Although I was travelling around the Castelo Branco region, I hadn’t planned on visiting Belmonte. Thankfully, the owner of the hostel that I stayed in insisted that I had to visit and I decided to add it to the itinerary.
Belmonte is a very small but very beautiful Portuguese village. While the real attraction is just wandering through the picturesque historical town, there are actually quite a lot of museums that you can visit in the town as well as the castle.
Nearby, there are other beautiful towns worth visiting – such as Guarda (30 km) and Monsanto (53 km) – while the very beautiful Serra da Estrela Natural Park is literally just up the road, roughly 15 km away.
In contrast to the historical town centre, the outskirts of Belmonte aren’t particularly attractive but don’t let that put you off: keep walking until you get into the heart of Belmonte before you form an opinion.
Here, you’ll be greeted with small, granite houses with terracotta roofs. While some of the houses have a slightly ramshackle look, for the most part they’re all in great condition and it’s clear that people put a lot of care into the exterior of their homes here.
For such a small place, Belmonte has a very unique history: it’s the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral, the person credited with discovering Brazil.
It also has a strong Jewish population who managed to live in secret in Belmonte for hundreds of years before they too were “discovered.”
Belmonte’s Jewish Connection
Jewish history in Spain and Portugal normally gets dark very quickly: during the Inquisition period, Jews in Portugal were forced to convert to Christianity and those that didn’t were deported and killed.
While many Jews fled to other countries like Amsterdam, London, or Livorno in Italy, others decided to continue living in Portugal but to practice their faith in secret. The “Belmonte Jews” or “Belmonte Marranos” are one of the best examples of this.
The Jewish community in Belmonte dates back hundreds of years, possibly as far as the 13th Century. During the time of the inquisition, they were undercover and hid all external signs of their faith. They stopped speaking hebrew, didn’t openly practice their religion, stopped circumcising their children, took on Christian names, and even attended the Catholic Church, but they maintained their bloodline by intermarrying.
Then in 1917, Samuel Schwarz, a Jewish engineer from Poland started working at a nearby tin mine and he observed (and documented) the unusual habits of the people living in this village.
On Yom Kippur, they would meet to publically play cards so they wouldn’t arouse any suspicion when, in reality, they would celebrate Jewish holidays a few days before. A Jew himself, he caught on – although it took a while to win over their trust.
Today, Belmonte’s Jewish community no longer lives so secretly. In the 70s, following the revolution, many residents began practicing their faith more publically and, in 1996, they opened a synagogue in the town: Bet Eliahu. The town also has its own Jewish internet radio station: Rádio Judaica Portuguesa.
To really see Belmonte’s Jewish community come to life, visit Belmonte during the annual Mercado Kosher. This normally takes place in September or October: see Visit Belmonte’s Facebook page for details and other upcoming events.
What to SEE
Castle of Belmonte
The Castle of Belmonte is quite a small and fairly simple castle. Like most castles in Portugal, little remains apart from the outer walls which are in excellent condition. Inside the walls, there’s a large amphitheatre courtyard.
The climb to the top of the tower, or even just up the castle walls, is it worth it as it gives you fantastic views over the fields of fruit trees and grape vines in the surrounding countryside.
Note: Confusingly, there’s another Belmonte Castle in the province of Cuenca in Spain (around 2 hours’ drive south of Madrid). Don’t get the two mixed up.
What to DO
There are several museums in Belmonte, which is surprising given the size. Many of them are quite small and can be seen in less than half an hour, but together they give you an interesting insight into this part of Portugal.
Jewish Museum of Belmonte
The Jewish Museum of Belmonte, which opened in 2005, tells the full history of the Belmonte Jews. It is a fascinating look at how one small community managed to live in secret for hundreds of years, and one of the top-rated things to do in Belmonte as well.
Igreja de Santiago e Panteão dos Cabrais
A small and beautiful church with Romanesque, Gothic, and Mannerist features that’s worth visiting firstly for its architecture and secondly because of its connection to Pedro Álvares Cabral, the first European to discover Brazil.
Museu do Azeite
A small and very simple museum that describes how olive oil is produced and its importance to the local Castelo Branco region.
Ecomuseu do Zêzere
A small, and once again simple, museum that focuses on the Zêzere River and its importance to the region.
Museu dos descobrimentos
There are lots of museums dedicated to the Age of Discoveries in Portugal, but this one has particular significance as it’s located in the town where Pedro Álvares Cabral, discoverer of Brazil, was born.
Divided across two floors, and split into 16 rooms, the museum tells the story starting with Cabral and his team preparing to go to India and ending with their arrival in Brazil.
Tip: You have to pay to enter each of the museums and the castle, but you can get a combined ticket from any of the museums that gives you access to all of them.
Getting to Belmonte
The easiest way to get to explore this part of Portugal is by car. While it is possible to get to Belmonte by bus, a lot of the towns in Central Portugal are quite small. You’ll probably only spend a few hours in each, and it’ll be much easier to get between them by car rather than by bus.
Most people who rent a car do so at the airport when they arrive, but there are also a few car rental outlets in Castelo Branco City so you don’t have to rent one for the entirety of your trip.
Citi Express offers bus services from Lisbon and Porto, as well as from locations closer to Belmonte like Castelo Branco.
At the time of writing, Citi Express’ website is down so I recommend using Rome2Rio.com to look up timetables. It’s not possible to purchase tickets online.
There is no train station in Belmonte. The nearest train station is Covilha, and from there you can get a CitiExpress bus to Belmonte but it usually makes more sense just to take a bus directly to Belmonte.
Train tickets can be purchased from cp.pt, and CitiExpress tickets can be purchased at Covilha bus station.