Marvão

The fairytale castle of Marvão stands on a granite hilltop, almost 1km high, at the edge of Portugal, overlooking Spain on one side and a patchwork of Portuguese olive groves and open plains to the other. On a fine day (which is almost every day in this region) you can trace the hair-pin road you drove up, you can see the next Portuguese fortress at Castelo de Vide, and more than likely, if staying in the area, you can spot your village and possibly even your guesthouse. “From Marvão one can see the entire land,” wrote José Saramago, the nobel-prize winning author. “It is understandable that from this place, high up in the keep at Marvão Castle, visitors may respectfully murmur, ‘How great is the world.’” And we heartily agree with him, the 360 degree views from Marvao encompass all the places we love most in the Alentejo, you can literally count your blessings up there, and forget your problems.

Marvão is named after its founder, the Islamic knight Ibn Marwan. After a successful rebellion against Emir Muhammad of Cordoba he was rewarded with the city of Badajoz in 875 which he fortified, before turning his attention north and building his namesake castle between 867 and 877, to act a further stronghold of his Islamic rule. Marwan died in 889 but Islamic rule reigned strong for almost 500 years until King Afonso reconquered Marvão in the 1160s. Just over a century later, the castle we recognise today was built by King Dom Dinis. Dom Dinis enjoyed a frenzied period of castle building and frontier maintenance, in order to push the moors back. His castle at Marvão shows some innovative design work, all of which acts to fortify its stronghold and give Portugal the advantage over invaders. The granite walls are 10m thick in places, bent entrances mean that invaders faced a solid wall and zig-zag passage to get into the castle, and a series of ‘killing zones’ such as the triple gate meant that invaders were left helpless below a shower of arrows. Together with these wily defences a huge cistern for collecting rainwater meant that troops could remain holed up in the fortress for months at a time. Don’t miss a visit to the eerie water-filled cistern where you can test the acoustics and get your favourite songs sang back at you from the depths of the granite walls.

marvao castle wall

The town itself is a rabbit warren of tiny white-washed terraced homes, with doors built for hobbits, winding around a maze of cobbled streets. A post office, a museum, a cashpoint, a couple of eateries and an artisan ceramics centre (where I met two women painting loin clothes onto a factory line of naked terracotta Jesus’s) can be found if you wander for long enough. But the joy of the town is it’s solitude and lack of tourist facilities – it may appear fairytale, but it’s no Disney. Less than 200 people live here, and even in the height of summer you’ll still find yourself alone on the cobbles and turrets of the town. Stay past the pink-purple sunset and you are likely to see no other tourists.

Our recommendation for a trip to Marvão is to park outside of the city walls (only the brave with corner-beaten cars drive past the city gates) and to clamber up onto the fortified walls that run the entire perimeter of the town. Amble around the walls and turrets in a clockwise direction, taking the compulsory soldier/garret photos and assessing the landscape to try and work out where you came from and where you are going (profound questions!). When you come to the ornate manicured park to the west of the town, you can cut into the streets and have a coffee or something stronger at ‘O Castelo’ café/bar, where a chatty parrot and friendly staff reside. The views and breeze in the garden here are exquisite. Following this fortification, get yourself up to the castle and invade! For a minuscule entrance fee (just over 1 euro) you can wander and climb to your heart’s content. Be warned however that knights were made of strong stuff, and very little has been done to allow for the sensitivities and phobias of us civilians. If you are scared of heights or not particularly sturdy on your feet you may want to stick to the lower levels (this also applies to the town walls – there are no safety barriers).

Marvão is a small, humble place, but rest assured it will create a memory of massive proportions. If you are interested in the guided Castle-to-Castle walk, which runs from Castelo de Vide to Marvão, or in the opposite direction, please contact fiona@alentejowinetours.com

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