Explore Beira Alta and Beira Baixa
The delightful small town of BELMONTE springs one of the best surprises in the Beiras, a charming place of sun-dappled squares, stone houses dripping with window boxes and lazy dogs basking on the cobbles. There are curiosities at every turn, such as the unusual pillory in the shape of an olive press, or the fire-blackened tree stumps outside the castle, which are the site of Christmas Eve carols and gambols. Meanwhile, in the Zêzere river valley, which Belmonte overlooks, vast peach and cherry orchards splash a blaze of colour each spring.
For the Portuguese Belmonte is best known as the birthplace of Pedro Álvares Cabral (1467–1520), the “discoverer” of Brazil, who was born in the tidily restored castle overlooking town. Cabral’s father received the castle from Dom Afonso V, and adapted it as the family residence, though it later fell into disrepair. The Igreja de São Tiago, just outside the castle walls, contains the Cabral family pantheon (though not the tomb of Pedro Álvares, which is in Santarém), while one of two tiny stone chapels on a hillock opposite is inscribed with the Cabral family coat of arms – two goats within a shield. The Cabral trail also extends to the main through-road named in his honour where there’s a statue of the explorer clutching a large cross.
Belmonte’s restored Jewish quarter is tucked below the southern wall of the castle. Belmonte once maintained one of Portugal’s largest Jewish communities and records show that there was a synagogue here as early as 1297, but this fell into ruins after the Inquisition, when many Jews fled the country or were forced to convert to being “New Christians”. The modern Sinagoga built in the Jewish quarter is now open for visits, while behind Largo do Pelourinho in the old town the Museu Judaico, Rua da Portela, explores the history of Portuguese Judaism.
Along the main Rua Pedro Álvares Cabral you’ll find the other town museums. Start with the interpretation centre, À Descoberta do Novo Mundo, installed in the former Cabral palace, across from the town hall, which covers the New World discoveries of Cabral and others. Opposite lies the Ecomuseu do Zêzere, housed in a barn-like granite building, formerly a granary owned by the Cabral family. This provides the natural and geological background on the Zêzere River, while for an investigation of the local olive oil industry, follow the signs around the corner to the Museu do Azeite, housed in the former municipal olive-oil press.