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Exploring the rare palace/castles of Portugal

Not all castles are the same. In Portugal, most are walled defensive structures built to protect a region. They were built around a main keep, and housed soldiers placed there to defend them. But you also had forts and fortified palaces. Portugal has hundreds of cables, but very few walled palaces, a mix of the defensive and the high living. Most date from the 15thcentury, when King D. Afonso V gave the nobility unprecedented powers, and his wars in North Africa and expansion of trade brought wealth to Portugal enriching the noble class. All the palaces here date from that brief period, as Portugal transitioned from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance.


The Castle of Ourém,also known as Palace of the Condes de Ourém, is north of Santarém. Impressively perched high above the landscape and the Seiça River in a walled medieval village, it is often called one of the most beautiful Portuguese castles. The ornate façade hides a short period of glory, ending with a beheading.


As Portugal emerged as a nation, Ourém’s old Moorish and Roman fortifications in 1178 were rebuilt in a triangular shaped fortress. This early castle was royal, and played a role in internal fights and disputes. By the 14thcentury, the castle was offered to D. João Afonso Telo de Menezes, the 1stCount of Ourém. In the 15thcentury the counts built a massive palace in the castle under D. Afonso, 4thCount of Ourém. The family were part of the powerful Bragança clan, a major political player - and the castle had to reflect their power. But they crossed the very powerful king D. Joao II (1481-1495) who ordered  Fernando II, 3rdDuke of Braganza to be beheaded for crimes of treason in 1483. The family would soon recover, and all the Dukes of Bragança, including the kings and queens, were also Counts of Ourém. The castle would suffer a less noble fate, falling into abandonment when the Bragança made Vila Viçosa their base. It was made a national monument in 1910. Today, the castle stands 1,000 feet above sea level with a triangular layout, with ruined towers standing tall. The Northwest tower is known as the Tower of D. Mécia, after the unfortunate wife of D. Sancho II who was confined there. On the other front tower of the castle opens to the Terreiro de Santiago, with a statue of the Count D. Nuno Alvares Pereira in the center. Dark burns still scar the old walls.

The Paço do Condes is mostly in ruin. A secret covered passage joined the palace to a main keep. The Paço and the two flanking show traces of Venetian inspiration, with prominent brickwork that can be seen from miles away.


The Castle of Porto de Mós, also called the Castle of D. Fuas Roupinho, is south of Leiria.


Standing on a hill, in defense of the village, it looks like a fairytale castle from far off, with its green roofs and elaborate stonework. And, its name is linked to that of D. Fuas Roupinho, immortalized in the verses of Luís de Camões and in the legend of Nazaré. At the time of the Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, king D. Afonso Henriques (1112-85) advanced to the Tejo River, Porto de Mós became a strategic point in the defense of Leiria and Coimbra. The town had sea access then, and flourished. But as the area no longer needed defending, the castle became undefended.  In the middle of the 15thcentury, the son of the 1stDuke of Braganza, D. Afonso, 4thCount of Ourém and 1stMarques of Valença, had the medieval castle made into a Renaissance palace, a project that his descendants expanded. Today, the ruined palace at Porto de Mós is both Gothic and Renaissance. Five fancy towers reinforce its old walls. Green pyramidal turrets cap two, on the south side over the main gate, the remaining three are in ruins. The south façade features a combination of architectural elements from the 15thcentury. Two towers with windows flank it, and in the space between them there is a double veranda with edge vaults, composed of arches, interrupted in the center by a protruding buttress. Several sculptural elements enrich this section. Much of the palace is in ruin, but its elegance shines through, and has similarities to the Paço de Ourém.



The royal palace at the Castle of Leiria still stands watch from a  dominant position over the city and the River Lis, beautiful and imposing. By 1135, the king-to-be D. Afonso Henriques (1112-1185) saw Leiria as a vital southern defensive point for his new kingdom. The town was well defended, but it soon fell back to the Moors in 1137, was recaptured in 1139, and was retaken by Moors in less than a year. By 1142 it was Portuguese again, and the castle was rebuilt, with chapel to celebrate its reconquest..


After 2 times lost and 2 times reconquered, the castle of Leiria would be a staging point in the conquest of Santarém and Lisbon and in the construction of the country. As the nation grew, Leiria castle grew and housed numerous royal Cortes. This was where representatives of the nobility, clergy and people were called to meet. King  D. Dinis (1279-1325) expanded a palace, where he would live with his Queen Santa Isabel. The castle was expanded, and the vast palace rose in its walls.


Under D. Joao I (1385-1433), who celebrated the marriage of his son D. Afonso (future Count of Barcelos and Duke of Bragança) in 1401, came the construction of the so-called Paços da Rainha or New Paços, in which the Gothic spans with huge rooms and halls.


The ruined palace is a major attraction today, and a rare royal castle that housed the king.



The castle of Santa Maria da Feira already existed when the Count D. Henrique became the Count of Portucalense County in 1095. Back then the Castle of Feira was, along with those at Guimarães, Faria and Neiva were the key defenders of the realm. The castle slowly lost its importance as the new nation of Portugal grew south. King D. Afonso V in 1448 made Rui Vaz Pereira the first Count of Feira, giving him the old castle. He built the impressive palace that today defines the castle, with its pepper pot towers.

Santa_Maria_da_Feira _Castelo

The walls of the old castle remained, but inside a high new palace with a great hall looked much like castle in feudal lands. The palace had three floors, with a cistern and storage on the first floor. The second is entirely occupied by the Great Hall, with three fireplaces, a stove and four windows. The third floor was intended for the most intimate residential area. It features the rare medieval toilet, which is basically a hole in the wall.


The castle was restored to it 15thcentury appearance in the 20thcentury, with later add-ons being removed. Nonetheless, Feira is a massive castle, which offers a rare insight into the lives of the nobility in the 15thcentury.


The Castle of Alvito, in the Alentejo, rised from the southern plains northwest of the city of Beja. Walled, but is clearly a fortified palace.


A region that had florished since Roman times, Alvito was given by King D. Alfonso III (1248-1279) to his chancellor, Estevão Anes, in 1255. Alvito hosted the king in 1265. In death (1279), without heirs, Estevão Anes bequeathed in testament to the Order of the Trinity, the town, the castle and the lands of Alvito.


In 1475, King D. Afonso V (1438-1481) granted the title of Baron Alvito to João Fernandes da Silveira, a royal official. A few years later, in 1482, King João II of Portugal (1481-1495) granted the baron and his wife the right to rebuild a castle there, granting them the lordship of the town and neighboring villages. According to an epigraphic plaque on the entrance gate, the works of the present castle begun in 1494, under the 2nd baron of Alvito, D. Diogo Lopes da Silveira. It would be completed in 1504. Windows were added to the walls, and ornate stonework made the castle look quite fancy. This building has been classified, since 1910, as a National Monument and an example of the best of the Portuguese architecture, which combines the architecture of the fortress and palatial residence and of Islamic, Gothic and Manueline design. The Pousada do Alvito opened in 1993 after the restoration of the castle.



The Castle of Viana do Alentejo dominates the village equidistant between the cities of Évora and Beja. The castle is considered, along with the Castle of Alvito, one of the best examples of fortified palaces of the late Gothic period. Its name, Viana do Alentejo, is linked to the Meneses, the first Counts of Viana who stood out in the Portuguese campaigns in North Africa in the 15thcentury.


The construction of the castle and the village wall began in 1313. Under the reign of King D. Joao II (1481-1495), these defenses were expanded, as the Royal Cortes met in the town from 1481 to 1482. The king lived in the castle that year, with his court.


Work continued into the 16thcentury under the direction of the architects Martim Lourenço, Diogo and Francisco de Arruda. The old castle grew into a palace and church. The moats and bridges were filled in. The castle is built on a pentagonal plan, with 5 round towers with pepper pot roofs. Inside the walls are town 16thcentury churches, and the cross of Viana do Alentejo. This is all that remain for the royal residence.


The Alentejo Castle of Evoramonte looks like a giant wedding cake from the distance. Its massive keep sits in a quadrangular plan with circular turrets at the corner, mixing elements of Gothic with Renaissance of Italian inspiration. Internally the palace is divided into three floors, with vaulted ceilings, based on stone pillars. In the wider turrets at the base than at the top, the visors are torn. The walls are decorated with knots carved in stone, typical of Manueline style.

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At the time of the Reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, the town was taken from the Moors by the legendary Geraldo Sem Pavor, around 1160, who built the new castle.


Over then next 300 years the castle was expanded and grew. Eventually, the castle became part of the House of Bragança. The tower of the original castle damaged by the earthquake of 1531, the following year, under the direction of D. Teodósio de Bragança, it was rebuilt in the form of a Palace of Italian Renaissance inspiration, with a stonework attributed to the architects Diogo and Francisco de Arruda. The palace, still in good condition, became famous as the site of the signing of the Convention of Evoramonte (May 26, 1834) concluding the Civil War. The castle was made a National Monument in 1910. Today it is in very good condition, and is a rare surviving example of this period.

The keep offers amazing view over the plain of the Alentejo.



The Castle of Penedono ,also called the  Castle of Magriço, in the Centro, is set north of Viseu.Set right in the heart of the village, small medieval structure is a mixture of defensive fortification and manorial home. The castle dates to the 10thcentury, built after the lands were secured from the Moors. But the town would change hands several times until  1064. King D. Sancho I (1185-1211) rebuilt the castle, and it would be rebut several times. What we see today is mostly from the 14th century, when King D. Fernando (1367-1383) let D. Vasco Fernandes Coutinho (Marques of Marialva), lord of Leomil, turn the castle into a palace.


The secession crisis of 1383-1385, had a huge impact on the Coutinhos. Unlike many nobles, they were loyal to the Master of Avis, proving their valor in battle after battle. From then on, the Coutinho were at every event in Portuguese history. But one would become a hero thanks to Portugal’s greatest poet.  Álvaro Gonçalves Coutinho, a knight nicknamed Magriço (the thin one), was immortalized by Luis de Camões in Os Lusíadas. Magriço’s adventures on his way to defend the honor of 12 English ladies were legendary. The Coutinho’s went on to fight in North Africa. But their heroics came at a cost. Many died in battle, and by the 16thcentury, the family had died off. Their castle fell into ruin. Centuries later, the home of the great Coutinhos was restored. The grand castle today soars over the town, with high walls and elaborate towers. A granite square at it gate features a pillory. The inside of the castle is ruined but many of the features of the palace are standing.


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