Heart of stone: losing yourself in deepest Iberia

Heart of stone: losing yourself in deepest Iberia

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The Beira Baixa is a land of burning plains and granite visions, isolated in one of the most remote corners of Western Europe, where the Spanish border blurs under a broiling sun. Here, if you search hard enough, you’ll find at least two of the most startling medieval villages in Europe: Monsanto – Mon Sanctus in Latin – is truly a sacred hill; you can feel it in the air, in the very fabric of its ancient houses and the long life of its inhabitants. Even as you drive past the cork trees below its flanks, their valuable bark sliced away to reveal an ochre core, this mini-citadel grips the imagination and quickens the blood.

It is a village built into the earth, not on it: the famous Casa de Uma Só Telha – the house with only one tile – boasts a roof consisting of a single slab of granite. No surprise that its flower-buttoned facades once won it the title “most Portuguese village”, or that mystery and superstition permeate the draughts of warm air rising from the rocks in the relative cool of evening.

A few octogenarian villagers still sell marafonas, rag dolls traditionally hung over doorways to “scare thunder storms, sorcery and the fox”. While you’re unlikely to come across many foxes, far less sorcery, you might just hear the high, ululating strangeness of one of these old women accompanying herself on the adufe, a square, tambourine-like percussion instrument of Moorish origin, once common in Alentejo and Trás-os-Montes yet now largely confined to the Beira Baixa; or be regaled by toothless men old enough to remember their fathers holding off Vatua hordes in Mozambique.

Had the “most Portuguese village” competition not been scrapped after envious howls of protest, it would surely, sooner or later, have been scooped by Sortelha, some 35km to the north. A walled horseshoe of ancient history on a 45-degree angle, it’s the kind of place that sends your brain spinning: silent, sleeping streets and Vesuvian hulks of stone piling down upon garden, upon pantiled roof, upon carved stairwell; a film set waiting to happen. At its apex sits Bar Campanario, a tiny stone hostelry hiding one of the world’s most atmospheric terraces, its infinite views wheeling endlessly across the primordial plain-scape beyond, and only ghosts for company.

The Beira Baixa region lies more or less equidistant between Coimbra and the Spanish town of Cáceres. Monsanto is accessible via (infrequent) bus from the regional hub of Castelo Branco, Sortelha via a €12–15 taxi ride from nearby Sabugal.

 

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