We visited Monsaraz on a road trip around the Alentejo region of Portugal. It’s a tiny walled village, essentially two long streets with alleyways in between, and a pathway along some of the fortified walls.
It occupies a dramatic site of strategic importance, occupying a hill with commanding views to the Alqueva lakes system and Spanish border to the east and the vast Alentejo plain to the west.
Monsaraz has been fought over several times in its history, having been under the control of the Moors, the Knights Templar, the Kingdom of Portugal and even the disgruntled, unpaid Earl of Cambridge and his band of mercenaries at one point.
The 13th century castle sits at the southern end of the village, is free to enter and has outstanding views over the village, the surrounding countryside and the Alqueva lakes.
Most of the village was built between the 13th and 18th centuries, though the area has been inhabited for several millennia, as some prehistoric remains, including the Cromleque de Xerez, attest.
We visited in early spring, and had the village almost to ourselves. We walked the streets at dusk and then before dawn the following morning. It was still quiet the following lunchtime, and it felt slightly disconcerting that nobody else was around to savour this amazing place.
It’s an extraordinarily beautiful village, with most of the buildings whitewashed to reflect the intense dry summer heat.
Apart from the Castle and scenery, the village has several medieval churches to explore.
There are also several craft and souvenir shops, specialising in traditional Portuguese arts and crafts, from gorgeous ceramic plates and bowls to these exquisite children’s painted folk art chairs.
Hotels in Monsaraz Portugal
There are several small hotels and guesthouses around the main walled village of Monsaraz, with a couple more in the ‘overspill’ streets outside the walls and more dotted around the surrounding countryside. They’re all quite small places, and there are also plenty of holiday homes, apartments for rental and farmstays in Monsaraz and around.
Our Monsaraz accommodation was in the Casa Rural Santo Condestavel, a 400-year-old whitewashed guest house with five comfortable suites. We would have loved to stay longer than we did – it was a great place to relax, very comfortable, with a balcony giving great views over the Alqueva lakes.
There is also Casa Dona Antonia, just across the street, Rua Direita. It’s another small guest house with outstanding views from the rooftop terrace. Casa Pinto is another great place in the centre of the village, with beautiful designer touches to medieval rooms.
Getting to Monsaraz
The easiest way to get to Monsaraz is to drive. It’s in quite a remote location, overlooking the Spanish border, and the best way of reaching it by road is via the small wine town of Reguengos de Monsaraz, around 20 km to the west. The M514 road takes you from there to the village car park, right outside the walls.
If you’re driving from Lisbon, it’s around a two-and-a-half-hour trip via the A6 motorway and the N256.
And if you’re approaching from Madrid, the best way is via the A-5 / E90 motorway as far as Elvas, just inside the Portuguese border, and from here you head south, eventually joining the N255 which you take as far as Reguengos de Monsaraz.
If you’re planning to drive up from the Algarve, the most direct route is up the A2 motorway, passing through Almodovar and Mertola, continuing to the Alqueva lakes and Monsaraz from there.
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David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times. His images are frequently used throughout the world by tourism bodies such as Visit Britain and Visit Wales.