In 1938, the Portuguese gave the village of Monsanto the title of “the most Portuguese village of Portugal.” It is strange. During this visit to Portugal, we drove about 1.500 km exploring the historic places of Idanha-a-Velha and other central provinces of Portugal, and never saw anything similar to this “typical” Portuguese village. All other Portuguese villages and towns, at least in these regions, are made of white stone from roofs to sidewalks.
Monsanto Village is unique both for Portugal and Europe. The village seems not to have changed since medieval times. It is a museum like the Belgian town Bruges. I’d say this is the most NON-typical village in Portugal.
Monsanto means “sacred mountain.” Here, Mother Nature played with the landscape a lot and as a result we were left with very unearthly scenery with giant stones lying here and there. It’s safe to say that nature, rather than man, did some work on the construction of houses. Thanks to these boulders, you often had a ready-made wall or two of your future house and sometimes a roof too. All that was left to do was to build the missing walls. It came out very picturesque, solid, and inexpensive.
Since people used the same type of stones, only smaller, for the building of their houses, the village almost looks as if it grew into the boulders on its own like a plant sprouting small stones to fill in the gaps between the big ones. Trolls from fairy tales could live in such houses, not people. Probably, because of that, some parts of the village look as though they have been taken directly from fantasy films. I am sure you could make one of the series of Lord of the Rings right in Monsanto Village without extra set decorations.
We arrived here to look at all these streets, passages, and houses, but did not know that a surprise was waiting for us—the wonderful ruins of the Templar fortress on the very top of Monsanto Mountain.
After the liberation of these lands from the Moors, King Alfonso I of Portugal wanted to preserve and defend his new possessions. What was the most reliable protection in those times? Of course, the Templars, and the king donated the lands to the Order of the Temple.
“Alfonso, king of remarkable Portucalense, son of Henry and Queen D. Teresa and grandson of the great and illustrious Emperor of Hispania, for us to master Galdino and all the brothers of the Knights Templar who are in my kingdom, I make a wide and giving very strong in the region of Idanha [-a-Velha] and Monsanto with the limits: Following the course of the river and between Erges my kingdom and the ‘legions’ to enter the [river] Tagus and the other party following the course of water [river] Zêzere River which also enters the river Tagus (…).” (Letter of Donation on November 30, 1165.)
The brothers of the Knights Templar began to build the fortress on the top of the hill, but after seven years, all the fields and the castle were given to the Order of Santiago. The Monsanto castle had a glorious war history; however, it was destroyed, not during a siege, but accidentally as a result of a gunpowder storage explosion in 1814. The explosion caused significant damage, and the castle forever stopped its military activity. However, the military forces left it only in 1853.
The castle and walls of Monsanto were classified as one of the National Monuments of Portugal in September 29, 1948. We do not know for sure what the exterior of the fortress was, but probably it looked like its contemporaries, the castles of Tomar and Almourol.
The villagers of Monsanto have their own national holiday. On the third of May, they dress in national costumes, take their amulets—the rag dolls known as marafonas—and with songs go to the castle. A big white pot decorated with flowers “swims” in the middle of the procession. Then this pot flies down from the castle wall. Why? There is a legend.
Many years ago, enemies were besieging the castle for seven years. All this time defenders bravely fended off all attacks but when they were down to only one cow and one sack of grain, sadly they looked at their food understanding that tomorrow they would be forced to give up.
However, one woman proposed a crazy idea: Let’s feed our cow with this grain and drop her on the heads of besiegers. They did so. When the astonished besiegers saw how much grain fell out of the torn cow’s stomach they thought: If their cows eat this much, they still have a lot of food; and they lifted the siege.
Now, the big white pot is a symbol of that cow (poor, but heroic animal).
Unfortunately, reaching Monsanto Village is possible only by car, for example, from the airport of Lisbon (274 km) or the airport of Porto (307 km). However, Portugal has such wonderful roads that your trip from Lisbon, for example, will take about three hours. In the village of Relva, at the foot of Monsanto Mountain, we noted some bus stop signs, but I’m afraid that bus arrives here as often as the ghosts of the Knights Templar. However, there is a big free parking lot here (GPS coordinates: 40.045799-7.116008). The distance from this point to Monsanto Village is about one kilometer. There is one other parking lot in Monsanto—GPS coordinates: 40.040035-7.110274—but it is very small.
You can take the map of the village and the audio guide in the tourist office (Posto do Turismo) of Monsanto Village; however, I am not sure you need it because the village is very small. By the way, in front of that office you will find a very clean, very comfortable, very modern, and very free public toilet.
We had a wonderful lunch (as almost everywhere in Portugal) in a small restaurant under the giant boulder in the middle of the village. You will not miss this boulder-house-restaurant, it is impossible. Everyone takes photos of it.
New constructions are forbidden in Monsanto Village; however, we have seen many semi-abandoned houses, so I am sure it is possible to buy and reconstruct one of them.
Monsanto Village has no hotels but you can rent a room or maybe a villa for several days. I doubt these villas have web sites, so I cannot give you the links. We were there in the low season, in January, so there were few tourists. I think in summer the picture would be totally different; however, it seems that in any season, Monsanto is a very calm place after six o’clock every evening—not one tourist.
The famous Thermal Centre of Monfortinho is located 27 kms from Monsanto Village. Local legends highlight the “healing power” of its waters, and scientists confirm it for dermatological treatments as well as digestive, circulatory, and respiratory diseases. These waters are hyper-mineralized with bicarbonate, sodium, calcium, and magnesium, and possess one of the largest concentrations of silica in Portugal. The temperature of the spring water is 29° C.
All in all, if for happiness and comfortable work you need only fresh mountain air, a picturesque landscape, good cuisine, quiet evenings, and Internet, then the village of Monsanto is the right place.