What to do in Marvão

For centuries, mountains, wheat, water, and castles were the elements of survival in Portugal's Alentejo region on the border with Spain. Although sparsely populated, this area accounts for nearly a third of Portugal's mainland. Within an hour's drive of Lisbon, the Alentejo stretches from the banks of the Rio Tejo (Targus River) south to the mountains of the Algarve region. On the fertile plains farmers still tend cork tree forests and grow wheat. And for centuries rulers bet on their kingdom's safety by building mountain fortresses.

Of the Alentejo's castles, Marvão may have the most spectacular view. Set defiantly atop a rocky pinnacle 2,837 feet high, the castle soars above the surrounding countryside. This is the place to let sure-footed gradeschoolers scramble with care. Climb to the ramparts to pace out the same watch as long-ago soldiers and to see what they saw: Portugal's many peaks as well as Spain's mountains, less than five miles to the east.

Marvan, a Moorish king of Coimbra, built the first fortress at this site in the 8th century. After kings, battles, and "renovations," the castle was transformed again in 1640 following Portugal's independence from Spain. For more than two centuries Marvão's walls withstood the Spanish. Marvão, whose last battle took place in 1830 during Portugal's Civil War, rates as one of Portugal's best-preserved, still-inhabited, walled medieval villages with a standing castle. It's also fun to meander through the village's maze of cobblestone streets.

Just north of Marvão lies Castelo de Vide, another medieval town with castle ruins, cobbled streets, and small white houses. Castelo de Vide, once populated by Jews, also has a one-room synagogue, the oldest in Portugal.

Take time to hike in the Serra de São Mamede Natural Park, whose diverse topography includes plains, mountain peaks, and some medieval villages. On the trails you might see wild deer and boar or spot an Egyptian vulture swooping overhead. The park has the largest colony of bats in Europe. Go on a guided nighttime tour to see swarms of bats flitting about in the dark.

Tip: To get even more of a sense of life in these small border towns, stay at a local pousada (guesthouse).

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