Monsaraz, the graceful medieval village of Monsaraz, maintains the magic from ancient times like few others in the world. Made of lime and schist, this place whispers us, between the echo of our footsteps in its streets. A lot of magnificent stories could be told about its courageous kings, Knights Templar, brave people and dames of simple beauty.
Suspended in time, the historic village, one of the oldest in Portugal, is a mandatory destination to add to your list of places to visit in Alentejo. Especially after, in 2017, it won the category “Monument Villages” in the competition 7 Maravilhas de Portugal – Aldeias (7 wonders of Portugal – Villages).
Monsaraz – the History
Monsaraz shows signs of having been a fortified settlement during prehistoric times. It has always had strong military and religious influences, impeccably preserving time until these days.
The privileged location of this small village, located on the top of the hill and then with a view over the river Guadiana and the frontier with Spain, made it highly coveted by the peoples which disputed it. Once called Saris or Sarish, Monsaraz was taken from the Muslims by Geraldo Sem Pavor (Fearless Geraldo), in 1167, in a military incursion departing from Evora.
After a later defeat which occurred in Badajoz, Spain, King Afonso Henriques again lost control of Monsaraz to the Moors. However, in 1232, King Sancho II recovered it once and for all. With the help and support of the Templars, to whom he finally donates the beautiful Alentejo village. The marks left by the Templar Order, later Order of Christ, still live among the castle walls.
Today, Monsaraz is a museum village which you must add to your list of what to do in Alentejo. But until mid-nineteenth century it was the head of the municipality. After that time, Reguengos de Monsaraz took that role. The whole municipality of Reguengos de Monsaraz grew through the centuries following modernity. But Monsaraz turned its back on time and stayed where it wanted to be, a maiden – timelessly magnificent.
What to visit in Monsaraz
Notice the walls that go around Monsaraz guard a welcoming village. The light caresses the picturesque and traditional homes of the hospitable people of this land. Finding Monsaraz is traveling through time and enjoying history in the present. And there is so much to see and feel in this charming Time Machine, right in the heart of Alentejo!
Since its streets are ancestral, Monsaraz offers some spacious parking lots near its walls. This way, its guests can visit it properly: on foot and unconcernedly.
Appreciate the impressive wall of this museum village in Alentejo, built during the Wars of Succession and Restoration. For its construction, there were plans to also build São Bento Fort (originally star-shaped), the Bastions of São João and of Castelo (castle) and the São Bento Hermitage. There were also plans for three towers: in the Marmelão of São Gens, Pipas farmstead and Ceuta farmstead.
Monsaraz wall has four big doors where you can enter the village. The main one, Porta da Vila (Village Door), is protected by two semicylindrical towers. Above its gothic arch, it has a memorial stone dedicated to the Immaculate Conception put there by King João IV in 1646. The Porta d’Évora (Evora Door), on the North side of the wall, also with a gothic arch, is protected by a cubic turret. As for the other doors, d’Alcoba and Buraco, they have a full arch. When you turn your back to the entrances, the views over the Alentejo green and brown fields is… superb.
Go along the wall until you reach Monsaraz Castle. Built by King Dinis, in the 14th century, it is classified as a National Monument of Portugal. Around 1830, and after its military functions stopped, the old Praça de Armas (formation ground) of the castle started to be used as some sort of bullfighting ring. Today, it serves this purpose mainly during the anual festivities in honour of Nosso Senhor Jesus dos Passos (our Lord Jesus Christ).
Monsaraz Castle is a unique touristic spot in Portugal. It is one of the most splendid places to look at the wonderful Alqueva Dam. This is the largest artificial lake in Europe and one of the greatest Portuguese constructions of the century. A special place where you can even rent a houseboat and cruise the waters (no license required).
Slowly walk towards the village centre. At Largo D. Nuno Álvares Pereira (square), enter the stunning Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Lagoa (church). This religious monument was built with schist in the 16th century on the ruins of a gothic church, destroyed due to the black plague. Constructed in the Renaissance style, it has a beautiful pediment, decorated by a tile panel and an Order of Christ Cross.
In the interior, carefully study the tomb of Gomes Martins Silvestre, a Knight Templar, first Alcaide (Mayor) of Monsaraz. This tomb is made of marble from Estremoz. It has seventeen sculpted figures on the front representing a funeral procession.
Another landmark here, right in front of the main church, is the Pelourinho from the 18th century, erected after the 1755 earthquake destroyed its predecessor. It was also made of white marble from Estremoz and represented the jurisdiction and autonomy of Monsaraz.
At Largo D. Nuno Álvares, also take the opportunity to enjoy the architectural and historical riches of the buildings which surround you. The main ones are Casa Monsaraz (House Monsaraz), late 17th century, bearing the village coat of arms; Hospital do Espírito Santo and Casa da Misericórdia, which encompass Igreja da Misericórdia (church). This last religious construction, 16th century, has a sober and simple architecture. It has an image of Senhor Jesus dos Passos, the village patron saint.
In Travessa da Cadeia you will find the Antigos Paços da Audiência, for centuries working as administrative headquarter and court in Monsaraz. When the management of the municipality changed to Reguengos this building became the primary school. Later on, the tourist office. Go in and see the medieval fresco O Bom e o Mau Juiz (The Good and the Bad Judge).
The Bad Judge receives payments from both the rich and the poor (money and partridges, respectively). But the Good Judge only gets the blessing from the angels that guard him. The satire to the corruption of the justice of the time is the most usual interpretation of the fresco. However, it can also just be a document representing the struggle of the municipalities to have their own judges, elected among peers, instead of foreign ones, nominated by the Crown.
Feel the sun setting. Under its pinkish light reflected on the white facades of the houses in Monsaraz, take a random walk through the streets and alleys of the village. Contemplate the Capela de São José (chapel), where prisoners received divine trades. Take a look at Casa da Inquisição (House of Inquisition); Casa do Juiz de Fora, donated to Evora University; the recently restored Igreja de Santiago (church).
Go to the old Cistern, probably a mosque originally. Do not miss the opportunity to visit Capela de São João Batista (chapel). It is also known as Cuba, due to its curious cubic form of Moorish influence. Discover the Ermidas de São Bento, São Lázaro, Santa Catarina and São Sebastião (shrines). All different, all so special.
Finishing the day in Monsaraz
Now the night is covering you with its cozy blanket of stars. Sit down at one of the restaurants in Monsaraz. Taste the best traditional Alentejo food, like the crumbs or the lamb. As for Alentejo wine, savour a good Reserva Monsaraz with your meal. The view over Alqueva Lake completes the sensory nirvana. Don’t finish your night without admiring the show of constellations and planets, which shine more intensely on the sky.
But there is more than the above mentioned archeological and architectural heritage to get to know in Monsaraz. In the nearby parishes, there is much more to visit. Megalithic monuments dedicated to unknown gods, Museu do Azeite (Olive Oil Museum), Casa do Cante Alentejano (House of Alentejo Singing). Going for several sports activities on Alqueva lake is absolutely essential to the most adventurous. No matter what your choice may be, Monsaraz is a must for everyone visiting Alentejo.