After reading about Sortelha’s “great charms” in a guide book, I was keen to see if it would live up to the hype. It does. So much, in fact, that of the Historical Villages of Portugal I’ve visited so far, Sortelha and Monsanto are my favourites.
I’ve already told you what’s marvelous about Monsanto so let’s see what’s so stunning about the medieval frontier village of Sortelha.
A little bit of Sortelha history
The highlight of a trip to Sortelha has to be the castle itself. As with most ruined castles in Portugal, you are free to roam its walls at your own risk. In other words, don’t expect safety barriers and wear sensible shoes. Climb up to the tower for remarkable views over the boulder-strewn fields and a crop of giant wind turbines. With such wide-reaching views, it’s easy to understand why King Sancho established the village as part of a strategic line of defence in the early 13th century.
The border moved east with Portuguese victory later that century and Sortelha was largely forgotten about until the 16th century when King Manuel I showed an interest. This lead to new buildings, judicial powers and the Manueline pillory which is still a focal point of the village.
Later on, Sortelha once again became rather neglected until it was selected for the Aldeias Históricas de Portugal (Historical Villages of Portugal) project in the 1990s. Following an injection of funds, the majority of the sandy-coloured granite buildings now have new red barrel-tiled roofs as you’ll see when you look across the village from the stone balcony of Pilate above the castle gate.
Once you’ve clambered around the castle and dutifully admired the views, it’s time to wander the tiny streets of the rest of the village. If you’ve managed to pick up a leaflet from the tourist information booth, you can follow a specific route and read up on the history of the buildings you’re passing.
If you can’t get hold of the leaflet, the best thing to do when you come out of the castle is to head for the pillory. Behind it, you’ll find the traitor’s gate, next to the former town hall. The ground floor of this building was once a prison but the property has long since been converted into a primary school.
Bear left at the pillory and follow this street past the parish church to the Porta Nova (New Gate). Go through it and look for traces of the medieval road just in front of the cemetery. The building to the left of the cemetery was once a hospital and there may have been a leper colony on this site centuries ago. Behind this, in front of the church, lie some anthropomorphic tombs carved from the rocks.
Once you’re back within the village walls, turn left again until you reach the false gate next to the torch tower. Step outside the walls and look north to see a boulder shaped like an old man’s head. Back inside the village again, the suggested route is to head back into the village at the first alley you come across, keeping right until you pass the bell tower and the parish church on its other side.
The leaflet route takes you back down the main street, Rua da Fonte, and behind Restaurante Dom Sancho but you could do what I did and just wander around the cobbled streets and rocky steps as you see fit.
Just before the main village gate, there’s a house with an overhanging balcony called A Casa do Vento Que Soa (The House of the Wind that Scatters). I found a legend about that, as well as another one about the boulders of the Eternal Kiss.
Medieval fare and festivities
When I visited Sortelha, I was part of a large group and having got quite frustrated by delays earlier in the day I was impatient to explore so I gave the group the slip and took the longer road around the hillside to enjoy the views.
By the time I found my way to the arched gateway through the village walls, the rest of the group were dressed in medieval costume and milling around a long table laden with terracotta plates and cups. Three young men with long hair, leather aprons and pointy shoes provided musical entertainment with drums, bagpipes and some other instrument.
We were being treated to a special medieval lunch so I plonked myself down on a bale of straw and tucked into plates of wild boar and chestnut stew, green beans, chick peas, pork ribs and charcuterie, all washed down with local red wine.
Sortelha’s annual medieval fair is around the third weekend of September so if you want to see the ordinarily sleepy village full of life, actors, music and traditional markets and food stalls, that would be a good time to come.
If you’re just interested in the food, Restaurante Dom Sancho (the restaurant that supplied our feast) serves hearty stews, grilled meat and game dishes year round. There are several other cafés and bars in the village so you shouldn’t have difficulty finding lighter refreshments if needed.
Local crafts and produce, Sortelha
If you’re looking for genuine Portuguese products as gifts or souvenirs, take a look in the local shops.
Other events liven up Sortelha during the year. Each weekend in November, for example, has activities and shows connected to the month-long Mostra de doces e compotes (Jam and preserves show). Although the show wasn’t on during my visit, I did pop into the local craft shop near the castle where I tried, and bought, some delicious home made jams and devilish liqueurs.
Craft-wise, Sortelha’s women folk have been weaving baskets, hats and rugs from the local grass for centuries. Even if you aren’t lucky enough to see one of these ladies in action, you’ll find their finished products on sale in the same shop. Other local crafts for sale include wooden sculptures, wool rugs, lace and crochet.
More information about Sortelha
You can actually stay in the village of Sortelha or one of several country hotels in the surrounding area.
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