The Medieval village of Monsaraz is placed strategically on a hill over "la Raya", name given to the border between Spain and Portugal. On its highest part rises a castle, from where we can enjoy the best views of the Alentejo fields, the Alqueva reservoir and the town itself. To arrive at the castle, we only have to follow the walls surrounding Monsaraz or one of its two main streets.
The great quantity of megalithic monuments existing in the surrounding area informs us that these lands have been inhabited by men from prehistoric times. Its strategic location and the nearby River Guadiana made many peoples to dispute its dominance. Along the centuries, the village of Monsaraz has been inhavited by Romans, Visighots, Jews, Muslims and finally by Christians, who took it from the Muslim power.
The Christian victory was accomplished in the second try… In the year 1.167, Monstaraz was taken to Muslims by Alfonso first of Portugal thanks to the invaluable help of a portuguese noble with fearless name: Geraldo Sempavor (Gerald the Fearless). But after a few years it returned to the Muslim power till finally un 1,232, the monarch Sancho second of Portugal reconquered it definitely and gave it to the Kniths of the Order of the Temple.
It was precisely the Templars, and later the Knights of the Order of Christ who started to build the powerful Castle of Monsaraz at the end of the XIII th century under the reigns of the Portuguese monarchs Alfonso III and Dinis I. At that moment a fortress in good condition was needed to protect this Portuguese territory located in an area so dangerous as it was the line known as "la Raya"( the Line), border separating Portugal from the lands of the Crown of Castille.
The Castle of Monsaraz is formed by some towers, among them, the Tower of Homage, that over time has been a prison, the mayor´s room or even the castle´s stock. Beside it, the mysterious Torre das Feiticeiras (Tower of the Sorceress), which will provide us with the best panoramics waiting for us. At the feet of these towers is the ancient Plaza de Armas (Main Square) , an esplanade converted into a ludic space thanks to the effort of the neighbors. And it is due to the decaying state it had in the XIX th century, that locals decided to build, with their own hands, a bullring over the main square. By the way, this space continues to host festive events actually…
The Castle of Monsaraz is a marvel, declared National Monument of Portugal. Its visit will transfer us to a time of battles offering at the same time incredible views of the Alentejo dehesas and the Valley of the Guadiana. This fortress, known as the "Eagle´s Nest" because of its challenging height breaking the infinite horizon of the Alentejo, will let us be much nearer to the sky.
Castle of Monsaraz
Largo do Castelo 1
7200-175 Monsaraz, Portugal
SUNNY LAND OF WINES
Recently, the region of Alentejo was chosen in a poll from a prestigious northamerican publication as the "best wine tourism destination of the world", distinction that was very curious considering that till that moment Alentejo was believed to be an excellent wine region, but almost unknown outside of the portuguese border… Such awards opened the eyes of the people from Alentejo, who started to be conscious of their land´s wines. Together with the beautiful and calm landscapes of their region and their great gastronomy, they were getting Alentejo to enjoy a well-deserved touristic fame at world level. A comprehensible success taking into consideration that this region is the cradle of more than 250 wine producers.
To tour the Alentejo is like flying over vast expanses of vineyards, being its vineyards of very different
varieties in each plantation. This variety is translated into a great quantity of wine broths classified in areas inside the Appellation of Origin "Alentejo". In our tour to Monsaraz, we would be in the wine region known as "Reguengos".
To publicize the secrets of the wines from Alentejo a wide tourist infrastructure was developed in the region related with the wine. Themed hotels related with oenology, tours to wine cellars with tastings, restaurants with their own wineries, routes in the places of Alentejo with the best wine production...In this way , the so named wine-tourism was born, combining perfectly with the excellent local gastronomy. Every one visiting Alentejo finds it to be a land of good food".
Alentejo´s cuisine is based on local products and these same lands give us as a present the marvelous wines from Alentejo. For this reason, gastronomy and oenology combine in such an excellent way in Alentejo. In the end, all the products making up the two cultures come from the same land.
Alentejo´s wine production has suffered some ups and downs along history. It was born thanks to the Romans who fremented the wine must and stored it in mud cisterns. The wine culture kept growing with time till the Arab occupation brought a decadence to the sector for the van of their religion to drink alcohol. With Christianity a new resurface of the Alentejo wine culture started and has not stopped to grow till our days.
And it is so that the lands of this region receive many sun hours all year long, and if we add this to the great thermal amplitude of the region, with cold winters and very warm summers, a determining climate for their wines is created. Experts say that the wines from Alentejo, whether they are red, rosé or white, are soft but with a strong smell.
Given the large number of wines offered in the restaurants of Monsaraz, let yourself be advised and enjoy your choice!
PURE ALENTEJO ESSENCE
If there is a place in Portugal concentrating the most pure essence of Alentejo, this is Monsaraz… This small Portuguese village, besides being a beautiful open-air museum, is the cradle of the most traditional crafts of Alentejo, an art that we can admire in the adorable craft shops we will find in Monsaraz. Given the great beauty of the exposed products in these shops, we could say that these establishments are almost another museum of Monsaraz.
The crafts of Alentejo are really broad, encompassing various specialities, depending on the used material and the arts to handle them. It is so broad that it encompasses very different specialities going from the blacksmith´s forge to the tapestry art, including of course the ubiquitous works in cork. And there is no store in the whole Alentejo that is not tempting us with thousands of articles made from the bark of the cork oak! It is surprising the fan of cork articles to be extremely wide, as it goes from objects used as photo frames, imitation jewelry, bags or wallets, and other more originals...as cork umbrellas!
The crafts of Monsaraz are mainly centered in two concrete materials, textiles and ceramics. The objects produced by both crafts are exhibited in the shops as real works of art. And it is because they really are!
Let´s start with textile art, which articles so much beautify these shops. And it is that in addition to tapestries, rugs and blankets of a thousand colours flooding the walls, the floors and the shelves of these establishments, the star product of textile art in Monsaraz is an object that we could never imagine, as it is a very ancient article that today is very rare for us, but was essential in other times ...We speak about saddlebags! Yes, you read correctly. Saddlebags. These bags were placed on horses, mules or donkeys´ backs and were filled with everything that one would like to transport over the animal. The famous saddlebags of Monsaraz are made in fabric with embroidery and are a nice and original souvenir from this tour.
And now we go with the great protagonist of the crafts of Monsaraz: Clay ceramic. In the vicinity of Monsaraz we find the greatest potter center of all the Iberian Peninsula, composed of more than 20 olarias, names given in Portugal to the pottery workshops. The art of working with clay in this area goes back to the Roman times and was maintained during the Arab occupation, arriving to our days making part of the identity of Monsaraz.
The beautiful articles of ceramics born at these nearby olarias are exposed and sold in the craft shops of Monsaraz. Tablewares, bowls, tiles, chandeliers...thousands of enameled objects in attractive colours and designs!
But we advise you in advance...They are all that it is a great challenge to choose among so many works of art!
BECAUSE OF A SINGER´S VOICE
Monsaraz owns the perfect place to portray all the characters of the region. It is about an ideal frame to take a picture where the beautiful and infinite landscape of Alentejo meets with one of the most special traditions of the region. All the identity of Alentejo is reflected in photography! For this we are going to head down to the entrance of Monsaraz where the Homage to the Alentejo Sing is waiting for us.
In this place there is a marvelous viewpoint where a monument shows the pride their inhabitants feel for their traditional Alentejo Sing. The work of art represents a great silhouette of a group of men dressed in the typical regional costume forming a choir. A total of 24 men scattered in three lines, wearing their hats and with a marked hole in their face symbolizing the pure feeling born at the interior of these local people sprouting outside through their marvelous voices.
Declared World Heritage of Humanity from 2,014, the Alentejo Cante (Alentejo Sing) is a relevant traditional sing practiced by a choir of amateur singers, inhabitants of the region of Alentejo. It just runs through their voices, without any kind of accompaniment of music instruments and its main characteristic is a unique vocal style together with the peculiarity of the words and its melody. From these lines we encourage you to see and listen to Alentejo Cante through the internet to bring you this musical feeling that is impossible to be described only with words.
A choral group is made up from a maximum of 30 singers and each of them have a concrete function in the choir . The figure of a soloist singer exists, named "o ponto", who starts the singing with a low tone. It is followed by "o alto", another figure repeating the previous stanza but with a higher register. After this, the rest of the singers burst out interpreting the other stanzas, while the voice of "o alto" acts as the leading voice along all the singing. There are male and female choirs and recently mixt ones have started to appear.
The words of Cantes from Alentejo engloves a wide repertory of poems resurfacing from rural areas and which thematically addresses life issues as beautiful as nature, love, maternity or even seduction… These songs form part of the identity of the peoples of the region and are celebrated in public and private meetings. It is about a fruit of the lands of Alentejo emerging "because of a singer´s voice".
Thus the lookout will also give us exceptional views of the infinity of Alentejo that will provide us with a great visual rest. Our views a will arrive at a distant and flat horizon while over flying the flat dehesas and the placid waters of River Guadiana. A real pleasure for the senses!
Homenagem ao Cante Alentejano (Homage to the Alentejo Sing)
Viewpoint of the buses parking of Monsaraz
7200-175 Monsaraz, Portugal
A "FRENCH" WALL WITH A FINAL SURPRISE
Nowadays, one of the main characteristics of Monsaraz is the tranquility that is breathed at any of its corners. Its streets, its atmosphere and its surroundings are able to transfer a serenity acting as a balm for our spirit filling our interior with the most absolute peace. But this was not always like this...Far from it!
The serene village of Monsaraz that we tour today was a real hotbed of war for many centuries. Its strategic position at a height, and, specially its proximity to la Raya placed Monsaraz as the focus of a thousand contests...The many medieval battles between Muslims and Christians and the later wars between the Kingdom of Portugal and the Hispanic Monarchy, were responsables of the aspect of a fortress still lasting in Monsaraz. For this reason the village was crowned with the castle and, with the pass of centuries it was surrounded completely by a wall. This configuration is maintained till the present day, hence it is still necessary to cross one of the four gates of the wall to access intramurals. Let´s know more about the wall and its gates!
The imposing wall surrounding Monsaraz was built in the XVII th century during the so-called Portuguese Restoration War, a contest in which Portugal fought against the Hispanic Monarchy to recover its independence and its own Monarchy. Portugal was then under the King of Spain´s command in what is known as the Iberian Union. The wall was designed by two french engineers with the finality that Monsaraz should be part of a defensive line in la Raya together with other squares as Olivença, Elvas or Mourão. A chain of fortresses aligned protecting the Portuguese border!
The main access to Monsaraz is done through the Porta da Vila, the most of the four gates. Guarded by two
semicircular towers and a very white bell tower, it has over its pointed arch a memorial stone dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. In the northern part of the wall we find the Porta da Évora, also receiving us with a pointed arch and protected by a cubic tower. The other two intramural access gates are Porta de Alcoba and Porta Buraco, both with semicircular arches. And it is just beside this last gate where Monsaz has a very hided jewell…
This mysterious monument is in an alley that was part of the wall and ended at the Porta Buraco. It is the Cistern of Monsaraz, a cistern having water at the bottom even today. Built at the end of the Middle Ages over an ancient Mosque of the XI th century, the cistern had the functions of a water supply tank for the population. Through narrow staircases it is possible to climb to the terrace over the cistern that offers privileged views. Don´t miss this visit!
Porta da Vila de Santiago 33
7200-175 Monsaraz, Portugal
Travessa da Cisterna
7200-175 Monsaraz, Portugal
FIND THE MARKS OF THE PAST
Monsaraz has known how to perfectly preserve the different elements that have been shaping its history and this fact causes a secure feeling...To cross one of the four gates of its wall is like crossing a line on time!
In its small size, Monsaraz treasures numerous traces of its past. Some of these signs indicate warlike stages, others refer to more quiet periods, but also rests are preserve talking about a certain very dark period of the history of humanity that, despise its toughness, it must be remembered precisely not to be repeated...From these lines we challenge you to find these signals of the past!
At the confluence of rua Santiago with travessa Quebra-Costas is the House of the Holy Inquisition, a modest and white building of two floors whose façade is decorated with tiles with iconographic elements of the Holy Office. The name of the building can lead to confusion as it is that this house never served as a court for that institution, as the real court was in the nearby Evora. The house is called so because it served as a temporal prison for those accused by the Inquisition before being taken to Evora and also because it was the house of the Inquisitors. Nowadays it houses a museum about the Jewish History of Monsaraz talking about the jewish presence at the village between the XIV th and the XV th centuries.
Which does not lead to confusion is the name of travessa do Quebra-Costas, meaning "Break Backs" crossing... and it is so that when we see how steep the slope is, you will understand!
Following the travessa do Quebra-Costas, we will arrive at the old Jewry of Monsaraz and here we must open our eyes very well if we want to find a clear trace of the past. And it is so that some of the houses still keep the cleft where the Mezuzá, the scroll with verses from the Torah, was placed! It is this cavity we will find in the right jambs of the doors of the jewish living place.
But now it is time to talk of a certain column that we have mentioned in a previous point...At the middle of the square Doutor Nuno Álvares Pereira rises a misteriouswhite marble column. It is the Pelourinho of Monsaraz, also known as Picota, and it was the pillar where convicts were tied and exposed so that justice would be expensed to them...The picota we see today was erected in the XVIII th century as the previous one was knocked down by the Lisbon Earthquake of 1,755. Can you imagine a person tied to the picota in the middle of the square receiving his sentence...? It is atrocious!
To end with a better taste in our mouth, we are going to explore other traces of a kinder past of Monsaraz...Try to discover different elements existing in many houses and speaking about their owners: impressing chimneys , very ancient doors and windows, elegant coat of arms and above all, strange latches with curious designs. There are some with the shape of a dog!
Casa da Santa Inquisiçao (House of the Holy Inquisition)
Travessa do Quebra-Costas 7
7200-175 Monsaraz, Portugal
Pelourinho de Monsaraz
Largo Doutor Nuno Álvares Pereira
THE WATER MIRROR
From any of the viewpoints of Monsaraz we can observe how the waters of River Guadiana, crossing these lands, form such a beautiful and placid lake that it can be considered one more monument of Monsaraz. Having said that, we are going to tell you a secret about this lake...And it is that it is not a natural lake but a reservoir created by man! In fact, we are in front of the biggest artificial lake of Western Europe… It is the Reservoir of Alqueva, a true feat of engineering, that at the same time is a work of art. An immensity of water arriving almost to the infinite and surrounded by landscapes that will make us conscious of its grandiosity.
Placed between Spain and Portugal, its total area is 250 square kilometers, from which only 33 are in Spanish territory. It is able to store a quantity of water so colossal that it could supply the city of Lisbon for 40 years! Its length covers 83 kilometers with a maximum depth of 152 meters. Its very jagged coast has a length of 1160 kilometers...almost the same kilometers as all the sea coast of Portugal.
The dam of Alqueva was inaugurated in the year 2,002 and it was one of the largest engineering works of Portugal, something to be understood after knowing the data...The objective building this dam in the waters of River Gadiana were to be able to get electricity energy production and also to have a strong quantity of water to create an irrigation system in the lands of Alentejo. With this, the agriculture of the region will develop, as it has finally been…
Aside from these agricultural improvements in the region, the Reservoir of Alqueva brought development in other sectors, as in tourism. Many job positions were created in an area that before the reservoir had serious problems for lack of population. The Reservoir of Alqueva brought life to a region that was depopulating!
The inhabitants of Monsaraz enjoy very much the Reservoir of Alqueva as five kilometers from the village there is the River Beach of Monsaraz, a sandy area facing the waters of the reservoir with an excellent infrastructure to enjoy the area, with green parts, picnic area, playground, a bathing area and several facilities to practice different water sports.
After knowing all its secrets we will look with even more admiration at this huge water mirror reflecting in such a beautiful way the sky of Alentejo. This great lake is not only beautiful, but also it is pure life!
INTRAMURAL AND EXTRAMURAL
At this point we have prepared a route that will let us tour the greatest treasures of Monsaraz in a single walk. The route is divided into two parts well differentiated and, if we want to complete it, we have to walk approximately about two kilometers. Indeed with a small slope. Let ´s start!
At the first part of the walk we will go through the intramural streets, an experience that is very comfortable and tremendously silent as all the area inside the wall is completely pedestrian as in Monsaraz all the vehicles must park in the different parkings outside the wall. In this way, the ancient streets of Monsaraz are protected and the walk is very comfortable. Of course you should wear comfortable shoes...its cobblestone floor and its slopes are enemies of the heels!
We will start our tour at the iconic Porta da Vila, through which we will penetrate directly to the intramural area through the rua de Santiago. We will tour the delicious 300 meters of this street where we will find, as in the rest of the village, restaurants, regional craft shops and some unexpected lookouts. And also it is downhill! Unfortunately in this case our joy will not last long as rua Santuago ends in a very steep alley we must climb to arrive at the access to the castle, where the alley meets another main intramural street, rua Direita. Cheer up!
Here we will start to walk via Direita. After a few meters we will find a pleasant surprise crossing this street...The main square of Monsaraz and its huge church! After greeting our old friends we will continue walking across Rua Direita till we arrive again at Porta da Vila. At the starting point! And it is that the two main roads of Monsaraz, rua Santuago and rua Direita are parallel, both measuring about 300 meters and both converging in one of their extremes in Porta da Vila and in the other one, in the castle. We have gone by one street and returned by the other one, while we have enjoyed cobbled floors, very white houses adorned with flowers and a priceless serenity.
In the already known Porta da Vila we start with the second part of the route, this time going extramurally! We are going to go walking till the Capilla de San Benito (Chapel of San Benito), the simple rural hermit rising in front of the gate. For this we will border the parking and will take Rua San Antonio further becoming Rua de São Bento. It´s 800 meters, sometimes with very steep stages, but the prize is fabulous. This hermit dating from the XVI th century, which has somewhat deteriorated because of the earthquake of Lisbon in 1,755, will give us a spectacular view of Monsaraz.
The good thing about this route is that it adapts to all the public. We can do only the first intramural part (about 20 minutes) or the second extramural part (about 40 minutes). Or even both parts!
Porta da Via Rua de Santiago 33
7200-175 Monsaraz, Portugal
7200-175 Monsaraz, Portugal
A HUGE CHURCH
Running the streets of Monsaraz, the visitor has the impression of being suspended in time. Their cobblestone floor, its white houses, its wall, its castle, its hermitages...everything forms a quiet medieval set where it is possible to listen to the echo of our own steps when walking. So is Monsaraz, a quiet place with a past that continues to be very present today.
The village´s own configuration is very simple. Its plan is based basically in two main streets,rua Direita and rua de Santiago, both parallel and united through alleys. Running rua Direita, we will arrive to the main square of the village, largo Doutor Nuno Álvares Pereira, an ideal place to make a stop. Hided in the heart of the village, this "largo" has many of its most emblematic buildings.
Arriving at this very white square, the first feeling invading the visitor is somehow overwhelming, as the church that presides over has a colossal size. With huge dimensions disproportionate to the modest square measurements, the Mother Church of Our Lady of La Laguna emerges imposing. Its great size has an impressive explanation...This great renaissance temple was built in the XVI th century over an old gothic church of the XIII th century which became small to be able to bury the many deaths brought by the black plague epidemic that ravaged the area. Terrible!
The church is a jewel of shale with a beautiful front decorated with tiles. Don´t miss the tomb of the Templar Knight Gomes Martins Silvestre in the interior, carved in Estremoz marble with sculpted figures representing a funeral procession.
Let´s go back to the exterior to continue to enjoy the historic and architectural richness the square offers...To the left of the church we find a white building with an outside staircase and a bell tower. It is the Former Audience Palace, a building of the XIV th century that was the municipal jail and the courtroom. Nowadays it houses the Fresco Museum, so called for a spectacular mural that was hidden for centuries and saw the light during some works in 1,958. The fresco, dating from the XV th century, represents two judges. One of them is good , just a possessor of a straight rod and the other one is corrupt and has a broken rod. This mural gives food for thought, of course…!
To the right of the church is the New Town Hall, with its three horseshoe arches and its white marble
columns. It is the last Town Hall that the town had, as in the XIX th century its mayoralty went to Reguengos de Monsaraz. And in front of the church, is the House of Mercy, an institution that served as a hospital from its foundation in the XVI th century.
Before leaving the square take a good look at a marble column erected in the middle of the esplanade. Wherever you see it, it has been witness to heinous acts! But to know more about it, we will have to continue reading these lines…
Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Lagoa (Mother Church of Our Lady of La Laguna)
Museu do Fresco, Largo Doutor Nuno Álvares Pereira
7200-175 Monsaraz, Portugal.
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