The tiny backwater of IDANHA-A-VELHA is 15km south of Monsanto by road, though closer by footpath. It was once a major Roman city of the first century BC and, subsequently, under Visigothic rule, “Egitânia” was the seat of a bishopric – Wamba (620–680 AD), the legendary King of the Goths, is said to have been born here. During the reign of Dom Manuel, however, early in the fifteenth century, it is said that a plague of rats forced the occupants to move to Monsanto or nearby Idanha-a-Nova.
The village looks much as it must have done when the rats moved in, and perhaps not very different from when the Romans left, either. Set amid burned plains and olive groves, it’s still partly girded by a massive Roman wall. Down by the languid river the Roman bridge is still in use, while roses and vines are trained up the weathered walls of the houses, many built from plundered Roman stone. A stork’s nest tops the ancient basilica – signposted as the Sé – while outside here stand the ruins of the bishop’s palace and an even earlier Roman house. Perhaps the most fascinating restoration is of the old oil press or Lagar de Varas, with an ingenious pressing system utilizing two huge tree trunks, with roots intact.
People do live in Idana-a-Velha – grazing sheep on the plains and tending allotments down by the river – but it often seems almost deserted. You’ll generally find someone at least in the turismo behind the Lagar. The basilica and the olive-oil-press building should be open during office hours, but if not, just ask. There’s a café by the pelourinho but the nearest restaurants and accommodation are in Idanha-a-Nova, 15km to the southwest.
There’s no public transport to the village, although there is a great footpath from Monsanto (7km, 2hr). Walk down to the São Pedro de Vir-à-Corça chapel from Monsanto (red-yellow marks) and, behind the chapel, pick up the red-white markers that run down ancient tracks, through cork and olive groves, to Idanha-a-Velha. You wouldn’t want to walk back uphill, though, so arrange a taxi in Monsanto first.