As we continue our tour of hiking to historic villages in Portugal, today we started in Idanha-a-Velha and ended in Monsanto for a 5.5-mile one-way trek. This picturesque hike was one of my favorites during our six-day adventure. Photographic opportunities abound in this slice of paradise in Central Portugal.
Idanha-a-Velha is part of the 12 Historic Villages of Portugal Program which the Portuguese government launched in 1991 with the goal of restoring and promoting a series of ancient villages important to Portugal’s history. The villages, located in the Beira interior region of Portugal, include the following:
- Castelo Mendo
- Castelo Novo
- Castelo Rodrigo
- Linhares da Beira
History of Idanha-a-Velha
We visited six during our trip to Portugal in September, the first being Idanha-a-Velha. Idanha-a-Velha is one of the oldest cities in Portugal and dates back to the first century BC. The village is built on the ancient Roman site of Civitas Igaeditanorum which was later conquered by the Visigoths in the 5th century AD and renamed Egitânia.
Under the Visigoths reign, it was named a bishopric and continued to be an important center of Christianity. Additionally, Egitânia, once a prosperous city of thousands of inhabitants, was an important location on the trade route between Mérida, Spain and Baraca Augusta (now Braga, Portugal).
It was conquered by the Moors in the 7th century who renamed it Exitânia. During the 500-year period of the Moors’ rule, the city declined in importance as the Moors were more interested in the southern parts of the Iberian Peninsula.
The city regained its significance in the 12th century when the Christians took over and reestablished the bishopric. Its growth continued in the 13th century when King Afonso I donated Exitânia to the Knights of Templar who constructed many buildings and fortified the city.
It was renamed a final time in the 15th century to its present name, Idanha-a-Velha. The city continued in prosperity until it was destroyed by the Portuguese Restoration War in the 16th century and never recovered.
The once populous municipality was largely abandoned by the 19th century. Idanha-a-Velha was rediscovered in the 20th century and has been undergoing archaeological excavation and restoration ever since. Now, being part of the 12 Historic Villages of Portugal, the quiet town of 100 people, attracts tourists to its picturesque setting and historic treasures.
We arrived in Idanha-a-Velha on a lovely Monday morning in September. There was hardly a soul around, just one lady sweeping and a local dog that adopted us for our day hike. It is hard to imagine 50,000 people descending on this small town every two years for the Boom Festival, self-described as a transformational, multidisciplinary, psychedelic and sustainable festival.
We climbed the staircase and scaffolding built over the walls of the Templar Castle and dropped into the village. The village of stone homes with maroon doors that line cobblestone streets features several historical sites including a pillory, an olive press, St. Mary’s Cathedral, ruins of a castle or palace, one of the largest Roman epigraphic collections in Portugal, a Visigoth necropolis, another church and chapel, a community bread oven, and an old bullfighting ring.
Historic Structures in Idanha-a-Velha
The olive press dates to the 19th century. It has a beam press which is a tree trunk affixed to the wall that is suspended over the olives. We could not go inside because the trunk recently cracked, and it is hanging precariously.
The olive press is next to St. Mary’s Cathedral, which as one of the oldest churches in Portugal, felt like one of the most important structures in Idanha-a-Velha. We couldn’t enter it either because the man with the key takes Mondays off!
It’s OK. We got the gist of the history through all well-done signage, and the nearby epigraphs and necropolis. It is believed the Cathedral was once a Visigoth see and cemetery or a Mozarabic temple. For a peek inside, don’t visit on Monday!
The epigraphs and necropolis were rather interesting. The lettering ranged in size, indicating its importance. I particularly liked the block that displayed “ET”.
From the necropolis, we meandered through the village past homes with pomegranate trees, the Camino trail marker indicated with a yellow shell, the Main Church, and the Chapel of St. Damascus. The Main Church steeple features a rooster, which is a common sighting in Portugal.
There are lots of rooster legends in Portugal. The one in Idanha-a-Velha is about the bridge that took a long time to get built because the workers wouldn’t get up in the morning. In came the rooster who crowed to wake them up!
Another rooster legend is about a foreigner walking the Camino who was accused of stealing. He could not convince the village elders of his innocence. Just before he was going to be hanged, he said he was as innocent as that dead rooster. Suddenly, the rooster came to life and crowed. The miracle convinced the elders of his innocence.
Hike From Idahna-a-Velha to Monsanto
After we learned of the legends, we meandered to the trailhead, with a sign indicating the direction to Monsanto. Near the trailhead were some public bathrooms and the bullfighter ring. The trail from Idahna-a-Vehla to Monsanto is part of the GR7 E12 route from Gibraltar to the Pyrenees Mountains. The entire 1,000km trail passes through Portugal, Spain, and France.
According to AllTrails, we hiked roughly 5.5 miles of the GR7 E12 as we slowly made our way to Monsanto. The trail ascends at a gentle grade as it passes through varied terrain. While the trails are extremely well marked in Portugal, I recommend AllTrails on this hike. There is a gate to pass through in the beginning as well as a few turns we wouldn’t have known to take without our guides, Pedro and Karla.
The hike itself was lovely. The foot path lined by stone walls near town promptly changed to a dirt path through hills of scrub that ended at an asphalt road providing a view of the Monsanto castle in the distance.
We took a left and later a right to follow a dirt road past a permanent camper park and continued beneath the shade of holms, cork, and eucalyptus. As we neared Carroquiero, a village just beyond the half-way point, we followed single lane roads lined by stone walls. Without any traffic, it felt more like a historic walking path.
It wasn’t until I noticed the cement light posts that I even realized we were on a road. Just as with the cork tree harvesting I saw in Salvaterra do Extremo, these cement posts with holes in them, presumably to allow the wind through, completely piqued my interest. I don’t think I have ever seen a cement light post. They are generally metal or wood.
Closer to town the dirt roads change to quaint asphalt roads. It doesn’t seem like quaint and asphalt go together, but they do. The walk was charming, especially as we passed by family orchards. Orange, fig, lemon, olive, peach and plum trees were just a few that lined the stone walls draped with grapevines.
Leaving Carroquiero behind we joined a stone trail which climbed moderately toward the Chapel of São Pedro de Vir-a-Corca in Monsanto. The path passed by cactus draped and moss-covered stone walls and beneath the shade of huge cork oaks before we soon reached historic ruins, a cave and the chapel nestled in the boulders at the top of the hill.
I had to laugh when we reached the top where three vehicles were parked by the chapel, and our guide Karla exclaimed, “Ugh, they found our spot.” That’s how I feel every time I find a picturesque location in my Sprinter Van, and someone squeezes in right next to me!
Just as with Idanha-a-Vehla, Monsanto has legends too. It is said that an old man lived in the cave across from the chapel. The story suggests he for a baby boy whose wretched mother went to hell. A doe gave the baby boy its milk.
Anyway, our spot is where we enjoyed an excellent lunch made by a local named Ana. Her regular job is teaching sculpting at University, but she could be a chef too! Laid out across the granite table was chicken, deviled eggs, breads, green salad, cheese and salami, as well as a delicious three bean salad with rice and onions. I look forward to recreating that salad at home!
From lunch, we skirted some thorny bushes as we waited for an aggressive dog to let us pass its home. We continued our ascent along an old Roman road which provided lovely views of the below town and rolling landscape.
The closer we got to town, again the road turned to asphalt, until we reached St Anthony’s Gates, on the western side. Then we found cobblestone streets dotted by crosses. There were so many crosses, I started counting! I lost track at 14. The village, with houses topped in terracotta roofs and built into boulders, is very picturesque.
In fact, Monsanto is known as the most Portuguese village of Portugal due to a government sponsored competition that awarded this distinction to Monsanto in 1938. The award was a silver rooster that may be seen atop the clock tower.
We weaved our way through the hillside village, past a retail store and restaurant, to a view with public restrooms and continued up to the medieval castle built by the Knights of Templar. The castle remains include towers, a chapel, a necropolis, and more. The castle grounds are worth exploring and the remarkable panoramic views are not to be missed. Additionally, fans of the House of the Dragon, a prequel series to HBO’s The Game of Thrones will recognize it.
Of course, there is a legend that belongs to the castle too. The castle was under siege. Trapped inside, the villagers were starving. The attackers also lacked food. The king asked his daughter if they could kill and eat her prized cow. She said, “No, throw it over the wall, down to the attackers.” Thinking the villagers in the castle had more food than they did, the attackers left. The cow saved the village.
From the castle, we retraced our steps down to the restaurant, ordered an ice cream on a stick, and met our driver Ricardo at Bastion Square to complete our one-way 5.5-mile day hike from Idanha-a-Velha to Monsanto. Though our hike was complete, our day wasn’t.
Visiting Penha Garcia
We enjoyed one last stop in Penha Garcia. Though Penha Garcia is not one of the Twelve Historic Villages of Portugal, it follows much of the same timeline as Idanha-a-Velha and Monsanto. The historic village, however, is famous for its geology and trilobite fossils.
We began our stroll from the public park which features an American M47 Patton Tank, a wire flower art installation, and a children’s playground. Yes, a rather odd combination! The tank was used in the Portuguese Colonial Wars between Portugal and its African colonies in the 1960’s and 70’s. It was donated to the village in 1987 and is a reminder of the sacrifices made by Portuguese soldiers.
Rota dos Fósseis
Racing impending storms, we darted past cats in doorways, the community fountain, and black and white portraits of villagers posted on the stone houses while following the 1.7-mile PR3-IDN Rota dos Fósseis trail.
The somewhat steep lollipop loop led us up many steps to the ruins of another castle with excellent views and then down to the fossils which were tracks of trilobites. I had a difficult time imagining the tracks until I saw them. As much as I SCUBA dive, I should have realized that the invertebrate left tracks in the sand of the ocean floor which hardened. I guess it is hard to believe this historic area used to be underwater.
The views, the tracks, the waterfall, and the old watermills were all really cool to see. I wish we had just a little longer to peek inside the mills, but the rain gods finally got their way. Eluding the rain hours and only succumbing to 10-minute drizzle at the end of the day was quite a feat. Overall, I’m grateful for the cloudy skies which made for comfortable temperatures this early September day.
We capped off one of my most favorite days of our six-day tour visiting the Twelve Historic Villages of Portugal with another night at the Hotel Fonte Santa. ETB
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