For our third day on our historic villages of Portugal tour, we took a day off from hiking and visited three of the twelve historic villages. The villages we visited were Sortelha, Belmonte, and Linhares da Beira.
While Monsanto, which we visited yesterday, is known as the most Portuguese village of Portugal, Sortelha may rank as one of the prettiest. Sorthelha, located in Sabugal, the heart of the Beira region of central Portugal, is situated atop a rock promontory.
Once a stronghold for the Moors, the medieval village is notable for its Hispano-Arabic origins. After the Moors were driven out in the 12th century, Sortelha became a strategic part of the Portuguese empire in protecting its eastern border. In the string of fortresses, Sorthelha is the oldest and was the first castle built south of the Côa River.
Today, Sortelha is a charming village of streets and alleyways with chapels, a fortress and the most modern public bathroom I’ve ever seen. Definitely, don’t miss the bathroom by the arched entry gate. Just about everything is no touch and automatic, including the door which slides open and closed. It sure beat portalets or pit toilets.
Legend of the Eternal Kiss
Enough about toilets, let’s talk legends. I’ve decided every Portuguese village has a legend, and Sortelha is no exception with its kissing rocks story. Just outside the castle walls, lay two boulders, just touching. It is easy to imagine they are kissing and according to the legend, they are.
It is said that during the unrest of the Moor/Christian times, the mayor of Sortelha who was married to a witch had a lovely daughter. While the Christian city was being held under siege by the Moorish army, she fell in love with the leader, a prince! One night she snuck out of the castle to be with her lover. Her mother, the witch saw her kissing the enemy. Enraged, she waved her wand and her daughter and the prince were never seen again. All that is left are the boulders in the eternal kiss. The rocks may be seen from the arched, entry gate.
Places to See in Sortelha
After learning of the legend, we wound through the quiet streets to the fortress which provided magnificent views of the granite village with terracotta rooftops and the surrounding countryside. It’s hard to believe no one lives inside this well maintained, historic village.
From the castle we passed by the pillory and the old city hall, still with prison bars in its upstairs windows, and poked our head into the Igreja Matriz, a 16th century church. Also in this area, stands a carved elephant, which seems a little out of place until you know Sortelha is the village which inspired José Saramago to write “The Elephant’s Journey.” The story is about an elephant’s journey through Portugal’s Beira Interior.
Hotel Águas de Radium
I can only imagine being in this quaint, historic village during the Medieval Fair when it comes to life during the third week of September. After a leisurely morning in Sortelha, we moved on to Belmonte, but not before we enjoyed a quick view of the ruins of Hotel Serra da Pena also known as Hotel Águas de Radium on the outskirts of town.
In the early 1900’s up until World War II and the atomic bomb, many people seeking to cure skin, gastrointestinal, rheumatism, and hypertension problems visited the Radium Waters Hotel thermal baths. Of course, after learning the dangers of radium, interest in radium treatments declined and the hotel looks like ruins of a castle!
From a brief roadside pause to view the ruins, we drove around 20 minutes to Belmonte, a larger Portuguese historic village. Belmonte is perched atop a line of hills near the Serra da Estrela mountains of central Portugal in the Castelo Branco district.
Crypto Jews of Portugal
It is best known for its Jewish heritage and for being the birthplace of the discoverer Pedro Álvares Cabral. Belmonte has the largest Jewish community in Portugal. This is in part due to the Crypto Jews who pretended to be Christian during the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century.
The Crypto Jews, also known as the Marranos, converted to Catholicism, but secretly practiced Judaism in order not to be killed. They quietly lit candles in their home on Friday nights, hung and ate sausage made of turkey rather than pork, stopped circumcising their children, and celebrated holidays either a few days before or after the holidays they observed.
The Marranos were not discovered until the 1917 when a Jewish engineer from Poland, Samuel Schwartz, who started working at a nearby tin mine observed the unusual habits. They remained practicing in private until after the Carnation Revolution in 1974.
Today, Belmonte features the Bet Eliahu Synagogue built in 1996, and the Jewish Museum which displays the Marranos culture.
Pedro Álvares Cabral
As previously mentioned, Belmonte is also famous for the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral who discovered Vera Cruz, now known as Brazil. While it is unknown if Cabral discovered Brazil accidentally or on purpose, his expedition in 1500 was the first to reach four continents: Europe, Africa, America, and Asia.
The young explorer lost many of his men along with several of his 13-ship fleet, but successfully returned with coveted spices from India which enriched the Portuguese crown’s finances. Cabral was raised in the Belmonte Castle, as it was a gift from King Afonso V to his father as a loyalty payment.
The castle, one of Belmonte’s key attractions, is located at the top of Rua 25 de Abril, named for the Carnation Revolution and shaded with metal carnations. The castle ruins include an amphitheater, a small museum and provide amazing views of the surrounding area.
Our leisurely stroll from the A Lontra statue, another trash art piece by Bordado II similar to the installation in Lisbon, to the Belmonte Castle along the charming Rua 25 de Abril was very enjoyable. We stopped to see the statue of Zeca Afonso along the way.
Zeca Afonso is widely considered the most influential figures in Portuguese folk song. He wrote and performed many songs which protested the communist regime. Not only were many his performances censored or cancelled, but also he was imprisoned for speaking out against the political party in control.
One of his songs, “Grândola, Vila Morena” was broadcasted on the radio as the signal for the Portuguese Armed Forces Movement which resulted in a bloodless, military coup known as the Carnation Revolution.
Things to Do in Belmonte
Across the small square from the statue, we dined in an upstairs restaurant that kept the food flowing. My goodness, our tour group, Mountain Travel Sobek, must have ordered everything on the menu! We had at least seven courses and finally politely asked the staff to stop serving, though we still ended with dessert!
We only visited Belmonte for a few hours, so we did not see all its attractions. In addition to the aforementioned attractions, other places to visit in Belmonte include the Museum of Discoveries, the Olive Oil Museum, the Zêzere Eco-Museum, Belmonte’s River Beach, the Centum Cellas Tower, a few churches (Igreja De Santiago E Panteão Dos Cabrais and Igreja Matriz de Belmonte), and the Convent of Our Lady Hope which has been converted into Hotel Belmonte which features an 18th century chapel.
Linhares da Beira
From Belmonte, we drove approximately one hour to Linhares da Beira, another one of the twelve historic villages of Portugal designated by the government. A list of all twelve villages and the history of the region may be found on my post, Hike from Idanha-a-Velha to Monsanto.
Linhares da Beira is situated on the western slopes of Serra de Estrela. Its name, Linhares, means flax fields, an important crop in the region during the old days. As with the Sortelha and Belmonte, Linhares da Beira was ruled by many…the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Christians and more.
Legend of the Linhares da Beira Emblem
Before we wandered the streets, we stopped to see the village crest which includes a quarter moon and five stars. Legend has it that an important battle took place at night under a new moon during the reign of D. Sancho I. Two brothers and their men were able to defend the village from invading forces. Since the battles in the area defined the Portuguese borders, this defeat was considered so crucial that Linhares da Beira adopted the moon and stars as its emblem.
From the fountain with the carved emblem, we strolled the delightful passages and alley ways as we climbed toward the castle. The sturdy castle is built into a rock above the village and provides magnificent views of the valley in the face of wicked winds. In addition to the fortress, the village of less than 200 features a pillory, an old town hall, a few churches, and two manor houses.
Also, near the castle, there is a cute shop, Ti’Amélia, which sells many local products. The owner is extremely friendly. She offered us tastes of liquor, and we ended up enjoying an apéritif and snacks on the patio. It was a lovely way to cap off our visit to Linhares da Beira before driving to Casa das Penhas Douradas, a design hotel in the Serra da Estrela Natural Park.
Casa das Penhas Douradas
Our driver, Ricardo, spent almost an hour navigating the winding road with amazing views to this unique hotel where we would spend the next two nights. The somewhat modern, mountain lodge incorporates local materials such as cork, birch and Burel wool, creating a unique atmosphere.
The hotel features a spa, pool, hiking trails and fine dining. In the rooms, no detail is left undone. They are sleek, comfortable, and even had heated floors in the bathroom!
We enjoyed a great day strolling through historic villages of Portugal and look forward to a hike in the National Park. ETB