On a weekend of tours and adventures, we visited three fine Historic Villages: Monsanto, Idanha-a-Velha, and Castelo Novo. Magnificent places full of History, culture, and impressive natural surroundings.
For some time, whenever the opportunity arises, we head to Central Portugal’s countryside and venture out to the Historic Villages of Portugal. We had only visited Sortelha and Piódão, thus imposing upon us to continue this saga and add more names to our list of visited Historic Villages.
Taking advantage of a long weekend in autumn, we decided to travel to the Castelo Branco district to visit Monsanto, Idanha-a-Velha, and Castelo Novo, making use of the geographical proximity of these three Historic Villages. In fact, by the national highways, the Historic Village of Monsanto is only about 15 minutes from Idanha-a-Velha, and Castelo Novo, which is nearly 50 minutes from Idanha-a-Velha, was on our way back.
Knowing that there is a view of the Serra da Estrela from Monsanto, we chose to stay in that Historic Village. But nothing prepared us for the view that awaited us when we woke up. We had often forgotten how our country is capable of dazzling us – and this was one of those occasions. The blue sky graced us with a breathtaking landscape. We had already taken immense photographs before having a small breakfast.
With the first meal of the day out of the way, we filled ourselves with strength to walk up through the village to the Castle of Monsanto. It was an incredible experience, and we realized why Monsanto was honored as the Most Portuguese Village of Portugal in 1938. Its narrow, winding roads and houses seem to “sprout” from the stones. Monsanto is one of the most traditional Portuguese villages that we have ever visited. On the way, the villagers greeted us with a smile, “Good morning!” The men sitting at the doors of their house displayed their Marafonas, dolls made from a wooden cross, dressed in cloth, without the eyes, mouths, noses, or ears painted on them. According to the people of Monsanto, they believe that Marafonas are the most powerful charms against the evil eye, and they help with fertility if placed under a couple’s pillow. Because of the charming colorful and traditional outfits rather than the people’s beliefs, we did not resist buying a small Marafona.
Upon arriving at the Castle of Monsanto, we discovered that this Historic Village’s surroundings are a box full of surprises. Contemplating several stone compositions around the castle, we realized what José Saramago meant to say in Journey to Portugal when he wrote, “The traveler thought he had seen all there was to see regarding stones. That was before he came to Monsanto.”
To recover our energies, we had lunch at the “O Cruzeiro” Traditional Tavern in Monsanto’s multi-use pavilion, where, in addition to an amazing panoramic view, we enjoyed a delicious roasted codfish cutlet.
We spent the afternoon touring and discovering the nooks of Monsanto’s streets, appreciating this historic village’s peace and tranquility.
The next day, we headed to Idanha-a-Velha to explore the village with one of the country’s largest archaeological sites. This is a village that takes us on an authentic trip through time as it still preserves remnants of the Romans, Swabians, and the Knights Templar, all of whom had at one time occupied this region. In fact, we found out that Idanha-a-Velha was a district capital city in Roman times, diocese headquarters in the Swabian-Visigothic era, and that it was greatly relevant during the period of the Knights Templar. We noticed these details as we passed through the village streets, from the Parish Church to the magnificent Sé Cathedral, where we found endless traces of a Roman settlement. The Tower of the Templars that we found in Idanha-a-Velha was also curious, the only visible trace of a small Castle of that order. Today, it seems to be located in the garden of a family home.
For more strength to get through the rest of the day, we stopped at the Helana restaurant in Idanha-a-Nova for lunch. Helana is an authentic example of a sustainable restaurant that respects the planet and its ecosystems, evidenced by the regional products that are the great stars of the menu, such as wild mushrooms (a perfect delicacy for an appetizer), sausages (the farinheira pâté is a must), or the sheep milk, goat, or cow milk cheeses. Helana thus proved to be a fantastic choice for savoring traditional and delicious products of the region.
In the afternoon, on our way home, we took the time to stop in the Historic Village of Castelo Novo. Surrounded by an imposing and impressive Serra da Gardunha composed of granite monuments, we felt as if we were in a world of enchantment from a children’s movie in Castelo Novo. Castelo Novo’s doors and windows accent the singular character of this village, as they are all painted in different colors and decorations.
We walked through the village until reaching the Castle with its military architecture. Today, only a quadrangular tower remains, but the remnants of the rest of the building allow one to imagine the unique construction, which, like other castles in the Historic Villages that we have visited, offer insight into the role these buildings played in defending our borders.
Before returning home, we could not leave without stopping by the Atelier de Histórias Criativas de Ana Almeida, a project based on the imagination of children in the Historic Villages of Portugal. Based on stories that children from 12 villages told about the regions where they were born in a creative writing workshop, Ana Almeida created 12 wool dolls inspired by the stories’ protagonists, which also represent the 12 Historic Villages of Portugal. Visiting this place was a fascinating experience as we realized that this is an example of the population’s dynamics. The studio is free to the public and has available material for grandparents who want to take their grandchildren to learn the techniques of the most ancestral manual work.
We left behind Castelo Novo and a weekend of unforgettable adventures in the Historic Villages of Portugal, promising to return…very soon.