With its steep cobbled streets lined with elegant whitewashed houses, Palmela is a charming hilltop town huddled around a magnificent castle just 40km south of Lisbon.
Situated in the heart of a prolific wine-producing region, in the foothills of the Arrábida mountains, the town affords spectacular views over sienna-hued valleys and lush vineyards heavy with grapes, with the great Portuguese capital easily visible to the north and the Sado Estuary and Tróia Peninsula to the south.
Named after its Roman founder, Cornelius Palma, Palmela has been settled since at least Neolithic times, as evidenced by excavations at several locations, including the caves of Casal do Pardo and the Castro of Chibanes.
The position of Palmela has long-been a strategic point in securing control of the lands ‘south of the Tagus’ and that’s why the Moors built a sturdy fortress there on existing Roman foundations which today is still considered a stunning example of medieval military architecture. Rising to almost 250 metres above sea-level, the castle occupies a commanding position with wonderful vistas stretching as far as Sintra on a clear day.
Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, captured Palmela from the Moors in 1147 after a surprise attack on the King of Badajoz and subsequently added a monastery which became the seat of the Portuguese Order of Santiago. Badly damaged by the great earthquake of 1755, its looming defences were rebuilt by the monks who remained there until the abolition of religious orders in 1834. In fact, many of Palmela’s 18th-century townhouses were built with stones salvaged from the castle after the earthquake.
Dating from the 15th century, the central section of the castle’s formidable walls surround the garrison, monastery and church of Santiago. With its walls covered with old azulejo tiles, the attached church is a beautiful Romanesque structure and contains the red Arrábida marble tomb of Jorge de Lencastre (1431-1550), the natural son of King João II. In 1484, the Bishop of Évora, Garcia de Menses, was imprisoned in the dungeon for his role in conspiring against King João II where he died a few days later, probably of poison.
Adjacent to Palmela’s historic Town Hall building, the church of São Pedro is also worth visiting for its exquisite 18th-century azulejo wall tiles depicting scenes from the life of St Peter and a fine collection in the south aisle illustrating Christ walking on water, the miracle of the fish and the crucifixion of St Peter.
Palmela explodes into life in early September on the occasion of the town’s annual wine festival (Festa das Vindimas), a major attraction in the region when the local wine-producers ply their products and the traditionally-dressed townsfolk take to the streets to celebrate the harvest.
Within easy reach of Palmela is the 500-metre-high granite ridge of the Serra da Arrábida, which is particularly notable for its rare vegetation. Areas of the moist northern slope are covered with the untouched original forest of the Setúbal Peninsula, while the sun-baked southern slopes feature a more shrubby growth, mainly of evergreens.