Portugal in the Middle Ages was a crossroads of cultures, with hostile Moors to the south and rival Spanish kingdoms to the east. Today, Portugal’s more than 140 forts and castles are persisting monuments to the nation’s will to be independent. While larger and mightier countries were absorbed by others, Portugal, with its proud castles and the soldiers who defended them, evolved.
As a place, Portugal has well-defined geographic boundaries, with the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the west, and rivers and mountains to the east and north. It occupies the westernmost portion of the Iberian Peninsula, and is about the size of the American state of Indiana. The country is a place of topographical contrasts as well, which is common on a peninsula. The areas around Porto in the north are hilly and green, with fertile river valleys and a rocky coast. The green mountains turn less fertile as they spread to the east, and become ferociously high as they move south to the Beiras. Along the coastal Beiras, the topography becomes hillier, with pine forests and a sandy coast. The area around the capital of Lisbon is known for its white rocks, olive fields, and open spaces. The great river Tejo separates the nation in half, with the yellow hills and cattle fields of the Lisbon area on the north bank. To the east lie the granite hills of the Beiras. The area south of the river is the vast golden plains known as the Alentejo. Finally, the red cliffs and green hills of the Algarve lie to the south.
Granite Mountains and the Lines of the East
The Beiras along the western frontier with Spain is the heart of ancient castle country, with every major town and village having some form of fortification. The area is also the most mountainous of the country, with the Serra de Estrela range reaching to almost 6,000 feet above sea level. Secondary roads can be very windy and often uphill, and some are closed by snow in the winter. Hiking, hang gliding, and rock climbing is found in the Serra de Estrela and Serra de Malcata natural parks. The Beiras end at the Tejo River, which became the border between the new kingdom of Portugal and the Moorish lands to the south in 1147. Here, a line of castles rose under religious order designed to defend the newborn nation, while allowing a base to launch the Reconquest. The ring and line of castles, granite landscapes, and friendly folk make it a wonderful off-the-beaten-path adventure.
Penadono (E229) - To the Portuguese, this tiny town will always be associated with the great Álvaro Gonçalves Coutinho, a 15th century knight nicknamed “Magriço,” or “the thin one.” This roaming knight was immortalized in the masterpiece of Portuguese literature “Os Lusiadas,” by Luis Vaz de Camões. The tales goes that Magriço was one of 12 knights who responded to a call for help from 12 English ladies, whose honor needed to be defended. While 11 of the knights traveled by sea to fight the offending English knights, Magriço chose to follow a land route to England. On the day of the fight for the ladies' honor, the eleven Portuguese prepared to take the field of honor against the twelve Englishmen. Suddenly, Magriço, fresh from all sorts of adventures, appeared on horseback and led his comrades to a resounding victory.
The castle of Penadono belonged to the Coutinhos, and is one of the most magnificent in all of Portugal. Its reddish towers loom over the small town, rising to fantastic heights. The castle dates to the 10th century, but fanciful structure that dominates the town of Penadono today is mostly from the 15th century. The ornate towers, mighty red walls and imposing location guard nothing but an empty space that once was the palace of the Coutinho family and a endless view.
Marialva (EN102) - The village of Marialva is really two places: A small village of humble homes, and a long abandoned walled town. One of only a handful of ghostly walled villages in Portugal, what remains of Marialva is its roofless houses and empty square with its fine pillory. The place seems haunted, and its history confirms that Marialva was a stage for dramatic happening. The town predates the Roman invasion, and was later taken by the Visigoths. After the 711 invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by the Moors, the entire area around Marialva was abandoned until conquered by the Portuguese in the 12th century. But neighboring Castile also claimed the lands of the Côa River, and only in a 1297 treaty did Portugal gain full title to the area. The castle was rebuilt and expanded, and the town had returned to prosperity.
But, the town’s fortunes were aligned with the powerful Távoras family, whose feud with the powerful dictator, the Marques de Pombal, in the 18th century led to the abandonment of the village. Today the granite walls are ruined, but in good shape overall with a central keep, a few castled towers, and dozens or ruined homes. The roofless remains of the parish church preside over the town square, with its delicately caped pillory. Time stopped in Marialva, but the empty ruins are rich in history and memories.
Sabugal (EN233) - “A castle with fives sides is not be found in Portugal,” says the old song, “If not on the banks of the Côa, in the village of Sabugal.” And true to its word, the keep of the castle of Sabugal is pentagonal. It is quite a castle at that. As the first walls rose in the 12th century’s Ogival style, the small town became a battleground, first between a young Portugal and the Moorish armies, and then between Portugal and Castile. A legend has it that the kings of both nations met in the castle in 1224 to work out the disputed border. Almost a century later, the lands were still in dispute, leading King D. Dinis to expand the castle, adding an unprecedented five sided keep, a solid new ring of walls, and a subtle message to the Castilians: This was a Portuguese town. Sabugal retained its importance in 15th century when King D. Manuel I ordered it repaired, adding elegant balconies with murder holes, and cross-shaped archer’s loops. The town played an important role in the 1640s during the war of independence from Spain, with the legendary adventurer and soldier Bras Garcia de Mascarenhas winning important battles in the region until his rebellious spirit landed him a cell in one of Sabugal’s towers. From his prison he wrote a series of moving letters that eventually convinced the king, D. João IV to free him. Today, the restored castle retains its ancient might with well preserved rings of circular, delicately castellated walls, and a five-sided keep that still proclaims: This is Portugal.
Sortelha (10 km south of Sabugal) - Few granite towns seem so lost in the past as Sortelha. Rising as the tip of a granite hill, Sortelha with its few hundred inhabitants is a magical place. Not only is the original town still enclosed in uneven walls, but also the houses have barely evolved from the 14th century. It is a place of timeless beauty lost in a modern world. Here once stood a Celtic village, followed by a Roman town, and finally in the 13th century, a Portuguese frontier village. In 1228 D. Sancho I ordered the town refortified. It was repaired over the centuries, but eventually lost its military significance and the castle was abandoned. Yet, it remained in relatively good condition, and today is a wonderful example of an early Portuguese castle. The village’s partially ruined town walls and door less gates welcome the visitor to a place of granite faced elders, roaming chickens, and donkeys in the streets. The visitor is still greeted with a “Good Day,” by the locals. The castle itself lies at the center of the town and is ship-like and simple, built of square granite rocks, and a simple keep. The Ogival doors, simple balcony with murder hole, and amazing views make Sortelha a true voyage to another time.
Idanha-a-Velha (E332) - At its height, the Roman city of Igaeditânia boasted a population of 200,000. It was once had a cathedral, and was a major center of commerce. Today, Idanha-a-Velha has about 350 inhabitants, and lots of memories. It began in 16 BC, when fertile and gold-rich soil led the Emperor Augustus to order the town built. It prospered with the Pax Romana. When that era ended in the 4th century, the town was destroyed by barbarians. The newly arrived Visigoths rebuilt and repaired the walls and town in the 6th century. The Visigoth King Womba was born in Idanha-a-Velha’s walls, and he had a great cathedral built. By the 8th century, the Moors had arrived, and Idanha-a-Velha found itself in a no man’s land between Christians to the north, and Moors to the south. The town was abandoned. D. Sancho I finally claimed Idanha-a-Velha for Portugal in the 13th century, but it never recovered its past glory.
It may also be the most fascinating place in Europe that has never been written about. This modest hamlet among the olive groves encapsulates the history of Portugal. Discreet signposts and explanations in Portuguese, French and English guide visitors through the landmarks of this living museum. Idanha-a-Velha was founded as a Roman garrison town called Egitanea in the first century and had more than 200,000 inhabitants at one time. The town was so important that it became a diocesan seat in 599 AD, with its own bishop until 1199. Idanha even had a center to coin gold. The Cathedral, the Baptistery and the Bishops' Palace all date from this period of development. The fall of the empire lead to a period of instability, during which the Visigothic King Wamba was born in its walls, legend has it.
Today Idanha-a-Velha (Idanha-the-Old) is a national monument with archaeological significance because of its landmarks and ruins.
The crumbling walls and towers still mask more ancient remains, like the ruins of a temple to Augustus under a tower from the 14th century. The town is living museum, as slow excavations reveal how such a tiny place had such a mighty past.
Amieira do Tejo (Off the IP6) - A perfect square, flanked by four towers, is the design of this unique castle. No other Portuguese castle shares its design, and none rises from the banks of a river with equal majesty. The castle was edified in the 14th century by Álvaro Gonçalves Pereira, a knight-turned-monk and father of the legendary Nuno Álvares Pereira. Today, its particular and square-like design is unique. The well-preserved main tower offers several amply Gothic rooms, and the original cistern and parade square are well maintained. Amieira retains a bold view, and special setting that transcends the centuries.
Belver (Off the IP6) - Lovely to view, that’s what Belver means. And, legend has it that King D. Sancho I ordered the knights of St. John of the Hospital to build a castle on a fine hill overlooking the Tejo River. In truth, D. Sancho’s job was not an easy one. He had to continue father’s fight and began against the Moors to the south, keep the peace with the Castilians, and hold onto a defensive line at the Tejo River. To achieve the final part, he turned to religious military orders, and in 1194, the knights of St. John began to build their castle, which they defended until 1350, when the Order of Crato took on the task. The castle served as a base for attack to the south, while its high walls and impressive keep deterred Moorish assaults. Belver’s castle still dominates the highest hill on a green and yellow bank of the Tejo, with a small village in its lap. The fine walls, which are in good repair, circle the keep in the shape of a pear. The walls offer breathtaking views of the Tejo, and a sense as to how Belver got its name.
In the foothills of the Beira/Centro de Portugal Region lies an ancient secret. The town of Belmonte there was the center of community life for “crypto” Jews, a people who, for centuries, practiced their religion in secret after it had been banned by the Inquisition. Judaism was abolished in 1496 in Belmonte and other Portuguese towns, but the Jewish people kept their rituals and faith alive in secret for centuries. As generations died away, the origins of these rituals were lost to memory. In the late 20th century, however, everything changed. When the connection was made between the traditions practiced in Belmonte and Judaism, Jewish communities around the world helped the Jews of Belmonte rediscover their roots. In 1993, the community welcomed its first rabbi in more that four centuries and, soon thereafter, Temple Bet Eliahou was built. Amazingly, many of the Jewish families still live in the town’s charming Judiaria, or Jewish Quarter, called the Bairro de Marrocos. Today, there are more than 180 Jews living in Belmonte. The town produces a kosher wine, and a small Jewish Museum that tells the story of this centuries-old community.
Belmonte is dominated by its 13th century castle that also served as a fortified manor in the 15th century to the family of Pedro Alvares Cabral, the discoverer of Brazil.
Northeast of town is a strange Roman tower known as Centum Cellas, a mysterious square, three-storied structure. Archeologists are unable to explain what its function may have been, with some believing it was a watch tower.
About half a mile from the center of the town is a former convent that has been renovated into a Pousada. It preserves its historical architecture, mixing it with stylish modern design, and the rooms, instead of numbers, have the names of the friars who once lived in the building.
As hard as this story is to imagine, some 500 years after the dark days of the Inquisition, Belmont’s Jewish community is thriving again, and openly practicing the faith they held onto for centuries.
The local Serra da Estrela tourism office has prepared a detailed tour of the region’s Jewish heritage.
Where to Stay:
Guarda - The coldest city in Portugal has good lodging at the centrally located Hotel de Turismo. The city retains much of its old fortifications, and its Gothic cathedral is considered one of the finest in the country. The town’s old quarter is quite picturesque.
Almeida - The star of the 18th century Vauban school of fortification, Almeida is a must see for its perfect star shaped walls.
The Pousadas de Portugal has converted many monuments into fine hotels that celebrate rather than destroy the buildings that they inhabit. Almeida’s Pousada, built in the old fort, is a comfortable way to enjoy this colorful frontier town. It is also a good point to explore the many castles that made this part of the country so inhospitable to invaliding armies.
Castelo Branco - True to its name, the old Templar’s Castle still watches over this regional capital. The famed gardens of the Bishop’s Palace have amazing statues of the kings of Portugal, with the three “Spanish Kings” half the size of their Portuguese counterparts.
Monsanto- This village in the clouds is a window to the past, and it commands a view of all below. Build at the foot of the castle and in the historic village walls, the Pousada of Monsanto is an experience in itself. And this is a great base to explore the surrounding countryside of the Beira Baixa.