It was 1938, when the village of Monsanto, in the municipality of Idanha-a-Nova, District of Castelo Branco, just 25km from the Spanish border, was dubbed “the most Portuguese town in Portugal.”
Yet at first glance, it certainly does not seem representative of the entire country.
First, because most Portuguese houses are not sandwiched between massive boulders!
Defined by its landscape, the village hangs off a mountaintop overlooking the Portuguese countryside, with views for miles.
Here, the narrow, cobblestone streets are carved into the rocky landscape, and the houses are squeezed on, between and under gigantic granite boulders weighing up to 200 tonnes that are strewn about the mountain.
Rocks that serve as roofs and walls for the village’s roughly 800 residents of Monsanto, literally “Holy Mountain”.
The mountaintop has actually been extremely important strategic position since prehistoric times, and It’s crowned by the remains of a Templar castle, which was partially destroyed because of an explosion in the ammunition depot of the castle in the 19th century.
In fact the earliest traces of man here is from Early Stone Age at the time of the ice-ages. Later, Romans settled at the base of the mountain. Also traces from Visigothic in the early Middle Ages and even earlier Arab presence have been found in the area.
The village was conquered by King Afonso Henriques and was given by the King to the Knights Templar who built its first castle. The crown tried to increase the population of the village which was steep and difficult to reach and, throughout the Middle Ages, Monsanto was an important regional trade centre.
However, during the following ages, the village progressively lost its importance and its population gradually decreased, although its use as an impregnable defensive station in the area was kept until the 19th century.
Either way, Monsanto, accessible by bus from Lisbon and Porto, never lost its medieval village aura and that is probably its most striking feature.
In fact, It has hardly changed in hundreds of years, and enjoys distinction in Portugal as a living museum, keeping its original charm.
Its tiny streets wind at a steep grade past red-roofed cottages tucked against mossy boulders, some of them actually fitted with doors, leading to structures carved right into the rocky landscape.
Walking along the cobbled streets, the architecture even incorporates the Portuguese Manueline style on a number of buildings and a church.
In addition to living in boulder homes and playing adufe, a traditional Moorish instrument, many elderly women in Monsanto still create and sell pagan-inspired marafona dolls, made by attaching wooden sticks in the form of a cross and wrapping it in colourful traditional dresses.
The faceless dolls are believed to possess protective powers and are associated with a Portuguese fertility cult and, traditionally, they have been placed under the beds of newlyweds especially on their wedding night.
Each year in May, during the Festa da Divina Santa Cruz de Monsanto, women still bring marafonas to the abandoned hilltop castle where they sing, dance and pray for fertility.
Villagers here have always lived off the land.
In Monsanto’s narrow paths you can see still today shelters carved into the granite for pigs, chickens and other livestock, and it’s not uncommon to see shepherds leading their sheep and goats through the middle of the village.
There’s even a legend about how one animal helped save the village from invasion!
As story goes, during a year-long siege of the village, residents were down to their final cow and bag of wheat.
They decided to feed all the wheat to the cow, and then heaved the fat animal from the ramparts of the castle down on their enemies and, when the engorged animal splattered, the would-be invaders were amazed at how much food the besieged village still had and thought that if a lowly cow could remain healthy during a year-long attack, the village would surely survive, and they retreated.
Of course residents no longer toss cows today, but the event is still celebrated (in a far less gory way) each May, again during the Festa da Divina Santa Cruz de Monsanto, when villagers in traditional dress parade up to the citadel carrying a pot of flowers.
When they reach the top, they break the pots open, letting the flowers spill down on onlookers below to commemorate and celebrate the village’s survival.
In the last century, Monsanto’s inhabitants have preferred to move towards the less rocky foothills of the mountain, which is accessible by modern cars and buses, and today the top of the bluff is only populated by around 100 people.
But it never lost its charm.
Images from web – Google Research