The best independent guide to north Portugal
The best independent guide to north Portugal
Monsanto is one of the most unique and charming villages of Portugal.
The village perches atop a hill and is intertwined with the giant boulders than balance close to summit. These colossal boulders have taken the position of houses, had their bases excavated to be used as animal pens and are even combined into some houses.
The location of Monsanto, close to the Spanish border and on the hill, means it has always been a defensive stronghold, while the appearance of the village has barely altered since the medieval era. There are delightful granite houses and narrow cobbled paths that weave around the side of the hill up to the castle.
Frequently during your visit to Monsanto, you will hear that the village was voted the "Most Portuguese village in Portugal". This quaint sounding description of Monsanto, which is truly unlike any other village in Portugal, dates from 1938 and the era of the Estado Novo.
The regime's ideology was to romanticise village life and encourage rural life (and to improve farming output). To do this they selected twelve idyllic Portuguese villages, which Monsanto won. As a prize, the village was awarded a silver Barcelos Rooster (the symbol of Portugal), which stands with pride on top of the Torre de Lucano.
This "Most Portuguese village in Portugal" award was only awarded once but actually provided lasting benefits to Monsanto. Written into law were limits on development in or near Monsanto, and the village has remained almost unchanged since 1938. with the Edifício Multifunções as the only new building.
The Torre de Lucano clock tower, was originally a watch tower
Monsanto is situated in the sparsely populated eastern side Portugal, and could be best described as being in the middle of nowhere.
Wherever you are visiting from, it will be a long drive, and you may be considering if Monsanto is worth the journey.
In short, Monsanto is as delightful as seen in any images, and no visitor leaves disappointed. The giant boulders are not just limited to one small area but cover the entire village, and there are many more boulders than visitors first expect. The castle ruins are sprawling and offer great views, but are only a side attraction to the village itself.
If you are willing to drive the distance to Monsanto or include it in your tour plans, then Monsanto is definite worth visiting.
The main street heading up to the castle
It only takes 2 hours to fully see the Monsanto, so do not expect to be spending a full day here.
A day trip to the region could include a visit to Penha Garcia (11km to the east), with its ancient castle built by the Knights Templar, and 3km fossil walk through granite hills to the cooling waters of the reservoir.
At a push, a day trip could include Castelo Branco (1 hour away) or a drive through the Serra da Estrela mountains following the N339 (1h50).
Realistically most visitors to Monsanto explore the village, have a long lunch before returning home.
Much of the castle is a ruin after a mighty explosion in 1815, which initiated in the ammunition store
The following map displays a suggested tour of Monsanto. The route begins on the Rua Fernando Namora, where most visitors are forced to park their car.
The Miradouro de Monsanto car park at the top of the Rua Fernando Namora has parking for only nine cars, and is as far as traffic is allowed to go into Monsanto.
Sights along the route: 1) Igreja Matriz de São Salvador 2) Miradouro do Forno 3) Pig-pens 4) Ruínas da Igreja de São Miguel 5) Castelo De Monsanto 6) Igreja de Santa Maria 7) Torre de Lucano 8) Igreja da Misericordia
The yellow shaded area indicates where most of the boulder buildings are located.
For any trip to Monsanto, you want to visit as early in the day as possible. This is to find a car parking space close to the top of the hill and to avoid the draining summer heat.
The far eastern side of Portugal gets extremely hot during the summer months (Jun-Sep) and exploring Monsanto under the intense midday sun is no fun. Monsanto is a popular destination with Spanish day-trippers, and the village gets busy with cars at the weekends or during any Spanish holiday.
If you can visit as early as possible in the day.
The Igreja Matriz de São Salvador church
Frequent tourist literature seems to gloss over the fact that Monsanto is on top of a steep hill. During any visit, you will be doing a lot of uphill walking, along cobbled streets and rough footpaths to reach the castle. If you have any mobility issues, then Monsanto is not for you. It is not even a place where you can park and enjoy the sights…
Monsanto is half way up the hill, with the castle at the summit, which is on the opposite side of the hill in this picture
After the day-trippers leave, Monsanto takes on a calm and peaceful ambience, and early evening is the best time to explore the village. As Monsanto is a popular tourist destination, there are many good restaurants, which tend to offer better service in the quieter evenings.
Being a relatively famous tourist destination, Monsanto is not a secluded or peaceful place, and during the day there will be many hundreds (mainly Spanish) traipsing around the village. There are many more peaceful places in Portugal, just maybe not so picturesque…
Due to Monsanto's unique protection from development, there are only a couple small hotels and most accommodation is in the form of tiny houses to rent. These houses are charming but always in high demand. Monsanto’s accommodation is fully sold out from May to October and needs to be book far (6months) in advance.
Cars are banned (and couldn't even navigate the narrow streets) so your luggage must be hauled from the car park up the steep cobbled streets, which is no easy job in the heat of summer.
Below is an interactive map displaying the accommodation in Monsanto, if you adjust it to the dates of your stay it will display current availability (and if there is some during the peak season, book it now before it goes!)