Few places in Portugal are more welcoming and atmospheric than the Aldeias Históricas, a series of a dozen ancient and very historic villages spread out mostly along the Spanish frontier in the heart of the country.
Many of these lovely walled villages once stood guard (and still do to some extent) on the borders of the Portuguese kingdom in a region that geographically marks the transition between north and south, between the misty peaks and the parched plains of Portugal’s enchanting hinterland.
They occupy portions of a picturesque land painted in all shades of green, from the dark pinewoods and lush drapery of the thick forests to the soft green meadows and pastures covering the schistose faults of central Portugal’s picture-book mountain ranges.
Serenity is a word that well defines many of these fine fortresses that lie close to a frontier now almost nine hundred years old. The majority of these age-old communities are set out amidst vast rolling horizons where the contours are seasonally stressed and punctuated by bouts of heavy snowfall.
Historical and charming, they occupy a verdant land dotted with dolmens, rock paintings and numerous traces of primitive civilisation interspersed with fertile olive groves, orchards full of apples and long rows of cherry trees laid out in the stretched shadows of the Estrela Mountains.
With its fortifications still intact, the enchanting village of Almeida (indicated on the Google map below) opens out like a rose window onto the rocky plateau below. This flat fortress village is protected by solid ramparts in the shape of a twelve-pointed star and by walking along its walls – all three kilometres of them – visitors can marvel at the pretty flower-filled gardens and the many well-preserved buildings that lie within.
Another of Portugal’s most enchanting castle villages is Belmonte, with its lovely historic centre and long Jewish heritage. A particular highlight are the all-encompassing views of the surrounding area from the top of the castle built in the 15th century. Belmonte is also notable for being the birthplace of the fearless explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral who discovered Brazil in 1500.
Set in the sprawling foothills of Serra da Estrela (Star Mountain), Linhares da Beira is a living museum of remarkable beauty, with two imposing castle keeps that catch the eye from a long distance away. Blessed with many splendid houses adorned with fine Manueline windows, history relates that the village was taken from the Moors by Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, in the 12th century.
Square and squat, the ancient village of Monsanto needs no introduction; it was voted ‘the most Portuguese village’ in 1938 and in many ways still deserves that rare distinction. Revered for its rustic beauty, with many houses seemingly hewn from the solid rock, it affords vast panoramic views up to the Estrela Mountains and down to the lovely town of Castelo Branco. Monsanto’s ancient village castle was originally built on the foundations of an old Lusitanian castro (fortified village) in 1171.
The charming village of Sortelha can be entered through an impressive Gothic gate, in which you can still see the openings where boiling oil and rocks were thrown down on invaders. This stony village is enfolded within a strikingly dramatic castle with its old keep standing proud on a rocky spur. The village is comprised of a cluster of old stone houses set amidst a labyrinth of ancient cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways leading up to the castle that affords grandstand views over the deep valley below.
Arguably the most historic of them all is Trancoso, the site of King Dinis’ marriage to the 12-year-old Isabel of Aragon in 1282 (he later gave her the entire village as a gift). It was also the site of a famous battle between the Kingdom of Portugal and the Crown of Castile in 1385. Trancoso was one of the first walled villages to be built in Portugal and today’s visitors can soak up its long and chequered history with a relaxing stroll through its charming cobblestone streets leading up to the village’s heavily fortified castle.
Located much further west than most of the other Aldeias Históricas, picturesque Piódão is a small slate-roofed village that was only accessible by horseback or on foot right up until the 1970s. Nestling in the Beiras region of central Portugal, about 100 kilometres east of the university city of Coimbra, it is most notable for its strange cluster of schist houses set around an old icing-sugar-coloured church, which overlooks the deep and delightful valley below.
In Idanha-a-Velha, it’s worth looking out for the messages carved in stone and sent across many centuries around the village’s fine early-Christian basilica. Once a major Roman city (it is still partly girded by the original wall built in 1 AD), it subsequently fell under Visigothic rule and was the seat of Wamba, the legendary King of the Goths, who according to tradition was born in the village. Occupying a flat, isolated position an hour’s drive north-east of Castelo Branco, Idanha-a-Velha today offers visitors a leisurely stroll down memory lane to a time when Emperor Augustus commanded his legions from its ancient fortifications.
Castelo Rodrigo is another fortified medieval settlement nestling on an isolated hill, protecting a huddle of old houses lined along its ancient cobbled streets. Its castle has crumbling Gothic arches giving way to ivy-covered towers with ancient windows framing head-spinning views of the surrounding countryside. Visitors can enter Castelo Rodrigo through one of three surviving 13th-century gates before threading way their way up narrow alleyways towards the village’s impressive hilltop castle.
The extraordinarily impressive ruins of Marialva represent one of the best-situated fortresses in central Portugal. Set within a complete circuit of walls dating from 1200, this charming walled village lies on the slopes of a hill overlooking the great plains of the Beira Alta region. Its striking castle and robust keep stand out amongst the many large boulders and trees straddling the hillside in one of the most scenic parts of central Portugal.
Set on a granite massif at an altitude of 756 metres, the picturesque village of Castelo Mendo (pictured above) lies just 14 kilometres west of the Spanish border. Occupied since the Bronze Age, it is entered through an arched, towered gate (guarded by two headless Celtic granite pigs) which leads through to one of the most appealing medieval places in the country. A walk through the village reveals several relics of its fortifications, including an ancient castle sitting atop a grassy knoll alongside the eerie ruins of a roofless church.
Last but certainly not least, Castelo Novo to the south of the Estrela Mountains is an attractively sited village founded at the beginning of the 13th century. Several fine 17th-century manor-houses are preserved within its old medieval walls, as well as the remains of a magnificent castle with a wonderful square tower perched high on a hill offering breathtaking vistas of the surrounding countryside.