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MONSANTO by Lucy Dawson

My husband and I went away for a couple of days after Christmas. We went to Monsanto, which is considered to be one of the most picturesque and ‘Portuguese’ villages in Portugal. It’s not too far from the Silver Coast - it lies in the Beiro Baixo, north east of Castelo Branco and quite close to the Spanish border. Perfect for a short trip, or as a stop over en route to or from the rest of Europe. 

The village is built into the side of a small mountain, just below the summit. The mountain consists of a huge mound of enormous boulders which by some weird manipulation of geological phenomena have been dumped in the middle of the plains near Castelo Branco, giving the castle, perched on the top, spectacular 360 degree views. The actual houses of the village are literally built in, under and around the boulders. It’s unique and astounding and very beautiful. Unfortunately Monsanto was sitting in a dense cloud on the afternoon we arrived and as we wandered round looking for our hotel we stood at what we assumed were viewpoints and stared blankly into the mist, unable to see more than a few metres in front of us and only able to speculate about the promised vistas.

Our room, in the Taverna Lusitana, was built against the side of a boulder and was unexpectedly warm and cosy. The best thing about visiting Monsanto midweek in rainy January is that the village was deserted. Despite the lack of a view due to the mist and the constant drizzle, we decided to look on the bright side - we had the place to ourselves. We set off to explore the empty village, and as the rain slithered down the mossy boulders and trickled through the cobbled alleyways it felt like the whole village was part of a pebbly stream. The mist swirled and raindrops plopped from mossy tendrils, and we became absorbed by the magical atmosphere and were actually quite pleased with the weather.

In the evening we ate in the Taverna - a simple but tasty Portuguese meal - and chatted to the couple who own it. Their four year old child is one of only three children who live in the village, which has roughly sixty full time inhabitants. Many of the houses are now holiday homes and are empty for much of the year and, unsurprisingly, the school has closed.

The next morning we woke up to clear skies and sunshine - the Portuguese weather is contrary and temperamental, but usually obliging - and what views! Definitely worth waiting for. After breakfast we climbed up through the village, encountering stone built animal pens including a big fat pig, and vegetable plots on the way. We wound our way around and under precarious-looking boulders to the castle at the top. What a perfect place to build a castle (although I can’t begin to imagine the practicalities of actually building it). The views over the plains of the Beiro Baixo are spectacular, with Spain to the east and the Serra de Estrella to the north, and we were very glad the mist had lifted so we could appreciate them.

The rest of the day was spent wandering the narrow streets and passageways, revisiting the viewpoints we speculated at the day before, and marvelling at the ingenuity of the old women gardeners, who seem to find ways of growing things amongst the rocks and in the cracks and fissures of the most inhospitable environment.

Monsanto is a remarkable place and well worth a visit, whatever the weather.



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