Montemor-o-Velho is in the district of Coimbra and has more than 26,000 inhabitants. It is 25 kilometres away from Coimbra and you can drive from the city either along the EN111, or A14.
Time to eat
After arriving in the city, it was time to eat. The typical dish here is lamprey rice, which I did not experience, as lamprey, which is a type of eel like fish, is not my favourite dish, instead, I had beef in a lovely restaurant called A Grelha. The meal was very cheap, which surprised me because there was a lot of food on my plate, but very tasty food.
The rain stopped and it was time to move. Castles are usually placed in high places, and we were all mentally prepared for the climb. But Montemor is prepared for this, and we discovered that there are escalators available to reach the castle.
It is free to enter the castle and it is open to everyone who wants to visit the past. The castle has an Arabic origin and it was one of the most important fortresses of the 10th Century. It is described as one of the most strategically placed castles in Portugal, and I easily understood why. From every tower, it was possible to have a view of places that were 30 kilometres and more away. The position would facilitate the defence of the city as soon as the enemies were arriving, as it was easier to see when they were coming, even if the enemies were far away. While Muslims were attacking the city, the castle was the place where the population lived and spent most of their time, as it was safer than living in the surrounding areas. From the castle, it is also possible to see the large fields, that are used to plant the famous Arroz Carolino of Baixo Mondego.
Inside the castle, there is a little church with a wooden altar and three small chapels, one with baby shoes, next to a figure of what I thought to be the Virgin Mary. The church was built in honour of St. Mary of the Alcáçova. In the interior, three naves head to the chapels, which are divided by arcades on Salomonic columns that date from the Manueline period, during the 16th Century. Regarding the shoes, I did not find anyone to explain to me why people offer baby shoes to the figure, but I am sure that it makes part of one of the legends of Montemor-o-Velho.
Stories of Montemor
One of the legends regarding the castle of Montemor-o-Velho explains that there are two big vaults buried by the first inhabitants, unknowing if they were Roman, Muslims or Christians. What is known is that one of the vaults has richess, gold enough to make Portugal one of the richest countries to ever exist in the world, but the other vault has evil inside. Pest, hunger, fever and misery capable to kill every person living in the country without mercy. The vaults remain untouched until today. Even during the most critical crisis times, people tried to open them, but once arriving at the vaults people stood back and realised that it could bring even more misery if opening the wrong vault.
Legends apart, there are historical events that happened inside the castle of Montemor-o-Velho happened one of the most famous love-tragedy stories that Portugal ever had. The story of Pedro e Inês de Castro was told in Lusíadas and makes part of one of the most famous legends in the city of Coimbra. However, it was in Montemor-o-Velho, in 1355, that King D. Afonso IV gathered with his council to debate the danger of the union between his son D. Pedro and Inês de Castro. D. Pedro was married and after the death of his wife lived together with Inês Castro, his greatest passion. D. Afonso IV didn’t want his son to marry Inês de Castro and consequently having one of the kids from that relationship to become king after D. Pedro. As Inês de Castro was the daughter of one of the most important aristocratic families in Castille, the union was seen as a danger to Portuguese independence. Therefore, Inês de Castro was killed in Coimbra and D. Pedro became mentally ill, and even slept with his beloved’s dead body for several years.
Montemor-o-Velho has much more to see in the surrounding parishes, however, the weather was not helping our trip and after spending more than an hour in the castle, because it takes more than an hour to visit it, we decided to drive back home and take in the great landscapes of Montemor-o-Velho.