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A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Medieval Monuments

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This itinerary routes you to a number of the most notable medieval monuments in Portugal. It begins with a tour of the ancient region known as Estremadura, which comes from the Latin for "beyond the River Douro," now encompassing only the strip between the Tagus and the sea north of Lisbon. This was one of the earliest areas wrested from the Moors in the 12th century and boasts some of the best-preserved historic sights in Portugal. Next the itinerary turns inland, crossing the fertile country known as Ribatejo, meaning "the banks of the River Tagus," where farming and cattle raising are the primary industries, and ends in the Upper Alentejo. Alentejo means "beyond the Tagus," which makes sense when you realize these regions were named by the Christians as they made their way down from the north. This area was of particular importance in the 13th and 14th centuries because, once recaptured, it formed the border between the Portuguese kingdom and the Moors to the south and between Portugal and the most accessible route from Spain to the east.

Recommended Pacing: If you are not a leisurely sightseer and leave Lisbon early, you can follow this itinerary and be in Batalha with its magnificent monastery by nightfall. A one-night stay should give you all the time you need unless you decide to take a sidetrip through Porto de Mós to visit the caves near Mira de Aire. Marvão is such an attractive town that it merits an overnight stay. Finish the itinerary with a night in Estremoz. If you want to make a loop back to Lisbon, this itinerary ties in perfectly with the preceding one, Exploring the Alentejo. Just follow its routing in reverse.

Before or after a visit to Lisbon, you'll want to make your way into the interior, where the rhythm and structure of everyday life in the mainly agricultural villages will impart a strong sense of how life has always been lived in Portugal's countryside. This itinerary includes some of the highlights of Portugal's historic past.

Leave Lisbon on the A8 (blue toll road) heading northwest. After about 20 kilometers take the turnoff to Malveira. From there, follow signs for another 11 kilometers to Mafra, a small village that is home to the Convento de Mafra, one of Portugal's most impressive national monuments, a 40,000-square-meter monastery. Built in the 18th century by King João V, it is reminiscent of the 16th-century Escorial in Spain, having been intentionally designed to surpass it in grandeur. It took some 50,000 workers 13 years to complete (1717-1730). The basilica occupies the center of the 240-meter façade and is impressive in its proportions. The vestibule contains a number of huge marble statues of saints. The palace and the monastery can be visited (except Tuesdays) by guided tours, which take you through the 90 rooms and apartments. Especially noteworthy is the baroque library housing 36,000 volumes, as well as religious manuscripts on parchment. Behind the building is the Tapada Nacional, a national park encircled by a 19-kilometer-long wall, which was originally the royal hunting grounds. The entire complex is a monument to the power of the Portuguese throne in its heyday, when Brazilian gold flowed into the national coffers.

After you have toured the palace, return to the A8 and head north to Obidos, one of Portugal's most picturesque white towns, encircled by walls stretching across a grassy-green hillside. King Diniz's queen, known as Santa Isabel, admired the town so much that he gave it to her, and for the next five centuries the town was considered a possession of the ruling queen. Óbidos is a national monument and has been carefully preserved. The town is so small that it takes no time at all to walk from one end to the other, and although it is quite touristy, it is definitely as pretty as a picture and well worth a visit. Óbidos's most obvious attraction is its castle looming above town and the extensive, well-preserved, 12th-century fortifications that surround the old section.The castle was originally built by Dom Diniz in the 13th century, then mostly destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, and later restored. There are superb views of the countryside from the castle ramparts.

The ancient, narrow streets are very beguiling-filled with handicraft shops (lace, leather, baskets, and ceramics)-and the flower-bedecked buildings are charming to see and to explore. The Rua Direita is the main street, which leads from the handsome main gate to the castle, passing the market square and the most interesting church, Santa Maria. Next door is the museum, with a collection of religious art and a room with antique arms and a model of the Lines of Torres Vedras. The town is made for leisurely wandering and taking pictures of enchanting nooks and crannies off cobblestoned streets overshadowed by dazzling-white houses with iron balconies and colorfully painted doors.

Leave Óbidos heading north on N8 to Caldas Da Rainha (the Spa of the Queen), founded in the 15th century by Queen Leonor, wife of João II. The Dom Carlos I Park is on the right as you enter town. In the middle of the park is the Museu de Jose Malhoa with a collection of modern Portuguese paintings and ceramics. At the north end of the park is a statue of the queen and, if you turn right here, you'll soon come across the Manueline church, Nossa Senhora do Populo, its interior colorfully adorned with azulejos. Next to it is the bathhouse founded by the queen in 1504, which is still in use. If you happen to be here on Monday, it's worth walking north a couple of blocks to see the lively market in the main square.

Continue on N8 to Alcobaça, which derives its name from its situation at the confluence of the Alcoa and Baca rivers. It is also the home of the Real Abadia de Santa Maria de Alcobaça, one of Portugal's most outstanding monuments, which dominates the center of town. Founded in 1178 by Portugal's first king, Dom Afonso Henriques, the Cistercian monastery is a marvel of medieval architecture. The church is impressive for its extreme length compared to its narrow width. In the transept of the church are the intricately carved limestone tombs of Inês de Castro and King Pedro I, whose tragic love story has set the theme for numerous literary works.

Inês, a lady-in-waiting to Prince Pedro's wife, proved irresistibly attractive to the young prince and when his wife died, he installed Inês as his mistress, since her humble origins precluded marriage to the future king. Although their love was idyllic, many of the nobles feared that the illegitimate offspring of this union would aspire to the throne, so they convinced the king, Afonso IV, to condone her murder. When Afonso died and Pedro became king, he set out to avenge her death by hunting down and punishing the noble murderers one by one. Legend has it (probably fictitiously) that Pedro exhumed the skeleton of his dead paramour, had her crowned queen in regal dress, and forced the nobility to file by and kiss her hand. At any rate, he did spend much time and energy during his short reign (1357-1367) exalting her memory and, as you can see, provided quite handsomely for their eternal resting places. They are allegedly positioned so that when their souls were resurrected, their first sight would be of each other.

On the opposite side of the pretty cloister from the church are the abbey buildings, including the impressive kitchen through which flows a branch of the River Alcoa, which provided the monks with fish. Next to it is the spacious refectory, sometimes used today as a community theater. Town activity centers around the large main square, its numerous shops proffering a wide variety of the distinctive blue-and-white ceramics typical of the area.

From Alcobaça, take the N8-5 directly west to Nazaré. This is the coast's best-known tourist attraction, especially in the summer when native costumes add to the local color. At the extreme north end of the Nazaré beach looms the promontory called Sitio. You can ride the funicular up from the lower (Praia) area, or you can take N242 toward Marinha Grande and turn left when you get to the top of the hill. The Sitio is worth a visit if only for the panoramic views from the belvedere. While you're there, stop in to see the colorful azulejos in the church nearby.

The main hub of activity is the Praia area down below. Souvenir and handicraft shops line the north end of the beachfront, which they share with a myriad of small restaurants featuring an endless variety of seafood. Street vendors offering everything from model boats to sardines drying on wire racks complete the picture of a bustling resort town. Away from the beach you'll encounter a labyrinth of narrow winding streets crowded with mostly residential buildings.

At the end of the day you can see the town's age-old livelihood carried out as dark-clad fishermen in long caps haul in their day's catch. Before Nazaré had a real harbor, the fishermen pulled their colorfully painted boats from the water onto the beach (traditionally by oxen, now more often by tractors) for safekeeping overnight. Now the boats dock in the new marina.

Return to Alcobaça and head north on the N8. If time permits, consider a 5-kilometer detour to the ancient town of Porto De Mós (turn right at Cruz da Legua). It has a fabulous small fortified castle sitting on an isolated hill overlooking the River Lena, its handsome lines lending it a distinctly French appearance. It was originally built as a fortress in the 9th century, but was remodeled in the 15th for use as a palace. The National Agency for Historical Monuments has recently restored it. Unique green tiles on the towers shimmer in the sun, creating a striking vision.

Return to the N8 and continue on to Batalha. Here you will discover one of Portugal's gems, the stunning Monastery of Batalha, a combination of Gothic and Manueline styles. Tall stained-glass windows are the first and only things you notice upon entering until your eyes adjust to the interior dimness. To the immediate right is the stark, white Founder's Chapel sheltering the tomb of João I and his English wife, Philippa of Lancaster. Other notables rest in carved niches around the walls, including João's son, Henry the Navigator, founder of the school of navigation at Sagres that made possible the great voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries (although Henry himself never went).

On the left, across the nave, is the entrance to the Royal Cloister whose delightful garden patio is overlooked through graceful, carved Gothic arcades-almost no two alike. To the right as you enter is the Chapter House, which contains the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I, where two modern-day soldiers keep vigil. Actually there are two unknown soldiers, too, one who died in Europe and one who died in Africa, along with an eternal flame fueled by pure Portuguese olive oil. The former refectory on the opposite side of the cloister houses a Museum of the Unknown Soldier featuring the tributes paid by foreign dignitaries upon visiting the tomb.

Beyond, and in sharp contrast to, the Royal Cloister is the plainly severe Cloister of Dom Afonso V, added later. From here you exit and walk to the right around the outside to reach the dramatic unfinished chapels (Capelas Imperfeitas), built in rich Manueline style to be King Duarte's chapel. Both his tomb and his wife's are there, but the massive, ornately carved buttresses climb to the open sky, patiently awaiting the weight of a roof, which was never completed.

As in Alcobaça, shops and cafés are found in the immediate vicinity of the monastery and, beyond that, the town features some pretty 17th- and 18th-century houses and a nice parish church. Ideally situated, the Pousada da Batalha-Mestre Afonso Domingues sits in the shadow of the monastery. The inn is named for the principal architect of the Monastery de Maria da Vitoria, dedicated to Our Lady of Victory, and built by João I to commemorate and give thanks for the victory of the Portuguese at Aljubarrota.

An interesting side trip from Batalha is to head south through Porto De Mós, with its splendid castle, and then southeast on N243 toward Mira De Aire, an important textile area. Here there are four caves you can visit: the Grutas de Alvados, with a series of interesting chambers; the nearby Grutas de Santo Antonio, some 6,000 square meters in area (both of these are reached before Mira de Aire); the Grutas Mira de Aire, supposedly the deepest in Europe; and, north of Mira de Aire near São Mamede, the Grutas de Moeda, smaller and at a depth of 45 meters. If you are only casually interested in caves, the second and third are the most interesting.

Leave Batalha heading east on N356 toward Fatima. Just beyond Reguengos do Fetal are good views back over the ground you just covered, its green hills dotted with windmills. Another 10 kilometers brings you to Cova de Iria and Fátima which, like Lourdes in France, is a pilgrimage center of international renown (follow the signs reading "Santuario"). Legend has it that the Virgin appeared to three shepherd children-Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta-on May 13, 1917, and on the 13th of each month thereafter until October, bearing a message of peace. The spot began to immediately draw religious pilgrims, although the immense neoclassical basilica, enveloped by a 40-acre park, was not constructed until the 1950s. Popes Paul VI and John Paul II have both visited here. A small chapel marks the spot where the apparition occurred and, at almost any hour, you will witness the faithful on their knees, traversing the broad esplanade which fronts it. On the 13th of each month from May to October, in accordance with the legend, attendance multiplies and includes a torchlight procession at night.

Continue north for 11 kilometers, join the N113, and turn left to the town of Vila Nova de Ourém. From Vila Nova de Ourém, you're bound to notice the picturesque fortified town crowning a hill overlooking town-this is the ancient town of Ourém, today virtually abandoned, which is reached up a steep, winding road. The Count of Ourém turned the original castle into a palace in the 15th century and this is now open to the public as a pousada, the Conde de Ourém. Leave your car just inside the walled entrance (or drive to the center if you are staying at the pousada) and walk around the charming, lonely village and up to the castle. The visit imparts an almost eerie feel for life in the distant past. The vistas from the belvedere over the green countryside are striking.

Descend to Vila Nova and continue east on N113 another 20 kilometers to Tomar, one of the oldest cities in Portugal. The site was originally awarded to the Knights Templar when Afonso Henriques, Portugal's first king, persuaded them to help fight the Moors in the 12th century. When the Pope subsequently disbanded them, King Diniz created the Order of the Knights of Christ to replace them, and the new order appropriated the castle as their headquarters. The wealth of this new order, always close to the royal family, was later to facilitate the great age of discovery. Henry the Navigator was its Grand Master during much of the 15th century, and the order sponsored numerous exploratory voyages along the coast of Africa, its holdings there and in the East Indies making it the richest knightly order in Christendom. Times changed, however, and in the early 16th century the order became monastic.

The old Templar Castle walls surround the Convento de Cristo convent inside. Be sure to allow enough time to investigate fully the elaborate complex and its multiple cloisters. The Templar church, called the rotunda, has 16 sides, in imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Two stellar examples of Manueline-style architecture are found here in the entrance and window of the church, both painstakingly and ornately carved. Manueline decorative motifs, as you'll note here, emphasized marine elements such as masts, ropes, and anchor chains, as well as natural ones such as trees.

The town of Tomar occupies an appealing spot on the bank of the River Nabao. There is an unusually pretty riverside park with a lovely waterfall along the edge of the placid river as it flows through the center of town. Besides its enchanting setting, as you might suspect, other notable sights in town consist mainly of churches and chapels.

From Tomar head south on N110 to Castelo de Almourol and then go east on the IP6 to Abrantes, an old-world town dominated by castle ruins. At Abrantes, cross the Rio Tejo and follow N118 east to Alpalhão, where you commence the climb toward Castelo de Vide on N246.

Castelo De Vide offers a charming reminder of the distant past. Tiny cobblestoned lanes, often stepped, run between barely separated buildings constructed in a time when nothing larger than a horse had to pass between them. At the foot of the castle is the Judaria, or Jewish Quarter, which will reward a short stroll with glimpses of the past through the doors and windows. Walk up to the São Roque Fort for some excellent views of the town and surrounding countryside.

Leave town on N246-1 in the direction of Marvão. You traverse a tree-lined country road flanked by pasture land and olive groves as you ascend the Serra. Watch for signs to Marvão, which you reach along a winding road with extensive panoramas. The hilltop town of Marvão rises more than 760 meters above sea level and is visible up to the right upon your approach. As romantic as its setting appears today, from its massive and apparently impregnable fortifications it's plain to see why, historically, unwelcome aggressors would consider this strategic position next to impossible to overcome.

This picturesque little mountain town is completely ringed by the imposing ramparts of its 13th-century castle, another of King Diniz's defensive installations against the ever suspect Spaniards (it was previously also a Roman stronghold called Herminio Minor). The narrow streets betray the town's age and, along with a profusion of wrought-iron windows and flowery balconies on whitewashed houses, paint an authentic and charming picture of life here as it has been for centuries. Meander through the quaint village up to the castle ramparts, which you can stroll around for glorious views over red rooftops to the Serra stretching for many kilometers beyond. Another worthwhile visit is to the pretty little church of Nossa Senhora da Estrâla.

Leaving Marvão, descend the hill to the main road and continue straight ahead on N359 through rocky terrain only occasionally interrupted by signs of habitation to Portalegre, a commercial city dominated by its cathedral. For a dramatic and elevated view of the town as well as the surrounding mountain scenery, take N246-2 to the left on the southern edge of town and, after about 8 kilometers, take a small road to the right. After a couple of kilometers bear left to the highest peak in the area, São Mamede (1,066 meters). You'll get captivating glimpses of Portalegre, with its cathedral spires jutting against the sky, as you make your way down.

From Portalegre head south on N18 through cultivated green countryside sprinkled with cattle, olive trees, and cork oaks to Estremoz. The major attractions of Estremoz are its picturesque setting and Moorish character. The medieval atmosphere has been largely retained in the narrow lanes and historic buildings, both employing the local white marble in their construction. This is most apparent in the area in the upper town. You will especially want to explore the neighborhood around the Largo do Castelo Square and see the Chapel of the Saint Queen with its lovely azulejo interior. Queen Isabel, wife of Dom Diniz, died here in 1336 after an arduous journey, and the painted tiles depict the various miracles attributed to her life's work spent in the service of the poor. She was beloved of the Portuguese people and was canonized in the 16th century.

Estremoz's 13th-century, 30-meter keep that flanks its pousada is called the "Tower of Three Crowns" because its construction spanned the reigns of three monarchs. There are fabulous views from its battlements. Nearby is the Church of Saint Mary, which dates from the 16th century.

Estremoz has always been famous for its ceramics, which are both functional and decorative. If you walk from the pousada down to the lower town (centered around the main Praça do Marques de Pombal), you will encounter numerous ceramic boutiques. On the way you will pass the Luis de Camoes Square, its marble pillory silent testimony to the trials of the Inquisition. On the south side of the main square is the 17th-century town hall, now housing the Municipal Museum, which has a good collection of popular art, as well as ethnographic and archaeological exhibits.

If you are fortunate or foresighted enough to be here on a Saturday, you can enjoy a lively market in and around the main square displaying everything from handicrafts, ceramics, and marble to livestock, clothing, and old furniture.

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A Few Nearby Hotels and Bed & Breakfasts:   List Them All

A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Herdade da Chamine
Monforte, Portalegre, Portugal
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Casa de Castelo Novo
Castelo Novo, Castelo Branco, Portugal
€ 65-65
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Poejo hotel
Santo António das Areias, Portalegre, Portugal
A Karen Brown Reader Discovery Quinta da Moenda
Alvoco das Várzeas, Coimbra, Portugal
A Karen Brown Recommended Hotel / Inn Casa Miradouro
Sintra, Lisboa, Portugal

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[ icon ] Batalha
Costa da Prata, Leiria, Portugal
[ icon ] Tomar
Costa da Prata, Santarem, Portugal
[ icon ] Marvão
Planícies, Portalegre, Portugal
[ icon ] Castelo De Vide
Planícies, Portalegre, Portugal
[ icon ] Manteigas
Costa da Prata, Guarda, Portugal

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