As I drove east through the Beira Baixa countryside into a quiet valley strewn with huge boulders, I finally saw it, sitting majestically atop a crumbling hill, more than 2,460 feet above sea level: Mons Sanctus – the Sacred Mount .
Monsanto, as it is known today, is only 15 miles from Spain, but has the distinction of being the “most Portuguese village” in the country. The title was bestowed by the Estado Novo regime in 1938 to romanticize and preserve village life and agriculture, and the accolade still stands today, with the old village having changed little over the decades, much of it due to an extraordinary urban planning.
This “rock village” was built among the boulders of the mountain: the traditional terracotta roofs are partly replaced by massive granite rocks (known locally as “barrocais”), some of which weigh up to 200 tons. The streets wind like rabbit warrens in their shadows, some passing, under and through the giant stones. A road passes through two giant boulders leaning against each other – a surreal scene, particularly when two locals sit down below them to have lunch.
I started my visit from the Baluarte viewpoint, where three large cannons protected the city for 300 years. Given its strategic location, Monsanto has been a target of invasion over the centuries, held by the Romans and Moors (among others) before the Knights Templar had a castle built there in the 12th century. Sentinel above the village, this formidable granite fortress could have come straight out of a fantasy novel – no wonder, then, that it’s taken a star turn as the Targaryen ancestral home, Dragonstone, on HBO’s hit series House of the Dragon.
According to Andreia de Brito, founder and CEO of local heritage tour company Porta Raiana, the castle’s appearance in the Game of Thrones prequel has boosted tourism to Monsanto. “But when visitors come,” she said, “they are more amazed by the scenery and the peace of the place than anything else.”
The sense of calm was palpable as I strolled through the village of just about 800 people, following the jumbled cobbled streets past stone cottages, their doorsteps lined with potted plants. Elderly women dressed in floral aprons looked after them dutifully, chatting to each other in rapid Portuguese.
Sleepy Monsanto may seem like a living museum of sorts; many of the properties I encountered were inscribed with signs of an earlier role in the village’s past. The House of Fernando Namora, for example, proudly declared that an eminent Portuguese doctor and writer once lived there. Later, on Rua de Santo Antonio, an engraving of crossbones and a skull, along with the Latin inscription Cogita Mortem (“Think of death”), marked the home of the Monsanto executioner.
Later, on Rua Marques da Graciosa, I peeked into the Artesanato craft shop, filled with locally made marafona dolls. A local custom, these mouthless, earless, and eyeless white dolls are wrapped in traditional Portuguese costumes and, as the shopkeeper told me, serve as a symbol of fertility, traditionally given to newlyweds on their wedding night. During May’s Festa da Divina Santa Cruz de Monsanto, local women bring these dolls to the castle for a lively celebration of song and dance, praying for fertility.
I was too early for the May holidays, but the sweet smell of freshly baked pastries was hard to resist. I followed my nose to Taverna Lusitana, a snack bar serving cherry custard tarts, as well as loads of regional cheeses, chourico (spicy pork sausage), and bottles of Lusitana stout. Joao Roque, the owner, moved here 14 years ago from Lisbon. “Setting up here was like an old dream come true, because Monsanto is a sacred mountain, a sacred place,” he said.
What did he think about living in the most Portuguese village in the country? “I am proud to live here and I want to protect the country’s prestigious titles because they are an honour. It’s a big responsibility to keep Monsanto old and attractive.”
There is hope, indeed, with building restrictions at Monsanto allowing the village to retain its uniquely medieval charm, and the relative lack of people – both locals and tourists – certainly emphasized the peace de Brito mentions.
On a final walk up to the castle ramparts, I looked down on this quiet rural community. It was a glimpse into the past and what many of Portugal’s rural villages were like: bastions of local traditions; streets steeped in history; sanctuaries of calm. What others have lost, Monsanto has managed – thankfully – to hang on.
Taverna Lusitana is a guest house with a snack bar and two studio apartments from €80 (£71) each a night.
The easiest way to reach Monsanto is to fly direct from the UK to Porto or Lisbon and hire a car. Monsanto is about a three-hour drive from either city in the direction of Castelo Branco.
Five more typically Portuguese villages
One of Portugal’s 12 Historic Villages (along with Monsanto), this village sits within a vast 12-pronged fortification built to defend the country from the Spanish border, about five miles away. Be sure to explore the village’s two churches, Baroque palaces, impressive clock tower and St. Francis’ double doors.
Casa do Ti Messias is a two bedroom Almeida fort holiday home with terrace, from around £79.
A favorite with painters, who adore the whitewashed buildings along Rua Direita, the Alentejo village of Monsaraz is one of the oldest settlements in southern Portugal. It’s a snapshot of rural Portugal, which comes for the good food, traditional crafts and sweeping views of the olive groves and Alqueva Dam.
Nearby São Lourenço do Barrocal features luxurious yet rustic farmhouse-inspired rooms and cottages. Rooms start from around £335 and cottages from £705.
On the banks of the Tagus, an hour from Leiria, this charming little village is all terra-cotta roofs and whitewashed buildings with primrose-yellow borders. Don’t miss the church of Our Lady of the Conceição with its grandiose Renaissance portico and the Almourol Castle on the neighboring island.
Quinta Ribeiro Tanquinhos is a country guest house with an outdoor pool, garden, terrace and four bedrooms, starting from £66pn.
Located above the Rio Guadiana, this fortified village is crowned by an imposing castle. Its early days are related to the Phoenicians, who founded a port here, and the Romans, who called the city Myrtilis lulia. This village hosts several small museums within its walls, including Casa Romano, which exhibits artifacts from a Roman house
Nearby Hotel Museum named after the hotel’s museum, it offers picturesque views, with rooms starting from around £53.
Lamas de Ôlo
Primarily home to shepherds and farmers, this elevated spot (about 1,000m above sea level) in the lush surroundings of the Alvão Natural Park is prime hiking territory, but the village is perhaps best known for its thatched roofs, granite and the watermill.
Less than 20 minutes away Borralha Hotel, Restaurant & Spa it has 30 rooms, an outdoor pool and spa with steam room, with rooms starting at £80.