On the east side of Portugal away from the coast and toward the Spanish border, Portugal’s topography changes to arid, dry and mountainous. Here you can explore the Schist villages. 27 historic hamlets built into the stone hillside where you will find castles and fortresses constructed centuries ago around boulders and Roman ruins.
We had just visited the Douro River Valley and as we headed south, our first of the Schist villages was the medieval town of Marialva where we stayed at Casa do Coro. This most extraordinary hillside has just 35 residents living below the 13th century castle and church, but the real gem is the sophisticated resort – Casas De Coro. This extraordinary, and pricey, resort offers magnificently renovated cottages, a spa and gorgeous pool, plus a library and chic indoor outdoor dining room. Here is proof that ruins can become a 5 star resort. Marialva is in the middle of nowhere, but views of Spain justify why this fortress was key to protecting Portugal. Walk the castle at sunset before a magical dinner by candlelight at the resort.
From Marialva we continued an hour south to Belmonte and stormed the castle. Here we found a tremendous 12th century stronghold – the hilltop castle is well-preserved. Belmont is also home to Jewish and Brazil museums, plus some great little cafes like Brasao for lunch. We lodged in Belmont’s convent on the mountain of hope. This beautifully renovated Pousada Convento de Belmonte offers modern “Friars” rooms, a beautiful outdoor pool overlooking the valley, and many cozy gathering rooms amid stone and wood from the 18th century convent. The Convent’s Chef is excellent as well, breakfast is included with your lodging.
From Belmonte its a short 30 minute trip to Sortelha, another impressive schist castle high on a hillside with views of Spain, and also views of far too many Portugese wind turbines, a shame – perhaps where the country blew their EU money on this otherwise beautiful landscape.
For us our next stop was Castelo Novo, another quiet little village with great history and yes, more churches, a castle and quaint cafes. Then it was onto Idanha-a-Velha worth an hour’s walk and exploration of the castle and churches.
Monsanto is amazing, the most authentic Portuguese village and the ultimate schist settlement, steep cobblestone alleys carved into immense round boulders are geographically stunning, with a handful of humble cafes for lunch or hearty local dinner of beef with egg or codfish. We lodged in the village in a humble house Cantinho da Coxixa. A traditional stone-walled house you can rent for about $50 a night from Manual and Maria. We enjoyed climbing up to the Castle for sunrise over Spain and surely were among the first in Portugal to greet the day from this impressive fortress. How they built these castles centuries ago is beyond me. Monsanto’s Castle was never sieged, from roman to medieval times, however it was nearly destroyed by an explosion of its own munitions dump. In the village, check out the old pigpen before enjoying café and custard at Lucitano’s panoramic terrace.
As we headed south on a hot day we detoured to a River Beach near Belver and discovered Alamal River Club beach bar. Swimming in the clear cool water with views of the Belver castle is delightfully refreshing. You can rent boats, and you must buy lunch for a beach chair or straw cabana, I suggest the $2 sangria made from local Alentejo wines.
On our way to Marvao, we stopped and strolled the pretty city of Castelo de Vide, then drove up the twisty roads to Marvao, a magnificent mountain top village at 2,700’ overlooking the Alentejo mountains and reservoirs. Staying overnight at the Casa da Arvore Marvao (tree house) we were able to explore at our leisure the cobbled alleys, the castle and gardens after the tours had departed. A highlight was sipping a port on the grand southwest balcony at sunset at our Casa. Then we savored local lamb stew, traditional pork with clams, and chestnut cakes with a dry Alentejo Vinho Tinto at People’s House. Other dining options in town include Varanda Do Alentejo, Dom Manuel or the pricey but posh convent Pousada.
From here, travel north up to Douro River for port wine tasting and river boat tours and on to the great city of Porto where port wine is produced, or southwest to Evora on you way to Lisbon and Sintra.
More Portugal Travel Tips and Itineraries on:
Lisbon Travel Tips
Drinking Port wine in Porto
Touring up the Douro River Valley
The Schist Villages – Interior Portugal
Evora and Portugal’s Stonehedge