Marvão

Set on a great granite escarpment with sweeping views across the vast plains of the Alentejo region, the walled village of Marvão is one of the prettiest places in the whole of southern Europe.

Located deep in Portugal’s hinterland within a whisker of the Spanish border, Marvão has been described as an eagle’s nest hidden away in the hills.

Its 13th-century walls are practically intact and access to the village is through a narrow medieval archway, close to which stands a curiously-shaped Moorish-looking building known as the Jerusalem Chapel.

Precipitous stone-paved streets wind their way through white-washed, flower-decked houses featuring the finest wrought-iron balconies to be seen in this part of Portugal.

Settled since prehistoric times, Marvão was founded in the 9th century by Ibn-Marúan, a muladi (Iberian who converted to Islam) who features prominently in Al Mossassa, Marvão’s annual Islamic festival held every October.

The main focus of this delightful picture postcard village is the old castle which seems to rise from the living rock on which it is built. Sitting on a pedestal of granite, its walls are home to countless kestrels and afford breathtaking 360-degree views of one of the most strikingly picturesque parts of Portugal.

The 865-metre (2,838-foot) climb up to Marvão (the highest village in Portugal) begins near the village of Portagem, itself a place with a long and chequered history. Still wonderfully intact, its four-arched, grey-stone Roman bridge marks the spot where Jews fleeing from Spain at the time of the Inquisition would pay a toll (portagem) to enter Portugal.

An antiquity of the Middle Ages, Marvão’s vivid, almost glowing colours at sundown come from the reflected feldspar and quartz in the granite boulders that support the huge walls of the castle.

Known to the Romans as Herminius Minor, it has a population of less than one thousand souls today, but the village was of immense importance in the Middle Ages and a vital defensive bastion during the frequent skirmishes with neighbouring Spain, when it proved mostly impregnable.

With an ancient interior that’s hardly been touched for hundreds of years, the parish church is blessed with a beautiful low belfry with a tiny mosque-like dome on the top. Its pretty little wooden gallery is an exquisite feature and on one of the side altars stands an interesting and very unusual statue of the Blessed Trinity.

The views from the castle keep are commanding; southwards lies the Serra de São Mamede and the lovely city of Estremoz, while to the north loom the mountains of Serra da Estrela (Star Mountain) with Castelo de Vide to the north-west and finally Spain to the north-east.

Located a short drive from Marvão, Castelo de Vide is also notable for its steep tortuous streets leading up to an ancient castle. Blessed with glimpses of Gothic arches and Manueline doorways, it is a town of sweet-smelling roses, fountains, orchards and old stone houses surrounded by olive groves as far as the eye can see.