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PORTUGAL Fall 2001 (13)
Index of this travelogue

ALENTEJO Marvao | Castelo de Vide


Marvao is north of Redondo. We picked up IP2 at Estremoz and enjoyed a delightful ride to Portalegre passing fields of produce, vineyards, and the ever-present cork and olive trees. From Portalegre it is a glorious fifteen kilometer drive, twisting and turning, on a perfectly paved road, up the Serra Sao Mamede, 862 meters to the well-preserved walled village of Marvao. This is the highest village in Portugal from which the views of the mountain range and neighboring Spain are magnificent.

The main entrance to the totally walled town is through the Rodao Gate. We followed the signs through the very narrow streets of whitewashed houses, around hair-raising turns, to Pousada de Marvao Santa Maria on rua 24 de Janeiro. The pousada was created by joining together a series of whitewashed houses on both sides of the street with a connecting passageway away above. We were greeted at the front door and directed to a parking spot across the way. The small reception area leads to a lounge, bar, outdoor patio and restaurant with commanding views. We were shown to our corner room, which was modest but comfortable in size with nice, old furnishings. A neat balcony assured us we would never miss an opportunity to see "the backs of birds flying below", an expression generally used to describe Marvao.

There are four restaurants in Marvao (three, plus the pousada's restaurant) and after negotiating our way around the neat streets, up and down a few steep staircases, we found Restaurante da Casa do Povo, Travessa do Chabouco, which was a very satisfying choice for traditional fare at local prices. The two soups, potato with rice and tomato and acorda a Alentejo with bread, coriander, garlic and egg, were delightful. The porco a Alenteja was a superb preparation of this typical dish consisting of cubes of tender port and small clams in a garlic and herb sauce. Real hand-cut fries were wonderful as was the vinho tinto from Borba. The waitress was personable and helpful and the views out the wall of windows a splendid diversion. Life is simply good in the Alentejo.

On our way to the castle we passed the former governors' houses with a fine collection of cast iron balconies. Nowadays they house a bank and a private residence.

The castle rises above a scarped granite mount 865 meters high with a marvelous panoramic view over Portugal and Spain. On the castle grounds there is a military museum, which displays a chronology of the Portuguese wars. The young man in charge was happy to guide us through and fortunately the busload of students appeared just as we were finishing.

One of the finest works in the village is the cistern, built with a vault supported by many arches and lit by three skylights. It holds a six month supply of water.

Across from the Santiago Church there is a lovely, small park with a children's play area, a delightful spot for strolling or sitting and relaxing.

There is not much commercialism here outside of a handful of artisan shops. As in Monsaraz and at our next stop, Castelo de Vide, a few mountain tops away, the villagers have worked hard to preserve their pristine way of life. There is a bit of restoration work underway here as Marvao is hoping to gain the designation as a World Heritage site.

Praca do Pelourinho is another neat spot to enjoy a panorama of the area and is also home to Restaurante Varanda do Alentejo. It's a simple, clean place up a flight of stairs but unfortunately the food is not worth the climb. The mixed salad, grilled fish and pork chops were awful. Can't win 'em all.

After last night's dinner we welcomed the pousada's breakfast buffet in the bright dining room. We had enjoyed our day in this peaceful, precious town on top of two countries and were eagerly looking forward to visiting Castelo de Vide and Belmonte, in the Beiras region, north of here, where we would spend the night.
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Castelo de Vide

Castelo de Vide is another well-maintained village dating from Roman times. It's well known for its curative waters, temperate climate and rich, carefully preserved Jewish history.

The town spreads over the green slopes of the Serra de Sao Mamede. The modern part has been built on the slopes surrounding the old town. The town center is in the lower part of the old town around Praca D. Pedro V with the eighteenth century town hall, the eighteenth and nineteenth century Mother Church of Santa Maria da Devesa and striking manor houses creating an imposing environment. The streets and walks are undergoing renovation and a park is under construction. This major facelift will lend a needed "sense of place".

The hillside around the medieval castle in the upper town is an intricate network of steep picturesque streets that once housed a large community of Portuguese Jews. It was in the fourteenth century that this Jewish Quarter began to consolidate itself, stretching from the castle to the Fonte da Vila (the town's granite fountain) and as far as rua Nova. The old synagogue is located on the corner of rua da Judiaria and rua da Fonte and has been completely restored. It is a simple white house on a corner with two arched doorways. The interior space has been divided in the traditional manner with a separate room for women. Archaeological inspections have led to the discovery of three silos on the lower level, dug out of the granite and used for the storage of grain.
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Next door was a school with an arched entrance similar to the two of the synagogue. Other buildings on the same street formed part of the complex that housed the civil and religious services of the local Jews. The maze of narrow, cobblestone streets and alleys in this historical area are packed with clean, white homes and potted plants decorating the way.

The homes outside the castle were the residences of the defenders of the castle. Each has two doorways, the large one opening to the ground level where work was done and the small one to the living quarters on the upper two floors. In an emergency, bells would ring and the defenders would run to their assigned positions.

Much of the castle has been lost but what remains is worth seeing. Of particular beauty are the ajulejos that decorate the entire interior of the seventeenth and eighteenth century church of Senhora da Alegra. The views of the red tile roof tops leading down to the lower town and on the surrounding mountainsides are excellent photo ops.

We walked back down to Praca D. Pedro V for lunch at Restaurant D. Pedro V. After walking through the active bar/lounge we came to the attractive arched ceiling, stone pillared dining room in the rear. As usual, a TV was tuned in to a soap opera. (It's either that or a game show or soccer.) The two ladies in the clean kitchen were happily working away, which is usually a good sign. It wasn't. Our waitress was more interested in going out for a smoke than working. The pork in the pork and clams was fatty and the sauce greasy as were the fries. There was plenty left over, which proved to be a real good thing as we had a great appetite for what proved to be a superb dinner in Belmonte.
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We wound down from Castelo de Vide to pick up IP2 to Belmonte. It is situated near Serra da Estrela, one of Europe's most important natural reserves, and rises to 600 meters. It is known not only as the birthplace of the navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral, who discovered Brazil, but for having the largest Jewish community in Portugal. Economically, it is dependent upon agriculture, sheep farming and more recently the clothing industry, plus trade and service industries. Yes, there is an imposing castle dating back to the twelfth century. The present building is the result of successive improvements. Nearby is the thirteenth century Romantic church of St. Tiago with wonderful frescoes layered one on the other. A passageway leads to the Cabral family pantheon, which holds the ashes of the famous navigator.

The groups of Jews who settled here were to see their numbers grow in the fifteenth century as streams of Jewish migrants fled Spain. It was only in this town that they managed to continue their religious life until the present day although it is true that they could not openly practice their faith until the end of the 1980's. The houses of the Jews were situated in the Bairro de Marrocos, outside the castle walls at the easternmost end of town, where it is still possible to find houses with crosses engraved in the stone, close to the doors, a mark which identified the houses as being inhabited by New Christians. Through it all, the Jews, in secret, succeeded in preserving their prayers, traditions and customs. In 1993 the community welcomed a Rabbi and began building the Bet Eliahu Synagogue, which is now open for worship.
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The stunning Pousada de Belmonte, Convento de Belmonte, is located one kilometer west of town (the way is well-signed). The renovated ruins of the former Convento de Nossa Senhora da Esperanca were incorporated in the redesign and rebuilding so that the monastery's heritage was preserved including the amphitheatre in pine woods on the slopes of the Serra da Esperanca with a great view over the Cova da Beira region and the Serra da Estrela.

The design brilliantly marries historical and modern architecture. In the center, the chapel and sacristy have been converted into lounges and a bar. The restoration of the stone walls, mile-high beamed ceilings, huge archways and steps combined with exquisite furnishings and accessories creates an atmosphere of supreme comfort and style with no sacrifice of the historical aspect. The cloister is a marvelous retreat, tended lovingly, the lighting adjusted periodically as day turns to evening and then nightfall.
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Just outside is a large swimming pool and deck area graced by a beautiful stone wall. The modern living quarters jut out on one side and the reception, dining and function rooms have been built on the opposite side.

Each of the (only) 24 guest rooms is named after a Monk, with his name painted on the wall opposite each room. Frei Humberto was our host for the evening. Our twin bedded room with a balcony view of valleys and mountains was not only large but decorated and furnished with the same marvelous taste as the public rooms - exquisite, sublimely comfortable, luxurious. The marble and tile bathroom was perfect.

The dining room with a huge fireplace, wood ceiling, sliding glass doors to a stone patio with views and a refined, casual environment was very inviting. It was before the dinner hour and we saw the door to the kitchen open so we walked inside. This wasn't the first time we've been inside a restaurant kitchen but it was the first time we saw one as sparkling clean and organized as this one. The chef appeared and it just took moments to feel this was a man who knew what he was doing. We went to the reception desk to make a reservation.

Great environment, clean kitchen, impressive chef and now a waiter you dream about - personable, knowledgeable about the menu and wines, attentive yet discreet - we were off to a great start. It just got better as the courses were served. Silky, smooth liver pate, fried green beans and a dense corn bread to get us in the mood. A rich chicken soup with slivers of almond was different and delicious. Tender pieces of kid were stewed and presented in the middle of a soft bread roll with a side of steamed cabbage, and a large filet of cod was beautifully grilled and served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes. These dishes were typical of the area, very well executed and thoroughly enjoyable. The pousada's local red wine was excellent. We had kept an eye on the dessert buffet in the middle of the room all evening and now it was decision time. Somehow we managed to exercise some restraint and had only small portions of chocolate cake and chocolate mousse - both delicious.
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to next pageContinue traveling along with us or choose a link from below

(1) Porto
(2) Porto
(3) Minho
Viana do Castelo, Ponte de Lima, Ponte de Barca,
Soajo and Arcos de Valdevez
(4) Minho
Vila Praia de Ancora, Moledo, Camarido, Caminha,
Vila Nova de Cerveira, Valenca, Moncao, Melgaco
(5) Douro and Tras-os-Montes
Pinhao, Regua, Sabrosa, Pedras Salgadas and Vidago
(6) Douro and Tras-os-Montes
Pinhao, Mirandela and Braganca
(7) Douro
(8) Douro and Beiras
Lamego, Britiande, Mealhada and Coimbra
(9) Lisbon
(10) Lisbon
(11) Lisbon and Coast
Cascais, Estoril and Sintra
(12) Alentejo
Monsaraz, Redondo, Elvas, Borba and Vila Vicosa
(13) Alentejo and Beiras
Marvao, Castelo de Vide and Belmonte
(14) Porto

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