Cities, towns, villages, regions - discussion about other areas of Portugal


Postby Mario » Tue May 01, 2007 2:06 am

An article about Marvão from the New York Times: ... ref=travel

(For's Marvão page go to

April 29, 2007
Explorer | Marvão, Portugal

Seeing for Miles From a Village High in the Sky

FROM afar, Portugal’s medieval village of Marvão looks like a fairytale mirage, huddled atop a mountain some 2,900 feet in the sky. To get there, you must drive up a steep and serpentine road — peppered with narrow hairpin turns — that takes you through clutches of cork and chestnut trees, and past Lilliputian settlements with pocket-sized flower gardens and low stone walls. Along the way, at certain twists and turns, you can catch fleeting glimpses of Marvão’s terracotta roofs and whitewashed walls.

But nothing quite prepares you for your dramatic arrival: a giant stone wall, up to 10 feet thick in parts, edges the perimeter of the town like strong, safe arms, encircling not only Marvão’s ancient castle but every tidy house and lane. The main archway entrance is just wide enough for one car. You can drive through, slowly, as long as you’re not in a Hummer (not that you’d find one in these parts). But it’s much more pleasant to park outside the gate and stroll in on foot, taking in the earthy scent and fresh mountaintop air.

A leisurely walk around the ancient village — best done along the top of the wide, flat ridge of the stone walls — is reason alone to visit: It will put you high above the Alentejo region’s scrubby, sun-baked plains and offer exquisite 360-degree views. Whether you look toward Spain, 10 miles to the east, or west toward Lisbon, you’ll gaze upon expansive, wheat-colored fields that give way to clusters of homes and green-and-granite hills.

“From Marvão one can see the entire land,” José Saramago, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner for literature, wrote in “Journey to Portugal,” his 2001 travelogue. “It is understandable that from this place, high up in the keep at Marvão Castle, visitors may respectfully murmur, ‘How great is the world.’ ”

The majority of visitors who slip through that entrance are day-trippers from Lisbon, the Algarve coast and western Spain. But as foreign tourists discover the Alentejo region, with its postcard-perfect fortified towns like Évora and Monsaraz — and now stocked with museums and trinket shops — Marvão may well be the most humbling.

It has managed, incredibly, to retain its idyllic small-town feel, despite its accessibility (just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Lisbon) and an average of 20,000 visitors a year — an impressive figure when you consider that Marvão only has 150 residents.

“What’s marvelous about it is it’s in this wonderfully empty countryside, but is still centrally placed — easily accessible from the coast, from Lisbon and from Madrid,” said Chris Kellond, 57, a native of Donegal, Ireland, who has lived in Marvão with her husband since 1992. Ms. Kellond runs a gift shop in the village named Milflores.

The 13th-century castle is the town’s main attraction — its mazelike passageways, a creepily dark and echoing cistern, and bartizans that jut out over the cliffs like fixed, angular wings. The bartizans offer stellar views of the Serra de Ossa and Serra de São Mamede mountains, and miles of tilled farm patches that blanket the earth like a crazy patchwork in various shades of jade.

The castle has stood guard here since 1299. That’s when King Dom Dinis went into a fortress-building frenzy, bulking up towns on the border with Spain, and using them to stage military victories over the Moors.

Today the town is home to a peaceful, tight-knit community — a blend of year-rounders and second-home owners from Lisbon, with just about 20 local children in the mix. “I know all of them,” said Felicidade Tavares, 48, a third-generation resident who runs the local tourism office. “If I close my eyes, I can go along each street in my mind and see exactly who lives where.”

For a more historic perspective, step into the town museum, housed in a small, white-stone church. Its scattered collection offers an intriguing look at the town’s, and the country’s, past: medieval tombstones, colorful walls of azueljos (brightly-hued tiles), statues of 15th-century monks, excavated pottery and a room dedicated to the region’s significant Jewish history. Many Jews were persecuted in Spain during the Middle Ages and fled to Marvão. (Jewish culture is even more evident in Marvão’s sister village, Castelo de Vide, a lovely side trip that’s just four miles down the mountain.)

But Marvão’s greatest treat is walking its tangle of cobblestone streets (there are only about a dozen in all) and hearing only the sound of your feet touching down as you explore every stone nook and alley. It was eerily silent just before sunset on a balmy afternoon last fall, with just a handful of tourists roaming.

“It’s interesting that everything’s inside a wall,” said José Manuel Pallero, 25, a student who was visiting for the day from Cáceres, Spain.

Remarkably, the ancient structures and alleyways seem to be in mint condition, so much so that the town applied to be recognized as a Unesco World Heritage Site. But when Marvão failed a first round of evaluations last year, town officials — true to the town’s unassuming personality — withdrew their application rather than risk a final rejection.

Perhaps it was a blessing, since the honor would have brought more crowds, washing away the relative solitude that gives Marvão its charm.

You can soak up the quiet seclusion at the Pousada de Santa Maria, a historic inn with an elegant, white-tablecloth dining room. If you go just before sunset, the inn, which is set into the cliff, offers grand views of the valley bathed in gold. Just as spectacular is the menu, which includes robust regional wines and Alentejo dishes like pork simmered with clams, and a bread soup (açorda) flecked with cilantro and garlic.

After dinner, stroll along the village’s stone-walled edges. The velvet shroud of darkness is colossal, the silence immense. And the land below you, now a bottomless moat of blackness, has a power that’s sweeping.



The most direct route to Marvão is by car. From Lisbon, the drive takes about two and a half hours. From Seville, the closest major city in Spain, it’s about a three-and-a-half-hour drive.


The finest digs in town are at the Pousada de Santa Maria (351-245-993-201;, part of Portugal’s countrywide network of historic inns. Double rooms, many with priceless views, are 155 euros, or about $215 at $1.38 to the euro, through July.

Also consider the Casa D. Dinis (351-245-993-957;, just outside the castle walls, where doubles start at 55 euros.

The Albergaria El-Rei Dom Manuel (351-245-909-150;, near the town’s main entrance, has double rooms starting at 60 euros.


The restaurant at Pousada de Santa Maria offers finely prepared Alentejo cuisine. Dinner for two (with local wine) is about 70 euros.

Casa D. Dinis runs a pub and snack bar, Castelo, across the road. It’s a great spot to join locals for a beer, port or toasted sandwich.
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