If they ever hand out prizes for most improbable village built on top of an implausible rocky outcrop nearly 3000 feet up and surrounded by a vast plain, I’m pretty sure Marvão would be the Bookmakers favourite. Seen from a distance against a bright blue sky Marvão takes on dreamlike qualities. The drive up the steep zig-zag road to the medieval walls which surround the village provides sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. It’s a dramatic location.
Walking through the imposing double walls at the entrance to the village is like being transported into a different world: tightly knit, narrow cobbled streets ooze atmosphere, the history of this border town is palpable. The frontier with Spain is only a few kilometres from here, which goes some way to explaining the paranoia that resulted in the building of a fortified village in such an extraordinary place.
Tourism, particularly the day-tripping variety, has begun to make its mark on Marvão, but the scattering of gift shops and accommodations doesn’t seem to have changed the ancient village dynamic. It retains a low-key atmosphere, as yet resisting tourist hoards in much the same way it has resisted invading armies. How long that lasts is debatable. Approximately 20,000 people visited last year; that doesn’t sound many but the village is home to only 150 people.
Five centuries of Islamic rule established Marvão as a near impregnable fortress. Giving a strong hint of its Moorish connections, the village gets its name from Ibn Marwán, a Berber clan leader who established his own statelet during a period of political instability in the 9th Century. It retained its independence for 46 years before being absorbed back into the Emirate of Córdoba around 930AD, at which time it was a frontier outpost of an empire that stretched south to Senegal and east to Libya.
The failure of Moorish rulers to subdue and subjugate the Christian kingdoms to the north, combined with internal conflicts, led to the slow reconquest of Spain and Portugal. Marvão found itself on the front line between Christian and Muslim Portugal, and Christian Portugal and Spain. Not an enviable place to be. It was King Alfonso I who finally captured this stronghold from the Moors and secure it for Portugal in 1160.
The political and military situation remained precarious. In 1190, a Moorish military offensive recaptured Marvão. The main target of the campaign was the Templar stronghold of Tomar, this failed but Marvão was once again under Moorish control, at least briefly.
Several turbulent decades of fighting between the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal followed, and Marvão’s magnificent castle and defensive walls were heavily fortified during this period by Portugal’s Sancho I and Alfonso II. It was Alfonso II, in 1232, who gave much of the area around Marvão to the Knights Hospitaller (a military-religious order to rival the Knights Templar).
The Knights Hospitaller would dominate this region for over 200 years, and they further fortified the castle and village at the end of the 13th Century. The Knights Hospitaller were heavily involved in the Crusades and Marvão’s castle has many of the same features found in Crusader castles in the Middle East.
Walking around the castle and the enchanting streets there is a tangible sense of the history that has swept over this region, in which this tiny village played a major role. Close your eyes and you can almost feel the Hospitaller’s presence. Standing on top of the castle’s keep provides breathtaking views over the town and the vast plain below, all the way to the Serra de Ossa and Serra de São Mamede mountains. It is an experience not to be missed.