The historical village of Marialva received the charter of the first king of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, and was once upon a time a busy military stronghold. Now a quiet place filled with memories, it is preserving the pace of a world in danger of extinction.
“…and it is this complex of ruined buildings, and the mystery that unites them, the present memory of all those who lived here, that suddenly moves the traveller, brings a lump to his throat and tears to his eyes” is an ode to Marialva taken from “Journey to Portugal” by Portuguese novelist José Saramago, recipient of the 1998 Nobel prize for literature, words now set in stone in the picturesque walled village of Marialva nestled in the interior of the country.
The locals like to tell visitors that the village was given the name of a Moorish princess, named Maria Alva, desired by many but cursed by a witch who gave her goat feet. When her secret was discovered, the maiden threw herself off the castle tower. Meanwhile, historians date the foundation of the military warehouses back to the Aravos, a Lusitanian tribe that predates the Romans and Moors, long before the conquest of King Fernando the Great.
Stories aside, Marialva almost disappeared off the map in the second half of last century, due to desertification. Today, it is enjoying a new lease of life and has become a destination for those seeking respite from the hustle of bustle of the city and paying tribute to Saramago’s words. Start with the castle: the entrance is through the Guardian Angel Gate also known as St Michael’s Gate where a shrine to the Guardian Angel is clearly visible and the measures in force in the borough are on display – because back then each municipality had its own metric system (ask for a map at the Tourist Office). Beyond this point is a real ghost town, where “a whispering silence flutters,” as José Saramago wrote.
The nerve centre of the village is Largo do Pelourinho, a landmark built in the sixteenth century that is a testament to the autonomy of Marialva as a district and its geographical importance at the time. Nearby, you’ll also find the old town hall that also doubled up as a school (in the nineteenth century), the courthouse, the well tank and the churches of Our Lord (in the Mannerist style and with an outside pulpit) and Santiago, featuring a Manueline portal and gilded altarpieces. Despite being quite small, the castle donjon overlooks the citadel and the rocky eminence where Marialva was born, at 580 meters of altitude.
Beyond the walls
No one has lived in the citadel for over a century, but the suburbs – where a few mansions still stand – have come back to life, especially since the opening of one of the best rural tourism units in the region: the Casas do Côro.
However, before surrendering to the comfort of one of these refurbished houses, have a wander down the tangle of alleys that centuries built. Start at the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes, close to the Guardian Angel Gate and carry on down Rua da Corredora, once the setting of medieval games and now home to the main historical buildings in the area outside the walls. Among those are the Marquis of Marialva Solar, framed by secular houses with balconies, the old granary (where olives were delivered before being taken to the mill) and the Casa do Leão (sixteenth century) with a stone lion in front. Roughly halfway down the street is the Church of St. Peter, of Romanesque origin, with a curious pulpit facing the outside. To get in, you need to ask for the key from one of the neighboring houses, but it is well worth a visit, if only for the amazing “naked mermaid,” an image that ended up being hidden from the eyes of the people because it diverted the attention of believers.
At the end of the day, the reason to stay in the village is the Casas do Côro, a handful of lovingly restored homes that make up this charming rural tourism unit, symbol of luxury and refinement. The common areas feature antiques, family photos, contemporary paintings and good literature, while dimmed lighting creates an intimate atmosphere, revealing the taste and personality of its owners, Cármen and Paulo Rolão. The comfortable rooms and suites, most of them spacious and featuring king size beds, embroidered cotton linen and feather duvets, are an invitation to relax indoors on the coldest days.
In the summer, open doors lead to terraced gardens that lend themselves to picnics under the shade of olive trees by the pool and jacuzzi.
Although the houses are equipped with a kitchenette, you’ll be hard-pressed to resist dinner at the Casão (where breakfast is served) prepared by Cármen upon prior request. The dishes are inspired by traditional Portuguese cuisine and cooked using fresh local ingredients grown on adjacent land while wines are chosen by Paulo and produced in the Douro and Dão, echoing the couple’s aim to promote the best of local produce and drinks.
Another detail: the Casas do Côro recently added a VIP to its guest list – the sustainable eco-suite Bogalhais. Designed by Spaniard Tomás Alía, it features a king size bed, a bathroom with shower and bath, outdoor, three private decks with sun loungers and a dining area. Made of wood, the unit uses solar panels to heat water, which is in turn, is recycled and reused. This option provides sustainable, yet magnificent view over the village and castle in a setting worthy of the finest medieval epic.
What to do
Spend an afternoon in Foz Côa and find out about the Paleolithic engravings discovered in the Côa Valley, now UNESCO World Heritage treasures. Guided tours are available for Canada do Inferno, Ribeira de Piscos and Penascosa. To book call: 279 768 260
For the more active, Casas do Côro can organise circuits, walking and cycling, canoeing, rappelling, slide and hot air ballooning (activities are organised in cooperation with radical sports companies). Boat trips down the Douro and themed week-ends theme related to village life, like grape harvest and olive picking, can be booked in advance.
From Porto (220km): Take the A1 to Albergaria and then exit towards Viseu / Vilar Formoso until Celorico da Beira. Follow the N102 in the direction until Foz Côa / Bragança. After the Trancoso crossroad, drive
20kms until you find a sign for Mêda / Marialva.
From Lisbon (371 km): Take the A1 to Torres Novas and exit towards Abrantes / Castelo Branco. Follow the A23 to Guarda and then the A25 towards Aveiro / Bragança. After 20 km on the N102, go back towards Foz Côa / Bragança. After the Trancoso crossroad, travel 20Kms until you find a sign for Mêda / Marialva.
From Faro (606 km): Take the A22 towards Lisbon and A2 to Lisbon. Take the A13/Santarém exit until the A1 / Torres Novas. Then follow the route described above.
Where to sleep
Casas do Côro
The price for a double room ranges between 75 and 110 euros per night and between 125 and 340 euros per night for a house, depending on the number of guests, day of week and time of year. The suites range between 125 and 280 euros per night. Breakfast is included in all rates. It is advisable to make an advance booking ten days before during low season and three months before during high season. You can contact the Casas do Côro
by phone: 917 552 020, fax: 271 590 003 or email: email@example.com.
For more information see www.assec.pt/casa-do-coro.
Where to eat
Delicious meals are served at Casas do Côro if you book in advance. Meals include starter, soup, main course and dessert. The price for each menu is 47.5 euros.
Restaurant 7 e meio (tel. 279 883 272), Mêda. Regional Portuguese cuisine served in generous portions.
Área Benta (tel. 271 817 180), Trancoso – A sophisticated space serving some regional specialties.