4 Must See Portuguese Hill Towns
4 Must See Portuguese Hill Towns
If you visit Portugal, chances are you’ll take in Lisbon, Porto, or both. But, there’s more to Portugal than its appealing cities. In fact, many historic Portuguese hill towns, which date back to the Middle Ages, have ancient castles with ramparts. Also, you can visit them for rich heritage, culture, and atmospheric medieval streets.
Though it’s hard to pick just a few, here are four of my favorite Portuguese hill towns.
Favaios – Douro Valley
In the north, the town of Favaios, which dates back to Roman times, has two claims to fame. First, local wine producers make golden Moscatel de Favaios, a fruity port wine, from the area’s Muscat grapes. Also, bakers in Favaios still make a unique, four-cornered bread.
To get to Favaios, you have to drive six miles up into the hills from Pinhao, a small town on the Douro River. But before you leave Pinhao, it’s well worth going to the local train station. There, you’ll see beautiful hand-painted tiles showing Douro Valley hills, vineyards, and the wine harvest.
Once you hit the road from Pinhao into the hills, try to sneak a peek at the scenery. All along the way to Favaios, you’ll see beautiful views over terraced vineyards, which seem to go on forever.
The Adega Cooperativea Favaios
The Adega Cooperativea Favaios is a grape farmers’ cooperative on the edge of “downtown” Favaios. There, you can do a wine tasting and take a tour of the vineyards.
When we were in town, we saw lots of local farmers bringing in the grape harvest. It seemed like everyone in town was involved in the local industry.
The Bread and Wine Museum
The Bread and Wine Museum is another fun place to visit.
The museum has two halves. First, you’ll learn how the area’s hot summers and cold winters are ideal for growing Muscat grapes. You’ll also learn about how wine has shaped the life of the town. Before you leave the museum, be sure to taste a free glass of Moscatel wine as you look out over the vineyards.
In the other half of the museum, you’ll see displays on bread making, from start to finish. In addition, you’ll see a great video showing local women making four-cornered bread. If you want to sample this special treat, visit one of the nearby bakeries.
Trancoso – Central Portugal
In the central part of the country, one of my favorite hill towns is Trancoso, with its medieval quarter and fascinating history.
One of the most interesting things about this hill town is its Jewish history. From ancient times, Jews lived there. In fact, the community experienced economic and social growth throughout the Middle Ages. But all of this ended with the Portuguese Inquisition that started in 1536.
The Portuguese Inquisition
In the early-1500s, many Portuguese Jews converted to Christianity out of fear. But some Jews continued to practice their Judaism in secret. For this reason, the Portuguese Inquisition tried to find these so-called “crypto-Jews.”
In Trancoso, many people in the 1500s engraved crosses on their homes to demonstrate their faith. Today, it’s still possible to see some of these markings. With the help of a local woman, we found some of these crosses, as well as Hebrew words and symbols on some doorposts.
The Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation
In 2013, the Cardoso Center for Jewish Interpretation opened in Trancoso’s former Jewish quarter. It’s named after Isaac Cardoso, who wrote a treatise defending the Jewish people from negative medieval stereotypes.
The Center is building an exhibit about the Jews of Trancoso and Portugal. Before you go there, check to make sure that the exhibit is open.
Two Hill Towns in the Alentejo Region
Less than three hours east of Lisbon, Marvao and Monsarez are two small Portuguese hill towns in the Alentejo region.
Back in the 1200s, Portuguese kings built castles in each town to protect them against Spanish incursions along the border. This was a real frontier back then.
In many ways, these towns feel like outdoor museums with castles as the main attractions. When you visit either one, you get to experience history, culture, and architecture in a unique way.
Marvao is a medieval walled village with whitewashed houses. It sits on a rocky outcrop almost 3,000 feet above vineyards and olive groves. With only 150 residents, Marvao has a very small town feel.
Marvao has one of the country’s best preserved medieval castles. You can easily spend a few hours roaming along the ramparts and soaking up the atmosphere.
In addition to the castle, Marvao has a history museum. Some of the items on display are medieval tombstones, hand-painted Portuguese tiles, and a room dedicated to its Jewish history.
Like Marvao, Monsaraz is a pretty town dominated by a large ancient castle. As you stroll around, you’ll see whitewashed houses with wrought-iron grills, red tile roofs, and many Moorish touches.
In fact, Monsaraz received the most beautiful “Monument Village in Portugal” award in 2017. It earned this distinction from a group called 7 Wonders of Portugal.
Despite its small size, the village has an outdoor arena where local people stage several bull fights each September.
If you only visit big cities in Portugal, you’ll miss some of the country’s most charming sites, its historic hill towns.
Some of Portugal’s most elegant pousadas (government-owned historic inns) are in or near these hill towns. In fact, many pousadas are former palaces, monasteries, or hospitals which have been converted to luxury hotels. Notably, many pousadas retain beautiful architectural details, making them unique lodging experiences.
Where to Overnight
Quinta de la Rosa. This is a working vineyard and winery in the village of Pinhão. The Quinta serves up wonderful lunches on a terrace with great views over the Douro.
Quinta da Pacheca. Though Pinhão (above) is much closer to Favaios, this working vineyard and winery in Lamego is a great base for the area. Plus, you can walk through their vineyards and get some stunning views.
Pousada de Belmonte (45 minutes from Trancoso). Belmonte has a Jewish Museum about the history of the Portuguese Jews.
Pousada de Viseu. Though this pousada in Viseu is about 50 minutes from Trancoso, it’s still a great base for exploring the region. Also, from Viseu, Portugal’s most famous university city, Coimbra, is less than a 1.5 hour drive.
Hotel Dom Dinis. This simple but lovely inn tucked inside the village walls offers nice breakfasts and great views. In addition, you can get tasty dinners at the lovely Pousada do Marvao next door.
Pousada do Marvao A former monastery, this pousada offers luxury lodging and excellent food.
ADC Hotel. Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is about 50 minutes from Monsaraz. Even so, this hotel, which has a new name and new owners since our stay, is a great base for exploring the Alentejo.