Between huge granite rocks, houses have been built high up, above the sea of clouds
Monsanto was declared Portugal’s most Portuguese village in 1938 at a national competition held by the Ministry of Propaganda of the Estado Novo and was awarded the silver cock, a replica of which still shines in the sun on the Lucano bell tower. However, the pretty village wrongly received this award, as it is by no means to be regarded as typical. Rather, it is unique, with its houses, stairs and alleyways trapped between huge granite cliffs, high up on the slope of the Monsanto mountain that protrudes imposingly from the flat landscape, and you can’t help but think of a fantasy world, like the Shire with its hobbit holes. The houses here are indeed houses, but they are often so originally built between the huge rocks that the walls and ceilings of the apartments in them are often simply rock walls.
In the morning,
the houses float above the radiant sea of clouds.
there are a few uninhabited islands;
the world is limited to this old village,
and its legendary resistant fortress high above.
After we rolled our suitcases through the narrow alleys to the upper end of the village, we succumbed to the charm of this fairytale-like place, where it is peaceful and relaxed. Cars rarely get up here, and when they do, they manoeuvre slowly and laboriously around every corner of each house. Thus, we had the street in front of our holiday flat all to ourselves. Our children immediately set off on a small discovery tour of the immediate neighbourhood, imitated sluggish cats, collected coloured stones and enthusiastically drew patterns on the cobblestones.
A little later, we took our first walk up to the top of the Monsanto mountain. Passing stables dug between and under the rocks and beautiful flowering meadows with fruit trees, the path climbed steeply up the mountain and offered fantastic views over and over again.
Lia jumped from rock to rock like an Ibex, and when it was almost dark, we reached the old ruin of the São Miguel Chapel, which served as a necropolis for a long time from the 12th century onwards. In the darkness, the ancient tombs carved in stone at the entrance looked uncanny and almost frightening.
Later in the evening, we got a little lost in the alleys and streets around the Lucano bell tower. We passed a house in which the famous neorealist writer Fernando Namora worked as a doctor at a young age. In the evening, certainly looking into the dark alleys of Monsanto, we wrote first poems and stories, passed some pretty old wells, and our city children enjoyed having the whole street to themselves and climbed enthusiastically up the house entrance stairs and through the small entrances to the terraces, from which there was always surprising views of impressive houses among the rocks.
While we slumbered comfortably in one of the old houses, the mountain, with all its sleeping inhabitants climbed up into the spring sky. Only the next morning, after opening the heavy front door, did we understand this mystery. Monsanto rose majestically out of the huge sea of clouds and took us one further step away from space and time. At the top of the old fortress, we finally had a magnificent view of the cloudy mountains in the distance. Was the high mountain range back there the mighty Serra da Estrela?
The extensive castle was built during the Christian reconquest of Portugal in the 12th century by the Templars and has a very unique history, which until today is celebrated every year on the 3rd of May, the feast of the Holy Cross, by the descendants of the victors with a pretty ritual. It is no longer certain when the events actually took place and who the actors and their adversaries were, but one of the prettier variants of the legend is as follows:
The Legend of the Holy Cross
The Roman troops, under Lúcio Emílio Paulo, had already been besieging Monsanto for 7 dark years, waiting only for hunger to force the besieged to surrender. Many inhabitants of Monsanto had already died and the village elder had already lost all of his sons in the fight against the Romans. Only his one daughter had remained. In this hopeless situation, he tried to persuade her to flee with his last cows, but she steadfastly refused.
In view of their courage and perseverance, the father finally asked them to slaughter this last flock and share it with the starving inhabitants in order to last perhaps another week. The week passed, and the Roman soldiers noticed the tragic situation of the besieged and once again demanded their surrender.
The daughter asked her desperate father not to give up yet. She had already forged a bold plan and asked her father to implement it. He consented, and so the daughter fetched the last calf, fed it with the last wheat supplies, then climbed onto the defensive wall and called out with unexpected confidence to the Romans that they would not surrender because they had so much to eat. To prove this, she threw the calf down at the Romans, scattering the wheat it had just eaten.
That same afternoon, Consul Emilio was called up from the plain to tell the besieged that they could keep their calves, and one day they would be taken anyway, but now they had to follow the call from Rome that they had wasted too much time here. But they could be sure that they would come back!
The village elder ran and stumbled, crazy with joy, to the top of the mountain and shouted after the besiegers: come again! We will wait for you and still have another calf to offer you. Many voices of laughter drowned him out, but it didn’t come from the besiegers as usual, but this time from the besieged, who cheered the clever daughter of the village elder. The outwitted Romans finally left.
Today, the old fortress sits enthroned on the summit of the mountain and quickly entices children who enjoy climbing to enthusiastically explore. Since no safety railings were installed anywhere, you should take care with your children here, because the climbed walls are quite high and the ground next to them is very hard.
Monsanto pleases us because of its unobtrusive composure. The pretty town has retained most of its charm. There are hardly any hotels and holiday flats, and there are also no souvenir shop and only a few cafes and restaurants. During the day, some tourists climb up the mountain, especially from nearby Spain, but so far there are comparatively few. The population has been declining for many years and many houses are actually empty. Surely, this is mainly due to the remote location in the extreme east of Portugal, and also to the rough living conditions so high up and between the old rocks. Recently, families have settled here again and schools that had been closed for years have been reopened. The house acquired by Zeca Afonso before 1974 will soon be transformed into a museum dedicated to the most important singer and composer of the carnation revolution. He is said to have acquired it in order to offer an inconspicuous hiding place to hole up resistance fighters, which opened up a final possibility for escape through nearby Spanish border.
Monsanto is one of the 12 historic villages in Portugal that are located in this region and that, according to our experience so far, are all well worth a visit. In these villages, time seems to have stood still, and our experience was that our children explored these mostly traffic-free villages with enthusiasm. Very close to Monsanto is another of these villages: Idanha-a-Velha. Also, the border to Spain is only a stone’s throw away, and a drive there turns out to be a drive through an endlessly flat landscape, which is hardly populated. Thus, I ask myself if one can speak of a natural border here, as without cars, it seems to me that the other country is practically unreachable. Shortly before the Spanish border, we discover Penha Garcia, an old mill valley with a wonderful natural swimming hole surrounded by 600 million year old quartzite rocks, in which many so-called ichnofossils can be found that are called painted snakes by the inhabitants of the small city. They date back to a time when all continents were still united around the South Pole.
How to get there:
By car to the lower part of the village. A small parking lot offers space for a few cars. Further up the road is only free for residents. You can park a little below the car park on the street. By public transport, you should travel to the beautiful town Castelo Branco, e.g. by train, and from there take a bus to Monsanto.
GPS (Parking): 40.040003, -7.114172
On the road in Monsanto:
The small streets in Monsanto are steep and cobbled. It is easy to get to the booked accommodation with a pram and rolling suitcases, and you can get to the top of the mountain with a pram suitable for off-road use.