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The inhabitants of Monsanto village in Portugal live in houses built within huge rocks

Goran Blazeski

When we think of Portugal the first places that come to mind are its beautiful cities such as Lisbon and Porto, but this country has so much more to offer.

In Eastern Portugal, near the Spanish border, lies the unusual village of Monsanto where the houses are built on, between, under, and even inside huge rocks.

The village is part of the Portuguese municipality of Idanha-a-Nova and stands at the top of 400 feet high hill in the first Portuguese geopark called Geopark Naturejo, which is under the protection of UNESCO and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the region, offering visitors a unique experience.

The villagers of Monsanto had to adapt to the environment, forming their houses around the existing boulders. They even managed to keep the medieval atmosphere of the village since donkeys are the preferred form of transport for the residents of Monsanto.

It is thought that this region was first inhabited during the Paleolithic when the prehistoric man developed the stone tools. However, the village of Monsanto which exists today was established in the 12th century.

Monsanto (Portugal) and its granite houses. Photo Credit

Monsanto (Portugal) and its granite houses. Photo Credit

The placement of the rocks determined the shapes of the winding streets and the architecture of the stone houses. These giant boulders replaced the walls of the houses, the floors, and even the roofs.

There is evidence that suggests the existence of a Lusitanian fortress at the foot of the hill. The Moors took control of the village, but soon after, King Afonso Henriques defeated them and conquered Monsanto.

Lusitanians were the first to settle in the area back in the 6th century BC and it is said that they built a fortified settlement on the current site of the castle.

In 1165, King Alfonso gave the village to the Templar Knights, who were the first to build a castle in Monsanto. The construction of the castle was finished in 1171.

There were a chapel and a Romanesque church within the walls of the castle. The castle was surrounded by a fortress.The four towers which were built around the fortress were used for protection.

A view of the castle and walls draped over the hilltop of Monsanto (with the Chapel of Santa Maria do Castelo in the foreground). Photo Credit

A view of the castle and walls draped over the hilltop of Monsanto (with the Chapel of Santa Maria do Castelo in the foreground). Photo Credit  

During the 14th century, the castle fell into disorder and it was King D. John I who reconstructed it in 1476. Through the years a few leaders attempted to lay siege to Monsanto, but none succeeded.  Every year, on the 3rd of May, the inhabitants of this village traditionally celebrate the resistance to a long history of sieges.

In 1813 and 1831, the castle was partly destroyed by an explosion and collapsing cliff. Since the complete reparation of the castle in 1989, it has been regarded as a national monument.

Bellow the Castle of Monsanto is the location of the Romanesque Capela de São Miguel or Sao Miguel Chapel that was erected back in the 12th century. Surrounded by stone coffins, Sao Miguel Chapel was reportedly built upon a sanctuary dedicated to the Mars cult.

The streets of the village are too narrow and steep to use any kind of transportation except donkeys. The paths that pass through the large boulders lead the residents upwards and downwards over the rocks and through the village.

Abandoned house in Monsanto. Photo Credit

Abandoned house in Monsanto. Photo Credit

In spite of the fact that this unique village is hardly representative of Portugal, Monsanto was chosen as ‘the most Portuguese village in Portugal’ in 1939.

Apart from being the most Portuguese village in Portugal, Monsanto is also one of the 12 Historical Villages of Portugal. Strategically placed next to the Spanish border, each of these villages is one of a kind and they all have some interesting story to tell. However, none of them can match the beauty and the irresistible medieval charm of Monsanto.

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Today, Monsanto has less than 1000 inhabitants who work tirelessly to preserve the medieval appearance of the village.