We did the “tourist thing” this past weekend, visiting the town of Monsaraz in the Évora district of the Alentejo, about an hour’s drive from our house in Elvas (Vila Boim). The village prospers on tourism today, with a handful of restaurants, guesthouses, and artisan shops.
Perched high atop the surrounding countryside, Monsaraz is a charming village with a looming castle at its edge … spectacular views of the river Guadiana and Alqueva Dam … panoramic vistas showcasing many nearby Portuguese villages … and olive groves sprinkling the landscape. Its narrow schist streets are lined with whitewashed cottages.
The hilltop on which Monsaraz sits has long been coveted, as it affords far-reaching views over the surrounding plains and enabled communication between neighboring watchtowers. Since prehistoric times it has been occupied … more recently by Romans, Visigoths, Jews, Moors, and Christians, with control passing among Arabs, Spanish and the Portuguese until it finally settled in Portuguese hands in the 13th century.
This graceful, medieval village maintains its magic from ancient times like few others in the world. One of the oldest villages in Portugal, the historic village is well worth a visit! In 2017, Monsaraz won the category “Monument Villages” in the Seven Wonders of Portugal (Villages) competition.
Located on the top of the hill with a view over the river Guadiana with the wonderful Alqueva Dam – the largest artificial lake in Europe and one of the greatest Portuguese constructions of the century – its frontier with Spain has made it highly coveted by the peoples who disputed it.
The walls around Monsaraz guard a welcoming village including its ubiquitous castle. Towards the center of the village is the stunning Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Lagoa (church), built with schist in the 16th century on the ruins of a gothic church destroyed due to the black plague. Inside is the tomb of Gomes Martins Silvestre, a Knight Templar and first Alcaide (Mayor) of Monsaraz. With 17 sculpted figures on the front representing a funeral procession, the tomb is made of marble from nearby Estremoz. Not to be overlooked is the Jewish history here.
As we paid for a few purchases at the entrance (and exit) of Monsaraz, our eyes were drawn to a tiny house facing it with a “Vende-se” sign affixed. “Quanto custa?” I asked the shopkeeper. “Cento e cinquenta mil euros (€150,000),” she replied. Such are the prices of modernized housing within these idealized Portuguese places with such tightly-knit, small populations.
Monsaraz (782) reminds me of aspects that delighted us during earlier trips to Monsanto (616) and Belmonte (2,511) in the Castelo Branco district, as well as Estremoz (7,433) and Vila Viçosa (4,931) in Évora. (The last census was taken in 2011.)
Perhaps the most striking of all “marble towns” in the Alentejo is Vila Viçosa. In the 20th century, marble extraction and processing — responsible for around 93% of jobs in the municipality – along with tourism, became the main income sources of the municipality (although agriculture is still important for its economy). Vila Viçosa is known as the “Princess of Alentejo.” Truly an “open-air museum,” the name Vila Viçosa (lush village) is due to the fertility of its soils and the charming territory. Everywhere the eye wanders is marble: water fountains, monuments, mail boxes, street signs and benches, even garages.
The semi-arid plains of the eastern Alentejo stretch for miles before the pyramid-like settlement of Estremoz looms into view. To sum this place up in a few words, one could choose “historically significant,” “strategically situated,” and “dramatic.” Estremoz is one of the “white cities” in Alentejo. You can recognize it from far away by its white houses spread across a hill, embraced by old walls, and protected by the impressive fortified tower. During Portugal’s long struggle to retain its sovereignty in the face of invading Spanish armies, Estremoz always played a pivotal role.
Monsanto hangs off a mountaintop overlooking the Portuguese countryside, with views for miles. Houses are tucked between, on, and underneath giant boulders. Its tiny streets wind up a steep grade past red-roofed cottages tucked against mossy boulders. Some of the boulders are actually fitted with doors, leading to structures carved right into the rocky landscape.
The village has hardly changed in hundreds of years, and enjoys distinction in Portugal as a living museum. Dubbed the “most Portuguese town in Portugal” in 1938, the tribute is a bit of a misnomer since Monsanto technically is a village (aldea), not a town (vila).
Belmonte is one of Portugal’s most fascinating villages. Nestled in the interior of the country, close by the mountains of Serra da Estrela, it was here that thousands of Jewish people escaped from the Inquisition in Spain and settled safely around this area, close to the border with Spain. Belmonte is, perhaps, the Portuguese town with the strongest Jewish presence and it stands out because it was a unique case within the Iberian Peninsula, where Hebrew culture and tradition have lasted since the early 16th century until today. But the community here is one of the few on the Iberian Peninsula that has retained rituals and other elements of its identity that date back to the Spanish Inquisition, thanks to the sacrifices and commitment of successive generations of crypto-Jews—Jewish people forced to convert to Christianity under the Inquisition, but who continued to practice Judaism in secret.
Unlike Monsaraz, whose Casa da Inquisição (House of the Inquisition) and Centro Interativo da Historia Judaica memorialize the expulsion of 80 former Jewish residents persecuted by the Portuguese Inquisition some 500 years ago, Belmonte continues to celebrate its Sephardic heritage with a Jewish synagogue, museum, radio station, and specialty shops.
For such a small country, Portugal is packed with pristine architectural gems, well-preserved historical sites, and monumental natural beauty.
Released by the Carpenters in 1970, the lyrics of our love affair with the western side of Iberia can be summed up in their words:
“We’ve only just begun to live … So many roads to choose … Sharing horizons that are new to us … Watching the signs along the way … We’ll find a place where there’s room to grow … And yes, we’ve just begun.”
Shared here are personal observations, experiences, and happenstance that actually occurred to us as we moved from the USA to begin a new life in Portugal and Spain. Collected and compiled in EXPAT: Leaving the USA for Good, the book is available in hardcover, paperback, and eBook editions from Amazon and most online booksellers.