I was concerned that the village of Monsaraz might be overly touristy, perhaps even a little tacky. I needn’t have worried. From the moment Mike and I walked through the ancient archway into the walled medieval village, we were smitten.
What’s not to love about cobbled streets and smartly whitewashed stone cottages with bursts of bougainvillea cascading over the walls? Not to mention views into infinity over the Alentejo plains and the Alqueva reservoir.
Starry, starry night
Its distance from any major town or city qualifies Alqueva as a Starlight Tourism Destination, attracting astronomers and romantics alike. We’d gone there for the Dark Sky Party but we were quickly bored by the overly technical lakeside presentation about stars and galaxies – not my idea of a party, although it may have livened up later on!
We decided to find other ways to fill our weekend including some very amateur stargazing from the tranquility of our hotel terrace with a nice bottle of Alentejo red wine. If you’re serious about seeing stars, there are plenty of hotels and tour operators who can help you out with telescopes and night time activities.
Megalithic monuments near Monsaraz
We found a surprising range of art during our brief visit, spanning centuries and styles. In fact, if you count the megalithic stone collection at Xerez cromlech, it dates back thousands of years. Although the 4-metre high central menhir has remained in situ all this time, not all of the monoliths and grindstones originate from this site.
When the Alqueva dam was built in 2002, prehistoric stones from the area that would soon be flooded were gathered and rearranged at this spot near the abandoned Convento da Orada just below Monsaraz. We visited in the late afternoon, catching the golden glow of the sinking sun. I imagine it’s even more mystical under a starry night sky.
Modern art in Monsaraz
Skipping forward a few millennia, there are some beautiful frescoes, both in the tiny Museu do Fresco/Sacred Art Museum and the recently renovated St James’ church, which is now an exhibition space. We were fortunate enough to catch the opening of a photographic exhibition featuring local photographers’ images of Monsaraz.
Another lucky stumble led us to some colourful Portuguese folk art paintings in Casa Monsaraz depicting traditional weddings and other local ceremonies. Even the restaurant we went to had its own art gallery!
Crafts and shops in Monsaraz
The old school near the castle is now given over to a ceramics showroom but you can still see evidence of primary school equipment around the room. As the village is so close to São Pedro do Corval, which happens to be one of the largest pottery producers in Portugal, you’ll find plenty of hand-painted dishes in the souvenir shops. If it’s cork you’re after, there’s a wide selection at Coisas de Monsaraz.
As well as traditional crafts and products, there are some more contemporary art works on offer, too. I particularly liked the wonderland that is Francis and Toula Creations. For gourmet Portuguese food such as olive oil, syrups and sardines in a delightfully kitsch setting, head for Casa Tial. Run by a French couple, it’s also the best place in town for ice-cream.
Restaurants and food to try in Monsaraz
While we’re on the subject of food, we had a memorable experience at Sem Fim Restaurant which is in the neighbouring village of Telheiro. It’s worth the extra trip even if you’re not planning to eat; there’s a cosy bar area and this is the restaurant with the art gallery I mentioned earlier. Best of all, the restaurant itself is inside a former olive press which has been tastefully decorated so that you can eat alongside the old machinery or on a terrace overlooking the surrounding countryside.
As you might expect, their olive oil is divine, as is the sheep’s cheese. I tried one of the local specialities, açorda, (bread stew) made with weeds (Purslane), poached egg, potatoes and lumps of cheese. If that doesn’t sound too appealing, you could stick to the pork, which was tender and tasty.
For lunch the following day, we managed to nab a spot on the terrace of Xaraz restaurant. They serve a range of salads as well as regional specialities such as the very filling migas (breadcrumbs) with asparagus and chouriço that I had. Most of the restaurants in the village itself have a terrace with stunning views so do ask if there’s a table free outside if the weather’s good.
My one regret is not trying the river crayfish on offer at the Centro Náutico café next to the reservoir.
Tip: Book a table in advance at peak periods to avoid searching or waiting for a table.
Monsaraz Castle and fortifications
It was an added bonus to discover that the castle is free to enter. Once inside, you get great views across the rooftops of Monsaraz and down onto the slabs of stone that cover the bull pens by the main gate. These bull pens are still used for occasional bullfights, which explains the amphitheatre-style stone seating area inside. As you explore the battlements and turrets, take care as some of the steps are very shallow and there are hardly any safety railings. You’ll be rewarded for your efforts with views away from the village across the seemingly endless lake and the sound of birds and cicadas chattering away beneath you.
The hilltop on which Monsaraz sits has long been a coveted site as it affords far-reaching views over the surrounding plains and enabled communication between neighbouring watchtowers. It has been occupied since prehistoric times but more recently by Romans, Visigoths, Jews, Moors and Christians, with control passing between Arab, Spanish and Portuguese civilisations until it finally settled in Portuguese hands in the 13th century.
Walking around the outskirts of the village, it’s easy to see the later additions to the defence walls. These bulwarks extend as far as the ruined chapel of São Bento in the overspill village beyond the citadel.
Accommodation in Monsaraz
We stayed at Casa Dona Antónia, a quaint place with quirky decor in the hallway and rooms around a central courtyard. Ours was presumably once a barn of some kind but is now a fully modernised, spacious room with steps to a terrace on its roof. Breakfast seemed a little on the stingy side but when I asked for more toast, it was brought with a smile so if you do decide to stay and want more food, just ask.
I haven’t personally tried any of the other accommodation options in Monsaraz but there are several highly-rated places on offer through Booking.com.
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