We stared rather bewildered at what looked like an enormous tank cut out of rock in the centre of the beautiful ancient village of Castelo Novo.
Happily there was an information board nearby which informed us that it was a ‘Lagariça’, where for many centuries the local inhabitants annually used to tread their grapes! It was a fascinating introduction to earlier communal life in this, the first of the historic granite villages we were to visit over the next couple of days.
Castelo Novo is built on a hill and its narrow granite-paved streets go around the slopes until they reach the keep of the castle above, which has far-reaching views. Originally constructed in the 12th century, but badly damaged by the 1755 earthquake, this castle was described as ‘new’ (novo) because another one already existed nearby. This is how the whole village came to acquire the name of Castelo Novo.
A walk around the streets revealed many pleasing features. Water seemed to be running down little channels everywhere and there were some surprisingly sophisticated manor houses. Perhaps the highlight for us was the town hall in the main plaza. Embedded into its façade there is an imposing baroque fountain and, in front, a decorated ‘pelourinho’.
The southern group of Portugal’s granite villages – Castelo Novo, Idanha-a-Velha, Monsanto, Sortelha and Belmonte – are situated roughly in a circle to the southeast of the Serra da Estrela. Therefore, it was easy to explore them by car on good winding roads through gentle countryside.
This was quite a contrast to the steep mountain landscape home to the schist villages we had previously explored. Idanha-a-Velha is just a short drive away from Castelo Novo, and is a charming old settlement. We loved it! There was something rather mystical about this village, with its modest houses and long history back to Roman times. It really did have that ‘ancient’ feel!
On arrival, we entered the village through the old Roman wall, inspected some of the archaeological digs that are still in progress, and admired the austere simplicity of the aged cathedral – the Igreja de Santa Maria.
The centre of the village is dominated by the village’s mother church, a simple pelourinho and a wonderful old tree – that had an uncanny resemblance to the ‘Whomping Willow’ from the Harry Potter books!
Nearby was the empty property of Casa Grande (known as ‘Solar of the Moroccan family’), looking completely out of place with the remainder of the village’s architecture. It is a huge incomplete house built in the 20th century by local landowners. What a mistake!
Although it was Easter during our visit to these granite villages, we had Castelo Novo and Idanha-a-Velha almost to ourselves. Not so when we arrived at Monsanto! Perched precariously on a hilltop with commanding views in all directions, Monsanto is really rather special. The problem is, everybody else thinks so as well.
The only way to ascend to the village was either a long tiring walk or a shuttle bus from the busy square far below. We chose the bus. Monsanto’s houses are built amongst hundreds of gigantic boulders and, therefore, offer the visitor a truly memorable experience.
The dwellings stretch right up to a Knights Templar castle on the top of the hill, constructed early in the 13th century. Fans of popular TV series might recognise Monsanto as one of the filming locations for ‘House of the Dragon’, prequel to the ‘Game of Thrones’ series.
As we wandered upwards through the narrow winding streets, we became absolutely fascinated with the houses themselves, many of which were constructed from carefully cut granite blocks and attached to the nearest giant boulder!
Traditionally, the locals were dedicated to handicraft and pastoral activities, but these days, we guess they make a comfortable living from the many visitors. In spite of the huge numbers of tourists thronging Monsanto that day, we were enchanted by this rather strange and unique village.
Sortelha was a complete contrast! We parked right outside the main gate of this small scenic walled community and, within two minutes, had strolled to its very centre. Surrounded by a ring of thick granite walls, it is overlooked by its 12th century castle, built on a formidable pile of rocks.
It is one of the oldest villages in Portugal and keeps its medieval features intact in the architecture of its perfectly preserved granite houses. It was almost like a village in miniature and absolutely enchanting. We needed a good sense of balance and a ‘head for heights’ whilst exploring the interior of the castle as there were no safety features on the walk around the path on top of the walls. Long drops on both sides!
The Largo do Pelourinho sits just outside the castle entrance and contains the building that was the former town hall and gaol. This open space was the ideal spot to sit, contemplate and quietly absorb the atmosphere of this truly beautiful old village – perhaps our favourite of them all. It was the perfect place to dream up a bewitching fairy tale of kings, queens, handsome princes, damsels in distress and valiant knights!
Belmonte was the final stop on our historic villages tour. It is the largest of all the villages – a town really – and has a strong connection with the Jewish Community. It is, perhaps, the town in Portugal with the strongest Jewish presence and it stands out because it was a unique case within the Iberian Peninsula.
Here, the Hebrew culture and tradition have lasted since the early 16th century until today. The old Jewry is worth exploring and has a maze of old granite houses, a synagogue and a Jewish Museum.
Belmonte Castle stands proud at the highest point in town and is worth a visit but, in our view, has little historic atmosphere – too much modern renovation work inside! Pedro Álvares Cabral is Belmonte’s most famous son. He discovered Brazil in April 1500 and his statue proudly stands in a prominent place in the town centre.
We thought that all Portugal’s historic schist and granite villages successfully managed to preserve their own special history and traditions. These ancient communities lie in the country’s most beautiful landscapes, their castles perched on mountain tops and their houses seemingly tumbling down steep hillsides.
Some were built in defensive positions on the border with Spain and so have tales to tell of past military campaigns. However, today they are peaceful and happy to welcome visitors.
Now we all have the opportunity to learn so much more of Portugal’s history, culture and fantastic heritage. These historic villages are definitely worth a visit!
By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 19 years ago. The couple lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s. Although now retired, Nigel still continues to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.