The isolated village of IDANHA-A-VELHA is 15km south of Monsanto by road, though closer by footpath. It might seem a forgotten backwater now, but it was a large Roman city in the first century BC and was later an important Visigothic settlement – one legend proudly records that the famous Visigothic king Wamba (reigned 672–680 AD) was born here, though at least two places in Spain claim him as well. Local folklore also has it that the inhabitants were driven from the village by a plague of rats during the fifteenth century, after which time the village fell into terminal decline. People do still live in Idanha-a-Velha today – grazing sheep on the plains and tending allotments down by the river – but it often seems almost deserted. Indeed, 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, the old village is 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. The basilica and the olive-oil-press building should be open during turismo office hours, but if not, just ask.
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