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.
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. 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.
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.
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.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!
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 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 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 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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