Monsanto (Idanha-a-Nova) is a unique Medieval village in Portugal where many of the houses are sandwiched between, or even under, giant granite boulders.
When I stumbled upon Monsanto, I felt like I’d found a very special little place — and I now rate it as one of my top places to visit in Portugal.
Besides its extraordinary rock houses, its mountaintop location also gives spectacular views of the surrounding valleys filled with higgledy-piggledy farmlands with olive trees and little stone walls. Further up the mountain are some impressive ruins of a Templar Knights castle.
Located about a 3-hour drive from Lisbon, it isn’t near any of the most popular travel destinations in Portugal — but I thought it was definitely worth the trip.
Monsanto’s unique houses
Monsanto occupies a historically strategic location close to the border with Spain. Establishing a settlement in this location meant that it had to be built on some difficult terrain. The 758m high mountain is strewn with massive boulders, which were simply integrated into the town. Many of the houses are built between, on top of, or under these boulders.
Seeing these almost cave-like houses made me feel I had arrived in a fantasy location from a video game like Skyrim, imagining these dwellings being home to blacksmiths or alchemists.
We approached Monsanto just as the sun was coming down, illuminating many of the roofs in a bright orangey glow while the alleyways were already shrouded in shadows.
Adding to the mystical feel was being here in winter, as there was hardly anyone else visiting. It was entirely quiet save for the wind and some distant goat bells. Looking out to the valley below, bathed in the day’s last sunrays, I felt completely at peace.
Staying in a rock house
We had found a nice B&B for the night that had a cozy living room with a lovely fireplace. Like many of the stone houses in Monsanto, it had several boulders clipping right through the walls.
There isn’t strictly much to do in Monsanto except to stroll around and check out the different churches, chapels, and viewing points. You can also follow some small trails. But the town is so breathtaking that walking around it is plenty rewarding in itself.
We stopped by the Taverna Lusitana, a tavern selling Portuguese food and mead, which helped to underscore the Medieval atmosphere. The tavern has a small ladder taking you up to a balcony terrace — it is, of course, on top of a big granite boulder.
Monsanto is an ancient settlement, having had a presence during the times of the Lusitanians, the Romans, and the Moors, before the Order of Knights Templar established a base here in the 12th century following the Reconquista.
A walking trail snakes its way past many boulders up to the highest point, where the Castle of Monsanto still has many intact walls and towers. Parts of the castle were destroyed in 1815 however due to an explosion of the magazine powder keg.
The views from the castle are even more spectacular than from the village itself.
Other things near Monsanto
Monsanto is a very much a quiet and rural place, perfect if you need a little sanctuary for a while. But there are also a few things to do in the surrounding area, so you could easily stay for 2 nights while doing sightseeing nearby.
Just a 15-minute drive away is the town of Penha Garcia. Besides being totally cute and scenic, there are several other reasons to visit.
For starters, it has another interesting castle to climb, once built by the second king of Portugal.
Secondly, within some of the 490 million-year-old quartzite rocks in the area were found ancient fossils of trilobites and snake-like creatures. You can see the imprints after a short hike. The town cafe Frágua also has various signs with information about these prehistoric sea animals.
Finally, there is a gorge with several old mills with a walking trail running alongside it.
The rest of Beira Baixa province is also much worth walking, cycling, or driving through, as its landscapes have maintained a very quaint character. Further afield you can take a road trip to the Serra de Estrela national park, home to mainland Portugal’s highest peak.
How to get to Monsanto
Visiting Monsanto by car is by far the easiest. I myself saw it as part of a road trip in Portugal.
Monsanto is hard to reach by public transportation. The closest you can get by direct bus from Lisbon, Porto, or Coimbra is to the city of Castelo Branco. From there you would either have to take a taxi (1 hour) to Monsanto, or catch the once-a-day bus to Monsanto. Word has it that it leaves Castelo Branco at 5.15pm and only on weekdays.
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