The medieval village of Monsaraz is a true marvel of Portugal and should be on everyone’s Alentejo bucket list. Perched high up on a hilltop it offers amazing views of the surrounding Alentejo countryside and Lake Alqueva. It’s a small village surrounded by historic walls and at one end a 13th century castle. This part of Portugal is often called the land that time forgot. When you wonder through these winding streets it’s easy to see why! Read on to find out what to see and do in our complete guide to Monsaraz, Portugal.
What to see and do in Monsaraz, Portugal?
Today, Monsaraz is a remarkable museum village, but up until the mid-nineteenth century it was the capital of the municipality and an important defensive town for the region. In the 1850s nearby Reguengos de Monsaraz would take its administrative crown. As the wider region grew and developed, Monsaraz was paused and stuck in time. Which means today its an incredible place to discover and wonder through its medieval streets.
The Four Entrances of Monsaraz
The wall surrounding Monsaraz has four historic entrances to the village. The main one, Porta da Vila or the Village Door, is over watched by two semi cylindrical towers. Above its gothic arch, is a memorial stone dedicated to the Immaculate Conception laid by King João IV in 1646. The Porta d’Évora or Evora Door, on the North side of the wall is also protected by a turret. As for the other doors, d’Alcoba and Buraco. They are perhaps less grand but also feature full gothic arches. When you look through any of the entrances, the views out of Monsaraz and into the Alentejo countryside are incredible.
The Walls and Castle of Monsaraz
After you enter the village, it’s best to walk alongside the walls until you reach Castelo de Monsaraz. Its construction was started in the 14th century by King D. Afonso III, who built the smaller of the five towers and main wall. The castle would be finished several decades later by King D. Dinis, who constructed the main and tallest keep. After the Portuguese Restoration War, the castle and walls would be updated and receive a new line of defences in the form of a Franco-Dutch inspired defensive star. The star points and tiers that were constructed are used as the car parks for Monsaraz today. The fort forms general star points and although less grand than nearby Elvas, would allow for sectors of overlapping cannons to deter any would be attackers. Following its 17th century modernisation, it became part of the defensive line that connected Elvas, Juromenha, Olivença and Mourão.
It’s military and defensive function became outdated by the mid-19th century and it was abandoned by the military. The locals would then repurpose the main square of the castle. They removed the abandoned buildings, and reused the bricks to create a stage/seating area for traditional parades and bullfighting. It’s still known by its former name – Praça de Armas (the formation ground). Today, it serves this purpose mainly during several annual festivals, the biggest being the celebration of Nosso Senhor Jesus dos Passos.
Views into Lake Alqueva – Europe’s Largest Artificial Lake
The views from the walls and turrets of Monsaraz Castle are incredible. It’s the highest point for miles and it’s one of the best places to view Lake Alqueva. Lake Alqueva is technically a manmade lake, and it’s the largest artificial lake in Europe. It was made following the construction of a dam – Barragem de Alqueva. The dam supplies water and hydroelectricity to the wider region. Although during its construction was a hugely controversial project. Once you’ve taken in the impressive views and the historic castle head back towards the village centre. It’s time you discovered the historic streets that make Monsaraz tick.
Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Lagoa
At the centre of the village you’ll come across Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Lagoa. It’s the main church of Monsaraz and its impressive building is a combination of the local schist and whitewashing you’ll see of the buildings around it. It sits on its own square, Largo D. Nuno Álvares Pereira. The church was built in the 16th century on the ruins of a previous gothic church. During the black plague, the smaller church could not accommodate the increased amount of burials. It’s constructed in Renaissance style, on the front façade you’ll find a beautiful azulejo tile panel and above it an Order of Christ Cross. Inside you’ll find the tomb of Gomes Martins Silvestre. A member of the Knight’s Templar, and the first Mayor of Monsaraz. This tomb is made of marble from nearby Estremoz and has seventeen sculpted figures on the front representing a funeral procession.
In the same square you’ll find the Pelourinho from the 18th century. It was built after the 1755 earthquake destroyed its predecessor. It’s again made of white marble from Estremoz and originally represented the jurisdiction and autonomy of Monsaraz. Behind the Pelourinho, you’ll see the archways of Casa Monsaraz, which was the former town hall of Monsaraz prior to the 1838 administrative handover.
Museu do Fresco
Directly to the left of the church is the small but charming Museu do Fresco. It was the former courtroom of the village, and is believed to have been built in the 14th century. The centre piece of the museum, the 14th century fresco was accidentally rediscovered in 1958 during construction works. The oldest mention of the building actually dates to 1362, but it’s believed the building in its current form was constructed in the mid-1500s.
The fresco itself depicts a courtroom, in which there is both a benevolent and an evil judge. The details are impressive, the benevolent judge advised by angels and dressed in white. While the evil judge is double-faced and advised by a demon. Finer details include money changing hands and a warning against corruption in the courts. Above the courtroom scene, is an image of Christ flanked by two angels. The museum costs €1 to enter and although it’s small, it’s definitely worth your time and entry fee. Your entry also supports the local museum and trust.
The Small Streets and Shops of Monsaraz, Portugal
After visiting the church and wondering around the square, if you head directly east, you’ll find several shops, cafes and even several restaurants. Among them, you’ll find local handicrafts, refreshments and unique pieces of history and culture. Like the tiny Capela de São José. The chapel was built on top of a 14th century house and access is through a simple staircase and balcony doorway. Located on Travessa da Cisterna are further remains of Monsaraz’s history as a fortification. Look through the door on the left, you’ll see the historic cistern used for storing water during times of siege. The rainwater would run from its roof, into the cistern below. Unfortunately, you can’t enter, but having a peak through the iron fenced doorway is a quick look into the unique history of this walled village.
If you’re interested in some shopping, or some local souvenirs then several small shops have you covered. You’ll be able to find an array of local crafts, like pottery, soft items made from the local wool, and even copper items in the likes Monsaraz Arte and. For local food and drink, Casa Tial stocks a selection of local sweets (doces), condiments, olive oil and liquors. For an exclusive selection of Alentejo wine, have a look at the Ervideira Wine Shop, you’ll even be able to sample some on their terrace!
Praia Fluvial de Monsaraz
Monsaraz might be about as far as you can get from the coast in Portugal, but that doesn’t mean its hard to find a beach . Praia fluvial de Monsaraz is just that, it’s a man-made beach on the shore of Lake Alqueva. The beach is the perfect place to cool off after a day exploring Monsaraz. You’ll find all the necessary beach facilitates, sunbeds, parasol rental and beach sports. If you’re more active you’ll also find a selection of water sports include boat rental if you fancy exploring the lake yourself. The beach has a large an easily accessible car park, toilets and changing facilities, and excellent access for people with disabilities.
The Best Restaurants in Monsaraz
If it’s your first time in Alentejo, then experiencing some of this region’s food and wine is an absolute must! It’s possible to experience this from within the historic walls of Monsaraz. If your visit hasn’t coincided with a meal, then at the very least a glass of the local wine is a must!
Taverna Os Templários – For its absolutely stunning view, Taverna Os Templários really can’t be beaten in Monsaraz. You’ll be able to find high quality roasted meats from the Alentejo region like local lamb, black pork, and beef. Their roasted pork cheeks are highly recommended!
Casa do Forno – Casa do Forno is another restaurant in Monsaraz with an excellent selection of regional dishes and local wine. The local carne de porco à alentejana, and Alentejo specialty of pork served with clams, was exceptional!
O Gaspacho – Located on the main street of Monsaraz is O Gaspacho, a small but well-kept tapas bar. Some fantastic toasts, and a wide selection of local meats and cheeses. It’s a great place if you’re looking for a lighter meal and a drink.
For those looking for a lighter lunch, or perhaps a snack then both Pastelaria Cisterna and Casa Tial, serve some great coffee and some delightful pastries from the region!
Stay in Monsaraz
It’s fair to say that Monsaraz is a little out of the way, and that is honestly part of its charm. If you’ve planned a full day of sightseeing, and perhaps a swim afterwards at the lakeside beach you may want to consider staying in the village. Here’s our pick of the best places to stay in Monsaraz. Being so small Monsaraz does not have any large hotels, most of the accommodation is arranged as local guesthouses, suites, or small hotels.
For an entire house with a glorious private terrace take a look at Dom Nuno. It’s an eceptional house and great place to stay and explore the region.
If you don’t feel the need to rent an entire house, then Casa da Muralha offers some perfect suites.
Casa Dona Antonia is the only small hotel within the walls of Monsaraz, it offers a selection of guest rooms, a roof top terrace, shared lounge and even a rooftop Jacuzzi with stunning views of the countryside.
You can view the full list of available accommodation in Monsaraz with this link!
Should You Visit Monsaraz, Portugal?
If all this hasn’t persuaded you to visit yet, we don’t know what will. Monsaraz is a beautiful place for some slow tourism in the heart of the Alentejo. It’s a remarkable museum village waiting to be discovered, combined with the countryside, the Alentejo food and wine, it’s perfect for a weekend road trip. Let us know in the comments if you’ve been or there’s anything you think should be added!
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