If you’re looking for an off-the-beaten-path destination in Portugal that is sure to enchant you, then look to the tiny town of Monsanto. Perched high above the plains of Beira Alta on a rocky outcrop crowned with enormous grey boulders and a castle originally built by the Templar Knights, Monsanto is a town that seems frozen in time. But what makes this ancient town even more unique is the fact that the buildings in the small village are literally nestled above, below and between huge rocks – in fact, if you saw photos of this town (don’t worry, we’ve got plenty here!), you wouldn’t believe it. And that’s why Henk and I just had to see Monsanto for ourselves.
Monsanto: a town built around boulders
Knowing that this town would likely be too picturesque for just a short visit, Henk and I planned an overnight stay so that we could take advantage of the time to try and capture the unique beauty of this village, both during the day and after the ‘daytrippers’ left.
But what we soon discovered after arriving in Monsanto is that this is a town where people actually live, not a sideshow of a place where the only residents are souvenir-sellers who go home after the tourists leave. In fact, tourism doesn’t seem to have ‘ruined’ this village, and the residents who do cater to visitors in the town’s guesthouses and restaurants are welcoming and down-to-earth, even if many of them don’t speak English.
This authenticity is part of the charm of Monsanto, which was once voted the ‘Most Portuguese Village in Portugal”. Certainly the people Henk and I met while wandering the narrow cobbled laneways were quick to return our “Bom Dia” greeting, and didn’t seem to mind us photographing their precariously-situated homes, pretty flowers, or enviable million dollar views.
Monsanto’s million-dollar-views are a dime a dozen
Because of its position high up on the rocky outcrop known as “Mons Sanctus”, Monsanto offers incredible vistas just about everywhere you turn, and there are numerous terraces in the village that open up on expansive views of the surrounding countryside.
There’s also the Castle of Monsanto at the top of the 758-metre hill that is worth the climb for two reasons: the views are even more fantastic from this higher elevation, and you get to scale its ruined ramparts and walls, climb crazy little stone staircases and explore the remains of the Keep. Most of the castle was destroyed after an accidental munitions explosion in the mid 1800’s, but the views offer photo ops galore and all that exercise means you’ll have earned the dinner and/or port that comes later!
Where we ate in Monsanto
When it comes to a drink, there’s no better place to enjoy one than at the family-run Taverna Lusitana, a tiny bar/cafe/restaurant where João and his wife cater to their guests on the kind of patio you’ll only find in Monsanto: one that is built on top of several giant boulders, naturally!
Henk and I had stopped here earlier in the day for a break while wandering the town, but after seeing the unique patio and its breathtaking view, we returned here after our castle hike and spent the evening nibbling on local cheeses and sausages and enjoying sundowners from what has to be the best table in town. Were the other patio patrons jealous of our picturesque perch on the best boulder-seats in town? Probably. But for us it was one of those memorable moments that was infused with the perfect combination of food, drink, and golden light illuminating a stunning view – making it a memory of Monsanto we’ll keep with us forever.
Where we stayed
It doesn’t get more authentic than this. Edite (“Edith Piaf” was the mnemonic she gave us for remembering her name) runs this 5-room B&B and is originally from Monsanto. Now a retired professor, Edith returned to Monsanto several years ago and purchased and completely renovated the guesthouse which she and her sister Natividade now run. Both are warm, welcoming and wonderful like the town itself, and even though they don’t speak any English, these women managed to make Henk and I feel like family – which they do with all of their international guests (we met travellers from France and Japan who were staying there during our visit.)
Our [very affordable] ensuite double room was simple, well-appointed and comfortable, and the views from the shared terrace were stellar (as was the breakfast!)
Getting to Monsanto
You’ll probably want to rent a car to get to Monsanto – at least if you want to get there on your own schedule. But gird your loins if you’re not really comfortable with a manual transmission, because In Monsanto the streets are particularly steep and narrow. How steep? Think 30 degrees or more. How narrow? Try just over 6 feet (that was the width of one archway!) So if you’re thinking of renting some bad-ass gigantic SUV, your machismo will be put to the test driving in this town. I happily handed the wheel of our puny Fiat Punto over to Henk, so I could abdicate all responsibility myself – another reason why taking out an Excess Insurance policy is such a great idea! Fortunately, once you’re parked, Monsanto is so small you won’t need to take the wheel again until it’s time to leave.
Monsanto’s out-of-the-way location means that people don’t just ‘stumble onto’ it. Which I have to admit, I’m happy about. It means that the visitors who do come here really want to. I know Henk and I did, and our memories of Monsanto more than lived up to our expectations.