One of Europe’s most iconic castles is undoubtedly the Castelo de Almourol, a fairy-tale fortress of Disney-like proportions perched in timeless splendour on top of a rocky island in the middle of the River Tagus in central Portugal.
Just 3km downstream from the historic town of Constância, and less than a half-hour’s drive due west from Abrantes, this immensely attractive picture-postcard castle was first built to guard the passage of the river and control movement along the Tagus valley.
One of the scenic wonders of Portugal, this splendidly eye-catching fortress was first constructed on the same site of a primitive Lusitanian castro, later to be conquered and embellished by the Romans during the 1st century BC and successively remodelled by invading forces, including the Alans, Visigoths and Andalusian Berbers.
Ongoing excavation work has unearthed vestiges of Roman occupation, including coins, millennium markers and Roman foundations, along with several medieval remnants such as medallions and two marble columns, plus the remains of a tunnel believed to have linked the castle to the river bank once upon a time.
It was conquered in 1129 by forces loyal to the Portuguese nobility at a time when it was known as Almorolan Castle, after which it was placed in the trust of Gualdim Pais, Master of the Order of Templars in Portugal, who in 1171 set about rebuilding the structure (as stated on an inscription over the main gate).
Dominated by a massive square keep – the imposing Torre de Menagem – its robust double-perimeter crenellated walls are flanked by nine round towers, including an impressive square gate-tower located on the south side of the castle, all well preserved and perfectly safe for visiting tourists.
The castle certainly makes for a formidable sight right in the middle of the river, having inspired countless legends and romantic tales of chivalry, ill-fated love and ghostly spirits over the years. Mentioned by Strabo in a travel chronicle more than 2,000 years ago, the tiny island and its strikingly photogenic fortifications have long-been the subject of books and legends.
Indeed, the castle is referred to in the epic 16th-century romance Palmeirim de Inglaterra by Francisco de Moraes, a translation of which was published by Robert Southey in 1807 entitled Palmerin of England. In it the British crusader Palmerim fights the giant Almourol for the hand of the beautiful Polinarda and just as Palmerin was about to give in, another giant named Dramusiando comes to his aid and slays Almourol.
It is also said to be haunted by Dom Ramiro, the castle’s last alcaide, his daughter Beatriz and her young Moorish lover who avenged the death of his family at the hands of Dom Ramiro by poisoning the alcaide’s wife before eloping with his daughter.
The castle is easily reached by car from the surrounding towns of Tomar, Constância and Abrantes by heading toward Vila Nova da Barquinha and following the signs for Castelo de Almourol. Once there, local oarsmen are on hand to row visitors across the river to the castle (and around the castle for that special selfie) in their boats throughout the day.