Take a drive through the Alentejo region of Portugal and it’s hard to imagine the area as a war zone. Storks’ nests hang precariously on telegraph poles, goats stand idly under cork tree, making the most of the only shelter available from the midday sun. And people go about their business at a gentle pace, passing the day outside traditional cafes. Even drivers in the Alentejo mercifully ignore the fast-paced, horn-tooting behaviour for which the drivers of southern Europe are so notorious.
And yet much of rural Portugal was at one time an active battlefield. The Moors took control of the area in the 9th century, before the Christian Reconquest in the 12th century. After that, the Spanish and Portugal were trading blows while at the same time carving up the world in their colonial conquests. And it is in this climate of animosity that a whole series of fortified towns sprung up across the country, particularly along its hilly border with Spain.
One of the highlights of a trip to the Alentejo is the chance to explore these walled towns and cities, which are now popular tourist attractions as well as an important part of Portuguese heritage. Perhaps the most spectacular, and certainly one which offers splendid views, is the hilltop town of Marvão .
In the north-east of the Alentejo and only a few kilometres from the Spanish border, Marvão is named after Ibn Maruan, a Muslim ruler from the Moorish times. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the town was an important base for Christian soldiers as they regained control of the region. Marvão today is a perfect walled town, a shining example of conservation and restoration.
Visitors park outside and below the walls, and then climb up the steep paths which lead to Marvão’s heart. From the fort at the top of the town, the views stretch out in all directions, eastward to Spain and south across the empty Alentejan plains. Standing at this windswept lookout point (the wind provided a welcome cooling touch when we visited), it’s hard not to be impressed by the people who built this hilltop fortress. Below on all sides leading down to the plains is a sharp craggy landscape; the task of dragging quarried rocks up to Marvão would have been no easy task.
If you follow the other visitors, you’ll climb to the top of the fortified walls and admire the views. You can wander along a large section of the wall, before exploring the narrow lanes which just about separate the white-washed houses. Within the old buildings are a few cafes and restaurants which offer uncomplicated traditional produce from the Alentejo. Fuelled by migas or bacalhao, you’ll be ready to tackle those old walls and streets again and experience the magical changing light across the far-reaching landscape.
You can visit Marvão as part of the Pousadas of the Alentejo itinerary, and stay at the Pousada de Santa Maria within the old town walls. The major advantage of staying in the town is that when the day-trippers have left, you’ll have the narrow streets and alleys pretty much to yourself for an evening stroll. Weather permitting, the sunset from the lofty fortifications across the plains is worth the stay alone.