We spent the better part of August driving all over Spain and Portugal visiting so many cities I can hardly keep track of them all.
Eating octopus guts in Cudillero. Rubbing–and then thoroughly washing–elbows with stinky pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela. Buying shots of homemade cherry brandy in Alfama’s back alleys. We packed so much into three weeks that by the end I felt like a rock star on a European tour where every night just becomes a blur of unpacking and repacking suitcases.
Except in my case, I have no obvious musical talent, any chance I ever had of being cool died when I was in junior high, and if either of these countries had any sense they would have deported me the moment I arrived.
Dear God. Have I somehow become a 43-year-old Justin Bieber?
I won’t do a recap of every city we visited, but I will mention one place that really stuck with me.
Monsaraz is a tiny village that sits on top of a lone hill in southern Portugal, and it is without a doubt one of the most surreal and stunning towns I’ve ever visited. As Pam put it, “It’s like walking around inside a painting.”
Monsaraz is so damn old that it predates writing, so no one really knows how long people have been calling it home. There are megalithic monuments scattered around the outer parts of the city that date back to 3,000 BC. The castle in Monsaraz dates back to the 12th century. Most of the whitewashed houses that line the streets now were built in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Since Monsaraz occupies the highest point in the area, it holds incredible strategic importance. Over the years pretty much everyone has played King of the Hill here. Visigoths, Arabs, Jews, Knights Templar, Christians, Emos, Subarus. You name it. Nowadays, its 900 or so residents spend their days fending off tourists and their hound dogs.
There are a handful of boutique-y shops lining the streets that are worth visiting. A few of the restaurants have balconies where you can enjoy a glass of wine while taking in the spectacular sunsets. There’s also a castle at one end of town that’s fun to explore. Mostly, though, I just found it a wonderful place to relax and soak in the peacefulness of the area.
Our one night there was highlighted by an exceptional dinner at a true locals’ restaurant. The place was located just a short walk outside the main village. We sat down at our table, and the waiter immediately brought over some olives and other small bites for us to enjoy before our meal. I looked forward to reading the menu.
Then the actual meals started showing up.
It was essentially a “sit down, shut up, and eat what we give you” establishment. Giving people menus was not high on their list of priorities. Pam politely mentioned that she doesn’t eat certain types of food, and the chef happily brought her some other dishes he was also serving that night. I ended up having medallions of black pig that looked like chunks of entrails that should have been thrown into the trash. But the flavor? Just extraordinary. I’m not sure what part of the pig I shoveled into my head that night, but I do know that it practically melted in my mouth.
While you could certainly see all of Monsaraz in an afternoon, I highly recommend spending one or two nights if you can. There was just something about the place that really caught me off guard. Maybe it was that I was eager to stay in a small town after traveling at an intense pace through some fairly large cities. The unique geography also helps. From atop the castle walls, you can see 25 miles in every direction. It’s breathtaking.
So now that I’ve fallen in love with a town of 900 people in Portugal, what could be better than moving to a city of 1.5 million people in Spain?