Monsanto, often referred to as “the most Portuguese village in Portugal,” is a stunning and unique destination perched on the slope of a steep hill in the Idanha-a-Nova municipality. This ancient village is renowned for its characteristic granite boulders, around which the houses have been constructed. The rocks themselves become parts of walls, floors, and even roofs, blending the village harmoniously into the rugged landscape.
The narrow streets wind through Monsanto, revealing charming houses and a glimpse into a way of life that has persisted for centuries. Dominating the skyline is the medieval Castle of Monsanto, a testament to the village’s strategic importance in the past. Monsanto has successfully preserved its traditional character, and visiting the village is akin to stepping back in time. Whether it’s the architecture, the local traditions, or the breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside, Monsanto captivates all who venture here.
Monsanto holds a distinguished place among the 12 historic villages of Portugal, a network of settlements known for their significant cultural heritage and enduring traditions. These villages are scattered across the central region of the country and share a common history of resilience, having often played crucial roles in the defense of the Portuguese territory during different periods of conflict and invasion.
The recognition of Monsanto as one of these historic villages is not only a testament to its rich history but also to its preservation of a unique architectural identity. The blend of natural boulders with traditional construction techniques sets Monsanto apart, and the village’s inclusion in this group of 12 highlights the importance of maintaining and celebrating these links to the past. The historic villages initiative promotes tourism and cultural activities, inviting visitors to explore a lesser-known but fascinating aspect of Portuguese history and culture.
Sitting close to the border with Spain, Monsanto was an important stronghold for the Portuguese kingdom. It was also, very briefly, the home of the Knights Templar for a while.
Surprisingly, although Monsanto attracts some tourists, it is nothing like other popular destinations, including Sintra. This is partly due to its remote location but also because it has been written about all that much yet. However, now that Monsanto has been featured in TV shows like House of the Dragon, it’s very likely that Monsanto will become much more popular.
If you decide to visit, bring plenty of water, especially in summer. Monsanto is also very steep, so bring appropriate footwear to tackle the cobbled streets. Finally, there are a few places called Monsanto in Portugal and you want “Monsanto, Idanha-a-Nova” not the Monsanto in Lisbon.
Where to Stay
The “most Portuguese village in Portugal” is also one of the most unique villages in Portugal, and it may be somewhere that you want to spend the night.
A few accommodation options include:
If you’re willing to extend your search outside of the village, you’ll find more properties in the surrounding countryside as well as in nearby villages like Idanha-a-Velha and Penha Garcia.
There are also plenty of options outside. Most of the nearby towns are small like Monsanto. If you want more accommodation options, and a few more restaurants and bars to choose from, you’ll need to head to Castelo Branco.
What to see & do
Monsanto Castle, also known as the Castle of Monsanto, is a striking fortress perched atop a hill overlooking the village of Monsanto in Portugal. The castle’s history dates back to the 12th century, when it was erected during the Christian Reconquista, acting as a vital defense point against invading forces. Its strategic location, offering a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape, made it a key stronghold in protecting the region.
Over the centuries, the castle has endured numerous battles, sieges, and renovations. It was captured by the Romans, Visigoths, the Arabs, and finally by Afonso I of Portugal who took the castle and the rest of Portugal back from the Moorish invaders. Afonso then donated the castle to Gualdim Païs, Master of the Templar Order in Portugal. The templars worked to rebuild it, but moved to Tomar just a few years after finishing it. Over the next few centuries, Monsanto Castle would be attacked many times. In the 17th century, Luis de Haro, Minister for Filipe IV, laid siege to Monsanto, and in the beginning of the 18th century, the Duke of Berwick also laid siege to Monsanto.
Despite the wear and tear of time, a significant portion of the castle’s walls and towers remain standing, providing a glimpse into the medieval era. Inside the castle’s premises, one can find the Romanesque Chapel of São Miguel, an iconic structure that adds to the historical significance of the site. The castle’s ruins, coupled with the breathtaking views it offers, make it a compelling destination for history enthusiasts and tourists alike.
Unfortunately, we’ll never really know what Monsanto Castle was like inside because, aside from a small chapel, all that really remains are the exterior walls. In 1814, there was an accidental gunpowder explosion in the ammunition storage section of the castle which destroyed a lot of the castle.
Considering how unique the town of Monsanto is, the castle was surprisingly normal. While it does make use of boulders in a few places, it isn’t quite as dramatic as it is in the town centre.
Capela de São Miguel
The Capela de São Miguel, also known as the Chapel of St. Michael, is a captivating historical gem located just below Monsanto Castle within the confines of Monsanto Castle. This chapel is a shining example of a Romanesque style sanctuary, one of the oldest and most significant in Portugal, dating back to the 12th century.
The chapel’s unique architectural style, characterised by simplicity and sturdiness, gives a glimpse into the early medieval religious and cultural practices. The structure is built almost entirely from granite, a testament to the materials available in the region and the architectural preferences of the time. Inside, you can find several medieval tombstones, which, along with the semi-circular apse and the modest nave, add to the historical ambiance. The Capela de São Miguel is not just a place of worship, but a monument that carries the weight of centuries, offering an authentic look into the region’s past. Its panoramic views of the surrounding countryside make it an enchanting stop on any Monsanto tour.
Although the chapel itself is gated and normally kept closed, you can still see a few of the empty stone coffins outside. You won’t see any skeletons, but many people still find the empty human-sized shapes creepy.
Casa da Fernanda Namora
Casa da Fernanda Namora in Monsanto, Portugal, is a tribute to one of Portugal’s most significant literary figures, Fernando Namora. Namora was a prolific writer and physician whose works often depicted rural Portuguese life, including the customs and traditions of Monsanto. This house, named after his wife Fernanda, is where Namora spent time writing and absorbing the village’s distinctive culture.
Fernando Namora was, as well as being a doctor and a painter, a writer who published several books including Almas sem Rumo (1935), Cabeças de Barro (1937), Relevos (1938), and As Sete Partidas do Mundo (1938). He wasn’t originally from Monsanto, but his wife was, and he lived here between 1944-1946.
The house itself is a quaint traditional structure, blending seamlessly with the historic village of Monsanto. It retains the characteristics of local architecture, including stone walls and a roof adorned with large boulders, characteristic of Monsanto’s homes. Today, the house stands as a literary symbol and can be visited by tourists and literary enthusiasts looking to delve into the world of Fernando Namora. It’s a perfect destination for those interested in Portuguese literature and the rustic charm of traditional village life.
Monsanto isn’t the most convenient place to get to in Portugal. It’s located close to the Spanish border, roughly an hour from the nearby city of Castelo Branco.
There is a lot to see in this part of Portugal, however. The very beautiful Serra da Estrela is just is roughly 1.5 hours away and there are plenty of other beautiful villages Monsanto including the other historical villages of Portugal. You could easily spend a few days exploring this part of Portugal.
- Flying: Monsanto is quite far from the nearest major airport — just a little over three hours by car from Lisbon Airport.
- By Train: You can get to Castelo Branco by train (train tickets and timetables at cp.pt). There is also the historical village circuit train, which leaves Lisbon every Saturday and stops in Ródão, Foz do Cobrão, Monsanto, Idanha-a-Velha, and Castelo Branco before coming back to Lisbon.
- By Bus: There is a direct bus from Lisbon’s Sete Rios station to Monsanto-Relva, but Relva is still around 1-1.5 km from Monsanto. You may be able to get a taxi from Relva to Monsanto, but this isn’t guaranteed. Otherwise, it’s a slightly steep but fairly quiet walk up to Monsanto. There is also a bus from Castelo Branco to Monsanto, which is operated by TransDev Rodoviária da Beira Interior, but this only runs once a day most days. A timetable can be found at TransDev.pt
- By Car: By far, the easiest way to get to Monsanto is by car. If you aren’t travelling by car, there are one or two places that you can rent a car in Castelo Branco. There is a small car park in Monsanto itself, but it only has room for around 10 or so cars (Google Map). Alternatively, there is a larger car park down in Relva, but it’s around 1 km from Monsanto (Google Map).
When to visit
The best time to visit Monsanto, without doubt, is at the very start of May when the village celebrates the Medieval-style “Festa da Divina Santa Cruz” (Festival of the Holy Cross). On this day, the villagers dress up in historical costumes and walk up to Monsanto Castle singing and carrying marafonas (rag dolls) and a pot filled with flowers.
Expect lots of music, jousting, drumming, dancing, very traditional food, handicrafts, and a parade. One of the highlights of the festival is when the crowd walks up to the castle, carrying a pot filled with flowers.
This pot symbolises a time when Monsanto was under siege, and had been for seven years. The villagers realised they had nothing left but one cow and a bag of grain, and knew that they would have to surrender soon.
But, rather than give in, they decided to try one last thing. They fed the remainder of the grain to the cow and then threw the cow off the castle walls at their attackers. The attackers cut the cow’s stomach open and, seeing how well-fed the cow was, decided that the people of Monsanto must still have plenty of food left and so they gave up the siege.
If you aren’t fortunate enough to be able to visit Monsanto for the Festa da Divina Santa Cruz, aim to visit during Spring or Autumn. You can visit in Summer, of course, but it can get very hot in Monsanto during July and August and there is very little shade from the sun in the town and at the castle.