5 Top-Rated Castles in Portugal
Visiting Portugal is to discover a remarkably diverse destination. Inextricably linked with the sea, the country has more than 800 kilometers of enticing Atlantic Ocean coastline. But except this fact Portugal is peppered with castles. You can see them on hills and mountains, along plains and rivers, and in towns and cities. Indeed, these mighty monuments serve as landmarks for posterity, and their romantic appeal is tangible. Portugal's castles are fun to discover and exciting to explore. Each has its own unique character and a story to tell. They are fascinating reminders of the country's noble though often turbulent past.
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Of all the varied historical buildings found across the land, let's take a look at the castle that stands as the most evocative.
Castelo de São Jorge, Lisbon
Portugal's most visited castle is the imposing Castelo de São Jorge in Lisbon. The impressive stronghold crowns a hill overlooking the city's busy Baixa (downtown) district and is the Portuguese capital's most visible historical monument. A "must see" on any city tour itinerary, the castle's foundations date from the late 12th century, though evidence suggests a fortification of sorts stood here as early as the Iron Age. Subsequent renovation restored much of its former glory, and today, Castelo de São Jorge remains one of Lisbon's most compelling tourist attractions. The best way to appreciate the castle's dimensions is to clamber up the battlements and walk along the ramparts. Several towers offer elevated views of the city shining below. One of them, Torre de Ulisses, houses a camera obscura that projects views of the capital onto the interior walls. Kids will have fun scrambling over the cannons lining the observation terrace, which affords a spectacular panorama over Lisbon and the Tagus River. Elsewhere, the foundations of the once grand royal palace can be explored, and a neighboring interpretation center provides an exhibition of artifacts discovered during archaeological excavations.
Castelo de Almourol, Vila Nova da Barquinha
Its spectacular setting, on a stony, pocket-sized islet in the Tagus River presents Castelo de Almourol as arguably the most evocative of all Portugal's castles. Enchanting and mysterious in equal measure, the redoubt, with its tall narrow keep and ramparts embellished with towers, is the embodiment of medieval Portugal. Constructed in the late 12th century over the foundations of a Roman fortress, Almourol Castle served as a defensive trading post, guarding river traffic between the region and Lisbon, further south. But it was the Order of the Knights Templar, known later in Portugal as the Order of Christ, which is most closely associated with the stronghold. The secretive order ensconced itself on the islet, safe in the knowledge that even if the river was breached, its craggy shore and the castle's vertiginous walls were enough to keep marauders at bay. These days, a ferry whisks visitors from a landing stage opposite the castle. Once ashore, you can scramble through undergrowth to reach the entrance. There's little to see within the walls. Instead, an uninterrupted pastoral view is the reward for reaching the top of the keep. As an added allure, after dark the castle's walls are illuminated with floodlight that further enhances the romantic quality of this ancient building.
Castelo de Marvão, Marvão
Portugal's vast Alentejo region is dotted with some magnificent castles, but few compare with the isolated splendor of Marvão. In effect an extension of the tranquil medieval hamlet set high up in the remote Serra de São Mamede, the well-preserved castle looks over an expanse of empty plains towards Spain. Indeed, it was built as a frontier fortress in the late 13th century over existing Moorish foundations to repel Spanish incursions. Visiting the castle requires a long, winding drive to the top of a granite escarpment where Marvão sits 861 meters above sea level. Its 14th-century walls are remarkably undamaged, as are the later 17th-century buttresses. The battlements enclose a keep and an impressive cisterna, still brimming with water. In spring, the trees embroidering the spruce lawn cradle delicate almond blossoms. The only other distraction is the village itself, the collection of tiny, whitewashed cottages squatting over cobblestone lanes seemingly trapped in a 600-year time warp. The most memorable aspect, however, is the spectacularly serene landscape and all the history it evokes. The sensation is simply beguiling.
Castelo de Guimarães, Guimarães
Celebrated as the birthplace of the nation and once the capital of the kingdom of "Portucale," Guimarães, in northern Portugal's wild and verdant Minho province, is also the city where Dom Afonso Henriques, Portugal's first king, was born in 1110. Its historical significance is such that UNESCO declared the old town a World Heritage Site in 2001. The most significant building is the splendid Castelo de Guimarães. With foundations dating from the 10th century, the structure you see today is largely the result of expansion carried out two centuries later by Henry of Burgundy and reinforcements during the second half of the 14th century. Imposing heavy-set walls and a series of crenellated towers belie the rather modest interior, the highpoint of which is the central keep - the Torre de Menagem. Visitors can follow the sturdy ramparts and soak in the tangible medieval atmosphere. For a real sense of occasion, however, climb the keep and admire some fabulous views of the surrounding area. After that, you can call in at the diminutive Romanesque chapel of São Miguel, just outside the castle walls, where Dom Afonso was baptized.
Castelo dos Mouros, Sintra
Among the highlights of an excursion from Lisbon to the verdant and impossibly pretty town of Sintra is the stunning late 8th-century Castelo dos Mouros, the Moorish Castle. Clinging to a craggy escarpment high up in the Serra de Sintra hills, its weather-beaten ramparts snake along the Serra's granite-hewn contours to resemble a line of broken teeth. The castle remained a strategically important stronghold for the Moors up until 1147 before Afonso Henriques, Portugal's first monarch, conquered it. You'll need a stout pair of legs to reach the lofty redoubt by foot (a way-signed track from the town center leads hikers through the steep and wooded lower slopes to the castle's curtain walls). Most visitors, however, take the shuttle bus that conveniently stops outside the main entrance. Once inside allow a good hour to explore the castle. On the ground, you can admire the outline of Moorish-era grain silos and a water cistern, as well as the ruins of a medieval church. Afterwards climb the solid walls for a breathtaking saunter along the battlements, where dramatic views of the town below and the distant Atlantic coast can be admired. Along the way, be sure to pause at "Fernando's Tower," a squat bulwark named after the Portuguese monarch, who restored the walls in the 19th century. From this spot, you can understand why UNESCO has recognized the destination as a World Heritage cultural landscape.
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