Marvão, the impregnable fortress of the Alentejo

Marvão, the impregnable fortress of the Alentejo

3 minutes to read

The town was founded in the IXth century by a Muslim rebel. It towers the top of a hill at 860m above the sea level, some 400m higher than all the nearby lands of the Natural Park of São Mamede. The view from the top amazes the tourist today, but it was very useful in the past, too; no one could attack it without being spotted from miles ahead. Its strategic position in the Alentejo, right in front of the Spanish border, made it a key fortress for Portugal in medieval times.  

Picture © Credits to Julie Chojnacki
Picture © Credits to Julie Chojnacki

 It has always been practically impregnable. When Napoleon invaded Portugal, he didn’t even try to attack this superb area. The spot had been carefully chosen by a Muslim caudillo, who originally was "born Christian" from a very rich family. Later on, he offered his soldiers to the Califa of Córdoba, with whom he ended up fighting a while after. Thus, offended, he escaped with his powerful army to the best natural fortress he could find. The name of the caudillo was Ibn Marwan, and therefore the place was baptized as "Marvão". Marwan used to refer to it as “my rock”. It was the perfect description, since the citadel was, indeed, built straight on a pure granite rock.

Picture © Credits to Marizan Tampakidou
Picture © Credits to Marizan Tampakidou

In the XII century, Christian armies were conquering Portugal. They reached Marvão in 1166. King Dom Dinis made it officially a village, and in fact, a very important one. Actually, after the division of the Iberian Peninsula in Spain and Portugal, the castle was located at the very border between the two countries. It was the perfect spot to observe any movements on the Spanish side. Therefore, its castle was made bigger and of course, stronger. However, there was a problem: the village was never able to grow beyond the XVIIIth century limits; the sides of the mountains were so steep that it was almost impossible to build anything there. 

Thus, Marvão has kept its essence over the centuries, just the way it has always been. In the XXth century there was a bit of a decline. But then, the Portuguese dictator Salazar decided to do something about it. Like all dictators, he wanted to bring back the "past glories", so he decided to restore the village. 

Marvão
Marvão
7330 Marvão, Portugal

 The result of his work is what the visitor can see today; a white town, with stone houses, three churches, an amazing castle, some cafés, and many hotels. It has become a sort of an open-air museum. One gets the impression that the time has stopped at Marvão. Only 185 true “marvanenses” remain there; however, many foreigners have bought a few houses. Some of them are even fancy ones. Additionally, to stir the village up, the best orchestra conductor of Europe has created the successful Marvão International Festival of Classical Music. The best classical musicians of the world offer concerts for two weeks at the most beautiful places in the region, at affordable prices. In that way, they managed to bring to this lost corner of the Alentejo, music of the same quality with the ones heard at the best theatres of Berlin or Vienna. 

Last but not least, it's worth mentioning that there is another important date at the marvanense calendar: the Chestnut Festival. During the first weekend of November, the city closes its ancient gates to cars and one can only go inside on foot. Traditional music is played everywhere and, most importantly, all one can eat is chestnut-related. Not only roasted chestnuts, oh no... There are soups, desserts, cookies, liquors, etc, and, of course, lots of wine and beer. 

During these two periods of time Marvão receives a crowd of tourists. Nevertheless, the rest of the year, it is a quiet little town, where the visitors can wander along its very, very steep streets in peace and silence. It is so calm in there that it is believed to be the place where eagles used to nest. “From Marvão you can see the whole earth”, said José Saramago, one of the most famous Portuguese writers. The locals agree and say that it is the only place, where you can see the "back of the birds". Such a place is worth a visit…

Cover picture © Credits to Julie Chojnacki

The author

Sara Rodriguez Romo

Sara Rodriguez Romo

I live between Salamanca, in Spain, and Marvão, in Portugal. A passionate traveller, I have visited over 30 countries in four continents. Currently I am doing a PhD in Greek Mythology and working with horses, doing rides in the nature.

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