The Portuguese countryside is speckled with historical 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.
If you’re looking to hire a car I suggest you use a comparison site like Discovercars or Rentalcars.
Top tip: If you can make your own way to this area (Monsanto, Sortelha, Penha Garcia) but want to learn more on a guided tour, you can arrange a customised experience through a local tour operator by completing the form on this page.
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.
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.
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.
You can get a detailed explanation of the castle and the upper town with this self guided audio tour.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
You could also try Taverna Lusitana.
Note: If you intend to go to Monsanto specifically for lunch, check that the restaurants are going to be open on the day you’re visiting – I’ve had reports of restaurant closures on a Wednesday but since these things can change without my knowledge, you should confirm yourself.
Practicalities for visiting Monsanto village:
Your best option for getting to Monsanto is by car (rent one here) 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. Check photos and availability.
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.
The hosts at the magical Sun Set House will make sure you have everything you need for your stay. Not only that, you’ll get a fantastic breakfast! Select your dates.
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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Each year we try to explore as much of incredible Portugal as we can in a month, this year we start in Castelo Branco and will head northwards towards Moncao. Monsanto and Idanha a Nova being our first day trip. Each time I start my research, I tell my partner…thank heavens for Julie Dawn, there is nowhere we want to go that she hasn’t been!
Thank you for your wonderful curiosity and for sharing your findings, you continue to inspire me.
I’m so happy to hear that, Siovan and thank you for taking the time to tell me. I’m really pleased that my expereinces are helping you and your partner to get off the beaten track in Portugal.
Hello, how i can get to monsanto from Castelo Branco? Thanks for answer
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.
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.
Thank you ,I must go and see it ,it sounds wonderful.
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)
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?
Hi Jake, here’s a list of local accommodation in Monsanto: http://www.booking.com/searchresults.en-gb.html?src=index&nflt=&error_url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.booking.com%2Findex.en-gb.html%3Faid%3D360419%3Bsid%3Df3749e46e58fa627e5351f5dbdba5da2%3Bdcid%3D4%3Bbb_ltbi%3D0%3Bsb_price_type%3Dtotal%26%3B&aid=360419&dcid=4&sid=f3749e46e58fa627e5351f5dbdba5da2&si=ai%2Cco%2Cci%2Cre%2Cdi&ss=Monsanto%2C+Centro+Region%2C+Portugal&checkin_monthday=21&checkin_year_month=2016-3&checkout_monthday=22&checkout_year_month=2016-3&room1=A%2CA&no_rooms=1&group_adults=2&group_children=0&ssafas=1&ac_pageview_id=f851607f4e1c040c&ss_raw=monsanto&dest_id=-2169626&dest_type=city&ac_position=0&ac_langcode=en&ac_suggestion_list_length=5
Jana, can I suggest you contact Diogo on+351 965 198 960 or e-mail email@example.com. He will be able to organise something for you.
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).
Is there a private reputable guide to take two seniors to Monsanto overnight? Or a tour company perhaps? Thank you kindly for your response.
I’ll see what I can find out for you and let you know.
Agreed. This is the most NON-typical village of Portugal, but I liked it very much and wrote about it on my blog.
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.
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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…
Thank you, Jose. I’m pleased you like my article and intrigued by the quince drink!
If you send me yours address …maybe on 25 December 2013….you can enjoy…from ” QUINTA DOS CIPRESTES” MONSANTO …and after you write more…
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.
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.
I enjoyed our time visiting Monsanto together. Thanks for linking to my horseback riding article. Nice re-cap here!
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.
Definitely looks like an interesting venue.
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.