House under a rock, Monsanto

Marvelling At Monsanto, A Very Special Village In Central Portugal

The Portuguese countryside is speckled with villages but Monsanto holds the title of “Most Portuguese Village in Portugal”.

Although I’m sure the people of Monsanto in Central Portugal are proud of this accolade, I don’t really understand why their village won it. Far from being quintessentially Portuguese, it’s one of the most extraordinary places I’ve ever visited.

Monsanto village street with circular house on a boulder
Monsanto village street

Monsanto history

It’s also one of twelve official Historical Villages of Portugal, most of which played a strategic role in defending the country from various invaders over the centuries, sometimes by using cunning ploys to supplement their natural and man made defences.

Monsanto’s citadel had been under siege for over a year and was down to its last sack of grain and one calf. Knowing they were on the brink of surrender, the village leader apparently decided to feed the entire bag of grain to the calf which he then threw over the castle walls. When it exploded in front of the soldiers, they were amazed at how much food the village still had and abandoned their siege.

This victory is re-enacted every year on the first Sunday in May, but in a far less gory way. Nowadays, a village woman walks up to the castle carrying a pot of flowers on her head. When she reaches the top, she breaks the pot and the flowers spill out across the ground.

Here are some of the other things which make Monsanto, Portugal so special in my eyes

Monsanto’s massive boulders

The wow factor starts on the road leading to the village where two gigantic granite boulders lean against each other, dwarfing a small stone bench.

As you continue uphill, it becomes clear that the entire village has been built around boulders of varying sizes. They form part of the walls, floors and in some cases the roofs of the medieval stone cottages.

House under a rock, Monsanto
House under a rock, Monsanto, Portugal

To fully appreciate the way the village has evolved around the boulders, you need to wander through the cobbled streets until you find Petiscos e Granitos restaurant. Just past the restaurant on the right, you’ll see a small blue sign for the public toilets. Walk through the narrow alley to reach a viewpoint that overlooks the village and the rocky landscape beyond.

Monsanto boulders walking trail

One of the village’s 18th century manor houses is now the tourist information office and the starting point for the PR5 Rota dos Barrocais (Boulder Route) walking trail. The leaflet isn’t especially helpful but it’s enough to give you a rough idea of what to expect.

Mike and I just did the short circular route up to the castle and down past Penedos Juntos back to the village by following the yellow and red stripes painted onto rocks. Even this short section of the walk is fascinating and takes you through wildly beautiful countryside with stunning views across to Spain.

View of Monsanto from the hilltop castle
View of Monsanto from the hilltop castle

Monsanto Castle

To get to the castle, you need to do a little bit of clambering up the hillside so make sure you’re wearing suitable shoes. We entered through the Sentry House and spent a while wandering along the walls and peering through arched doorways and carved arrow holes. Once we’d thoroughly explored the area inside the walls, we went through an arched doorway into the wilderness and turned left along the castle walls.

Monsanto Castle, Central Portugal. Boulders and stone steps.
Monsanto Castle

Chapel, coffins and curious rock formations

Just below the castle fortifications, we found the Romanesque Capela de São Miguel (St Michael’s Chapel), minus its roof but surrounded by stone coffins. A little further downhill, there’s a large stone slab covered in curious bowl-shaped dents.

Stone tomb and Romanesque church doorway, Monsanto
The area around St Michael’s Chapel is covered with these small stone coffins.

Crafts and local produce in Monsanto

Back in the village, you’ll undoubtedly spot some of Monsanto’s elderly residents sitting in doorways, either chatting or keeping a beady eye on the tourists wandering by, hoping to sell them a souvenir. Most of the souvenir shops sell handwoven baskets and the traditional ribboned drums that resemble angular tambourines without bells.

Souvenir square tambourines, Monsanto
Souvenir square drums of all sizes. Local folk groups still play these at festivals.

You might be persuaded to buy a marafona, a tiny rag doll with no eyes, ears or mouth. She acts as a fertility symbol and traditionally, couples would place a marafona on their bed on their wedding night. She may not be able to see, hear or speak but she has the power to bless you with a baby. Apparently.

For top quality local crafts and gourmet produce, your best bet is a cute little shop called Monsabores run by Andreia Mira. Downstairs, you can try the gourmet biscuits, home made jams, wines and cheeses before deciding what to take home with you. Upstairs, you’ll find all manner of cute crafts, such as puppet storybooks and candles plus the wonderfully original Burel capes, jackets and hats made by Portuguese designer, Miguel Gigante.

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See the countryside on horseback

If shopping’s not your bag, Andreia’s husband can take you horse riding instead. I spent a relaxing half an hour in the saddle of a very placid horse admiring the flowers, trees and rock formations that we passed. Rides are normally longer than that but we were pushed for time. You can have rides from an hour up to a couple of days if you want. Contact Diogo at Monsanto a Cavalo if you’re interested or read more about the experience on Writing Horseback.

Where to eat in Monsanto, Portugal

If you get hungry during your visit and the weather’s warm enough, try to get a table on the upper terrace at Petiscos e Granitos restaurant. You’ll literally be surrounded by boulders, and flowers, and will have great views over the plains below.

I thoroughly enjoyed the garlicky asparagus scrambled egg and the baked octopus with goats cheese. If you’ve got room for dessert, try the papas de milho (corn semolina pudding). Just don’t get conned into buying the little pouch of herbs the little old lady from the kitchen might offer you!

Asparagus scrambled egg, Petiscos e Granitos restaurant, Monsanto
Asparagus scrambled egg, Petiscos e Granitos restaurant, Monsanto

Practicalities for visiting Monsanto village:

Your best option for getting to Monsanto is by car although Rede Expressos run a few coaches to Monsanto Relva and you should be able to take a taxi from there for a few euros more. There’s also a Historical Villages by Train service from Lisbon but it only runs on Saturdays with a minimum of 30 passengers.

Where to stay in Monsanto Portugal

Of the accommodation in the village of Monsanto itself, here are some of the best options:

Casa Pires Mateus is a charming, welcoming guesthouse in a renovated traditional town house. Bedrooms have stone walls and air-conditioning and some have a balcony or terrace. Breakfasts are good. Casa Pires Mateus

Casa de David is colourful, quirky and fun with 4 unique rooms, some with cooking facilities and a seating area, and a very helpful and friendly host. Choose a room to suit.

Taverna Lusitana not only serves delicious food with stunning views, it also has a couple of cosy rooms to rent. Check photos and availability.

Casa de Tia Piedade is another friendly spot with great views from the surprisingly spacious 2-bed-roomed house with air-conditioning. Check availability in this self-catering accommodation in Monsanto.

If you’d rather stay in a more modern 3-star hotel, take a look at the GeoHotel Escola, which has cheerful, comfortable rooms and a decent breakfast. Check photos and availability.

If none of these suit, you need to be looking around Idanha-a-Nova, Idanha-a-Velha or Penha Garcia, if not further afield.

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Discover the unique village of Monsanto in Central Portugal
Discover the unique village of Monsanto in Central Portugal

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26 Comments

  1. Hi Julie,

    This is a great post and has confirmed my desire to visit this town. 2 of us will be driving from Porto. Once we get in, where should we park our car to explore and from where exactly do we start the hike to get to the top? Thank you so much! I am very excited to visit.

    Mo

    1. Mo,
      The best place to park, if you can, is at the Cannons, unmistakable because of the ancient cannons pointing out over the wonderful view. To get there, take the turning to Monsanto off the 239 and keep going up the winding road. It only takes about 6 cars so if it is full just turn around and park by the side of the road some 30-40 metres down where there is always space. Do not be tempted to drive any higher because the road soon turns to narrow cobblestones. After parking, just head on upwards. Its special.

  2. Thank you ,I must go and see it ,it sounds wonderful.

  3. Hey guys, i know there is only one bus going to the Mosanto village at 5pm during weekday. Any other public transport? or tour ..? ( i prefer to go there by myself but the travel time is too much that I have to drop from my plan)

  4. Hi, i know this is an old post, but you refer to houses in the village that rent out rooms, has anyone got any names for these. I am having trouble finding a place to stay and feel I would miss a bit if staying outside the village?

    1. Author
    1. Author

      Thanks for joining in, John. I contacted Andreia via the shop’s Facebook page but haven’t heard back so the direct contacts are really helpful.

      Jana – please do as John suggests and contact Diogo (the guy mentioned in the article).

  5. Is there a private reputable guide to take two seniors to Monsanto overnight? Or a tour company perhaps? Thank you kindly for your response.

    1. Author

      I’ll see what I can find out for you and let you know.

  6. Agreed. This is the most NON-typical village of Portugal, but I liked it very much and wrote about it on my blog.

  7. Hi Julie,
    Great to read this – its the best write up on Monsanto that I’ve yet found. We fell in love with Monsanto earlier this year and have moved to a quinta in the foothills.
    You mention the lack of hotels – that is true but I would speak very highly of the Taverna Lusitana where we stayed when initially coming to visit. It only has two rooms but we felt that it superbly captures the character of Monsanto. A young Portuguese couple saw the potential in one of the old buildings to create a wonderful inn with two rooms – the back wall of our en suite bathroom was a rock.

    1. Author

      Thank you, John. I can totally understand why you’d choose to live in the area – I love it too. Great tip about the accommodation – it would be a great experience to stay in the village in one of the stone cottages so I’ll bear it in mind for the future and I’m sure other readers will be interested in it too.

  8. HI Julie,
    Just want to say that I enjoy all your postings. I have been to Portugal twice and went to Valanca da minho where my father was born and drove from there and stopped at differnet places until we got to Lisbon. What a beautiful country , When I read your postings I feel that I am right there with you. Brings back a lot of Good memories. Please don’t stop posting.

    1. Author

      Thank you, Eva. I really appreciate your kind words – it makes me happy to know you get such pleasure from them. I feel very lucky to live in such a beautiful country, and to be able to share it with other people so I have no intention of stopping posting, at least in the foreseeable future 🙂

  9. Can’t wait to visit this charming village in February. How many nights should we stay in order to see everything? Which place would you suggest we stay.
    Thanks, Peggy

    1. Author

      Hi Peggy, Monsanto village itself only needs between half a day and a day, depending on whether or not you want to do any walks or horse riding. If you have a car and want to explore the area from a nearby base, I think you’ll find more accommodation options a little further afield. I’ve never been to Monfortinho but based on this search, it seems to have the most options in the area. http://www.booking.com/searchresults.en-gb.html?aid=360419;sid=bd6d9b6a98001d76b52cabecb3c10d80;dcid=1;ac_pageview_id=169247f976470195;class_interval=1;csflt=%7B%7D;dest_id=-2169626;dest_type=city;idf=1;interval_of_time=undef;review_score_group=empty;score_min=0;si=ai%2Cco%2Cci%2Cre%2Cdi;src=index;ss=Monsanto%2C%20Centro%20Region%2C%20Portugal;ss_raw=monsanto;ssb=empty;rows=20;offset=0 Having said that, there are several really lovely looking places scattered around the area.

  10. THANK YOU… FOR YOUR INTERESTING TEXT ON WHERE I WAS BORN… ( MONSANTO) AND I STILL HAVE THERE
    A SPECIAL FARM…ALSO A “25 QUINCE” A SPIRIT OF DRINK THAT I CREATED…

    1. Author

      Thank you, Jose. I’m pleased you like my article and intrigued by the quince drink!

      1. If you send me yours address …maybe on 25 December 2013….you can enjoy…from ” QUINTA DOS CIPRESTES” MONSANTO …and after you write more…

  11. My husband’s father’s family is from Monsanto. It was one of the first places they took us when we move to Portugal a couple years ago.

    I love the place, it always feels like you get thrown back into the middle ages when you visit. Not only is the town up near the castle wonderful, but the land below is beautiful and full of history too.

    My father-in-law has plenty of stories of where he grew up, some of my favorites include a small 2000 year old Roman bridge and an old chapel at the base of the mountain that was built on an old pagan spot.

    1. Author

      I’m glad you’ve had such a personalised introduction to Monsanto. I bet your father-in-law’s tales really bring the place to life and help you imagine how it was in the past.

      As you say, you step back in time from the moment you enter the village.

  12. Hi Julie,
    I enjoyed our time visiting Monsanto together. Thanks for linking to my horseback riding article. Nice re-cap here!

    1. Author

      Thanks, Nancy. One of the things I really enjoy about travel writing is the excuse to revisit places in my mind, and through selecting photos. It was a really lovely afternoon in Monsanto.

    1. Author

      I love it, both for the quirky architecture and the rocky landscapes. I’d love to do a longer walk or horse ride in the area so maybe next time I’ll try to build in enough time for that.

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