Branco.  Because it looked so beautiful and intriguing, we made a brief detour into the small town of Castelo de Vide, just a few miles from Marvão.IMG_8264This quaint village sits on a gently sloping hill with ancient lanes worthy of exploration that will have to wait until our return to the Alentejo region. It too has a castle, built in 1310 by the order of King Dom Dinis, but the city itself was not walled.  Just outside Castelo de Vide we spotted a small chapel sitting high on a ridge. “Oh, let’s go.” Seeing a small sign, we braked and did a quick U-turn which led us up a sharp set of switch backs through a forested landscape.  Parking under a canopy of old growth cork trees, we climbed a steep staircase to Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Penha and were rewarded with a spectacular view of Castelo de Vide and the surrounding countryside below as hawks soared above us. Far away to the southeast the silhouette of Castelo Marvão rode the horizon..We learned that the chapel was built in the early 16th century in commemoration of a miracle: Our Lady protected a shepherd from robbery by turning day into night on the mountain, thus foiling the plot. This miracle was witnessed by the villagers of Castelo de Vide far below, who then constructed this chapel upon the mountain.

A little farther down the road an ancient, intricately paved pathway called the Calçada Medieval crosses the way.  This footpath dates to the 12th century and is believed to follow an older Roman road that was the shortest walking distance between Castelo de Vide and Portalegre, 17.2km or 10.5 miles away.IMG_8299Huge rocks piled on top of each other resembled man-made megalithic monuments at the entrance to a quarry along our route.  The owner perhaps got his inspiration from the numerous megalithic sites in the Alentejo area.IMG_8434Monsanto rises abruptly from the surrounding plains like a newly emerging volcano breaking through the crust of the earth and spewing huge boulders the size of small cottages atop one another in its tumultuous birth.  This unique and dramatic landscape has provided shelter since the Early Stone Age, and inhabitants incorporated these huge rocks into their dwellings and animal shelters.  In 1165 King Afonso gave the pile of rocks to the Knights Templar with the decree to keep the reconquered city in Christian hands.  As the Templars did wherever they went, they quickly set about building a castle at the summit.  Today, like so many other small villages in Portugal the place is nearly deserted, its youth moving to Lisbon or across the European Union for better opportunities.  Restaurants, small inns, day trippers and retirees from the cold of northern Europe now fill the void.  We paced ourselves for the steep climb to the castle, stopping often to take photos or investigate a narrower lane that veered off to one side or the other.  Oddly, some brave locals would drive their cars up the exceedingly narrow, cobbled lane to get as close to their homes as possible, drop off their parcels and then back-up all the way downhill as there wasn’t any room to turn around. Amazingly, it appears they never scratched their cars.

Just before reaching the castle the ruins of Capela de São Miguel can be seen jutting above a low ridge.  This small chapel is surrounded by graves, all facing east, chiseled into the granite rock.  The lids to the tombs and the bodies inside are long gone, but the clearly human shape of these stone coffins is still visible.  There are many hiking options available at this point, so be sure to bring plenty of water.  Watching our footsteps, we slowly descended the hill back into town.  Returning to the village it was easier to spot a number of abandoned, dilapidated dwellings with collapsed roofs.  These are the remnants of Portugal’s antiquated inheritance laws, where nothing can be done with a property until all the beneficiaries agree. This results in homes slowly deteriorating until the roofs and walls collapse.  It’s sad to see a once charming stone home in ruins.

With the sun still high in the sky we decided to make our run to the border and set our feet in Spain, if only for a few minutes.  Set back from the main road, the spire of Idanha-a-Velha’s cathedral caught our attention.  The cathedral has been converted into a museum containing a large collection of Roman epigraphs, inscriptions in stone, found in the area, but unfortunately it was closed mid-week in March.  One of the oldest villages in Portugal with a recorded history that is dated to 16 AD, it has been occupied by Celts, Romans, Visigoths, and Arabs. In contrast with most other early towns in the region Idanha-a-Velha does not occupy any high ground for defense; its walls rise suddenly from flat terrain. Remnants of its wide defensive wall and a roman era bridge across the Rio Ponsul can still be walked on. The mortar-less stonework of the buildings here is admirable for its precision and beauty. Today it’s a charming backwater with the feel of a large fortified villa instead of a small town that once had a population in the thousands. The day we stopped, a woman hanging laundry to dry, an elderly gentleman sleeping on some stairs in the sun, taking his siesta, and storks building their nests were the only signs of life.

The hills flanking the road to Segura were covered with olive groves, their silver green leaves twirling in a light breeze, creating multiple shades of green undulating across the countryside like waves rushing onto a beach.  The modern Ponte Romana de Segura now crosses the Rio Erges, a tributary of the Tagus River, where a Roman bridge once stood.  We made it to Spain! And nobody gave a hoot, but us. As part of the European Union there was no border control post between the two countries. Hey, we’re old school and like those passport stamps.  We parked in Spain and walked back to the center of the span for photos by the plaque demarcating the border between the two countries with Segura sitting atop its hill in the background.

A bell tower and a small park with a panoramic view of the border now dominates the high ground in Segura, its castle battlements dismantled long ago and used to build other structures.  Only a pensioner with his dogs shared the view with us.  Twelve hundred people once called Segura home in its heyday in the 1950’s. Today, because it is so far away from everything, the village has a population that hovers around 100 souls.IMG_8675We arrived in Castelo Branco just in time to watch the sunset from the miradouro above the city.  Located just below the overlook, TRYP Colina Do Castelo Hotel was our home for two nights.  https://www.trypcolinacastelo.com/  Business style hotels aren’t our first choice for accommodations, but with its free parking and excellent location we were sold on it.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

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