Travel and Dining

The Castles of Portugal

The 10th-century Castle of Guimarães, a national symbol, is known as the "Cradle of Portugal." (Photo: Nicolas Asfouri / AFP-Getty Images)

Portugal in the Middle Ages was a crossroads of cultures, with hostile Moors to the south and rival Spanish kingdoms to the east. Today, Portugal's more than 150 forts and castles are enduring monuments to the nation's will to be independent. While larger and mightier countries were absorbed by others, Portugal, with its proud castles and the soldiers who defended them, evolved independently.

Portugal has well-defined geographic boundaries, with the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the west, and rivers and mountains to the east and north. It occupies the westernmost portion of the Iberian Peninsula, and is about the size of the American state of Indiana. The country is a place of topographical contrasts as well, which is common on a peninsula. The areas around Porto in the north are hilly and green, with fertile river valleys and a rocky coast. The green mountains turn less fertile as they spread to the east, and become ferociously high as they move south to the Beiras. Along the coastal Beiras, the topography becomes hillier, with pine forests and a sandy coast. The area around the capital of Lisbon is known for its white rocks, olive fields, and open spaces. The great river Tejo separates the nation in half, with the yellow hills and cattle fields of the Lisbon area on the north bank. To the east lie the granite hills of the Beiras. The area south of the river is the vast golden plains known as the Alentejo. Finally, the red cliffs and green hills of the Algarve lie to the south.

Portugal's castles are unlike their European counterparts. The Portuguese learned the art of fortification from the master builders of the Romans and the Moors. The Romans, who occupied Portugal for more than 400 years, built elegant forts with high walls and strong towers to defend their towns. The Moors, who invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711 A.D., brought innovative stonework and heavily fortified gates to Portugal. Northern Europe and England still were building wooden forts at this period of the Dark Ages, but Portugal's early interaction with the enlightened Moors and the young nation's wars against them moved the art of building castles to its highest point. Of course, the Celtic tribes that the Romans called Lusitanians fortified their villages with stones walls, but they were simple compared with what was to come.

Portugal emerged as a nation from the kingdom of Castile and Leon in the 12th century. The country's dynamic young king, D. Afonso Henriques launched a bold crusade to carve the southwestern half of the Iberian Peninsula away from the Moors. Many of Portugal's earliest castles from this post-1139 A.D. period were reconstructions of Moorish and Roman forts. Their Ogival style has certain common themes: High simple granite walls, a dual towered gatehouse, a cistern and pointed castellated walls. But, as the Gothic period replaced the Romanesque, Portuguese castles became more and more flamboyant and deadly with archers' loops in the castellated walls, oil spouts at the base of parapets, and increasingly higher keeps and towers.

By 1249 the Moors had been expelled from southern Portugal, and the nation became the first in Europe to take on its modern borders. The castle focus now turned from lines along east-west rivers to towns on the long border with rival Castile.

The pinnacles of this period were the 13th century castles built under King D. Dinis I, who rebuilt almost every major castle in the land. Until D. Dinis, Portugal's castles were usually just a three-story keep with one or two rings of walls. Now new towering keeps were built, like the one at Beja, or the five-sided keep at Sabugal. Many rings of walls were added, all with staggered gates and hidden escape doors. Wooden garrison buildings were built with more room for provisions and space for soldiers.

The 13th and 14th centuries brought a flamboyant period of castle building, with more decorative touches and features like pepper pots on towers, ornate brickwork and massive great halls built of stone. Many became fortified palaces, but just as castle building reached its zenith, the era came to quick end in 1453 as the Turks brought down the once impregnable walls of Byzantium with cannon fire.

The age of castles was over. But, the age of great forts had just begun. Gone were high walls, proud keeps and strong towers. Now low stonewalls were built around mounds of earth to repulse cannon balls. The straight lines of walls were replaced by star-like angles to allow for cannon and gunfire to be crossed with deadly results against the enemy. These forts became more and more sophisticated in the 16th and 17th centuries. Portuguese engineers built hundreds of impressive forts to defend the empire. Many are still found across South America, Africa, and Asia. The finest examples in Portugal may be found in Almeida, Valença do Minho, Marvão, and Elvas. These gun forts were in use up to the 1830s Civil War, the last war to be fought on Portuguese soil, and some had military uses into the 20th century.

Finding the Castle

Most large towns with a castle have well marked routes with yellow or white signs pointing you to the "Castelo." A rule of thumb is that the castle is always up, that is on a hill or above a town. And, look near the oldest portion of a town for the castle. In a village, the castle is usually quite visible. Sometimes, you will find a locked gate. Most monuments are closed on Monday, but open the rest of the week. Few charge an entrance fee, and if they do it is usually insignificant. In remote areas the key for the castle may be at a near by house or café. If you see a sign for "chave" or key, look for a house number. Take care on stairs, walls and in towers. These medieval relics were not built with modern safety concerns, and stone stairs can slope, tower and walls can be rough, and insides of keeps can be very dark. A flashlight and good shoes can be of great comfort. Fortunately, most Portuguese castles are not landscaped or over-restored; they simply exist in a variety of states of ruin, leaving the visitor with a sense of place and history.

The Tours

Granite Mountains and the Lines of the Tejo
The Beiras along the western frontier with Spain is the heart of ancient castle country, with every major town and village having some form of fortification. The area is also the most mountainous of the country, with the Serra de Estrela range reaching to almost 6,000 feet above sea level. Secondary roads can be very windy and often uphill, and some are closed by snow in the winter. Hiking is found in the Serra de Estrela and Serra de Malcata natural parks. The Beiras end at the Tejo River, which became the border between the new kingdom of Portugal and the Moorish lands to the south in 1147. Here, a line of castles rose under religious order designed to defend the newborn nation, while allowing a base to launch the Reconquest. The ring and line of castles, granite landscapes, and friendly folk make it a wonderful off-the-beaten-path adventure.

Where to Stay

Guarda — The coldest city in Portugal has good lodging at the centrally located Hotel de Turismo. The city retains much of its old fortifications, and its Gothic cathedral is considered one of the finest in the country. The town's old quarter is quite picturesque.

Almeida — The star of the 18th century Vauban school of fortification, Almeida is a must see for its perfect star shaped walls.

The Pousadas de Portugal has converted many monuments into fine hotels that celebrate rather than destroy the buildings that they inhabit. Almedia's Pousada, built in the old fort, is a comfortable way to enjoy this colorful frontier town. It is also a good point to explore the many castles that made this part of the country so inhospitable to invaliding armies.

Castelo Branco — True to its name, the old Templar's Castle still watches over this regional capital. The famed gardens of the Bishop's Palace have amazing statues of the kings of Portugal, with the three "Spanish Kings" half the size of their Portuguese counterparts.

Monsanto — This village in the clouds is a window to the past, and it commands a view of all below. Build at the foot of the castle and in the historic village walls, the Pousada of Monsanto is an experience in itself. And this is a great base to explore the surrounding countryside of the Beira Baixa.