The Castles of Portugal
History holds hidden treasures, both large and small. History provides us with long-established lessons and invaluable inspiration. History tells us a story that is best followed when we have a place that holds our attention both intellectually and visually. Castles are not only stunning architectural works of art; they give us one of the best ways to appreciate a country’s history. One of the beautiful things about Portugal is that it presents topographical contrasts. But as is sometimes the case with beauty, it often comes at a hefty cost. The same topographical contrasts that create its beauty also made Portugal a defender’s nightmare. An ocean to the west and south, mountains and rivers to the east and north required drastic measures to keep the country well defended. It is of no surprise then that Portugal is home to some of the most fascinating castles in Europe. Each with their own unique story, the castles of Portugal provide a glimpse into the long history of a small country with many points of entry.
Guimaraes Castelo (Castelo de Guimarães) is located within the northern limits of the urban area of Guimarães; Guimaraes Castelo was built in the 10th century. It was built to defend the monastery of its time and done by order of Mumadona Dias and her husband, Hermenegildo Gonçalves. Guimaraes Castelo is a military fortification built in the style of the late Romanesque period and later elaborated during the early Gothic era of Portuguese architecture. The castle’s area is delineated by walls forming a pentagram that includes eight rectangular towers, a military square, and a central keep. Guimaraes Castelo is thought to be the birthplace of Portugal’s first king, Afonso I.
Castelo de Belver is located within the civil parish of Belver in central Portugal. Castelo de Belver was the first castle to be constructed by the Hospitallers in Portugal during the middle ages. The Hospitallers assumed a military role in Portugal around the year 1189 and played an active part defending the Tagus border against the Almohad offensive at the end of the century due. This tremendous feat was due, in part, by building the castle of Belver by 1212. Set high on a hilltop along with a Renaissance-era chapel, the castle’s tall keep is encircled by stone walls topped with parapets. It is believed that Castelo de Belver was the most important castle built by the Hospitallers in Portugal.
Castelo de Óbidos is located in the civil parish of Santa Maria, with roots deep in antiquity. This castle is officially one of the wonders of Portugal and a source of great national pride. In the 12th century, the site of this castle was conquered by Alfonso I. It has held its place proudly as one of the immense forces for building the Kingdom of Portugal’s power. The extreme northwest of its walled fortifications, Castelo de Óbidos is reinforced by semi-circular and rectangular corbels. Its enclosed courtyard is in the form of an irregular, triangular plan and encircled by square merlons with sills and battlements. The perimeter of the walls, reinforced by square and cylindrical plant towers, is covered by battlement defended by a crenelated parapet. Castle of Óbidos shows elements of Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque, and Maneuline influences. This castle’s history includes surviving a Portuguese succession crisis, suffering the effects of battles and an earthquake, a period of abandonment, and more recently, a transformation to a luxury accommodation. It now offers tourists an opportunity to sleep in a castle.
Castelo de Tomar is located in the city of Tomar, which is a municipality of Santarém District. Believed to be built around 1160, this castle’s location was chosen strategically to be over a hill and near the river Nabão. As part of a castle and convent complex, the Castelo de Tomar is gorgeous. In 1983, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site with excellent reason. This castle has the distinction of having the oldest keep in the country. Additionally, it has round towers in its outer walls, which were considered an excellent innovation for the time they were built.
It is believed that most of the citizens of Tomar had their homes in the area between the castle’s interior and exterior walls. Castelo de Tomar is considered by historians to be one of the most important Portuguese military buildings of the 12th century because of its connection to its neighbor, the Convent of Christ.
Castelo dos Mouros is located in the central civil parish of Santa Maria e São Miguel. Built by the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries, it was placed to defend an agricultural territory essential to the survival of the area’s population. Situated on the top of the Sintra Mountains on an extremely uneven terrain, it has an incredible view. Castelo dos Mouros includes secret passages, a large cistern, and a double line of military walls with the outer set containing both circular and square turrets.
The castle’s history includes a period in which it was lost in a shuffle due to a lack of planned security, then in 1755, suffered damage from theLisbon earthquake and sat abandoned for many years. It was almost 100 years later that Ferdinand II of Portugal began improving the castle, and another 100 plus years would pass before another leap was made to breathe new life into Castelo dos Mouros.
Castelo de Evoramonte (Castelo de Évora Monte/Castelo de Evoramonte) is located in the civil parish of Evoramonte. Built in 1160 during a Gothic period, it was later enlarged using a Manueline style. Sitting atop the bluff of Serra d’ Ossa, it commanded the municipality of Estremos, which was one of the largest squares in Portugal, therefore a vast command. Architecturally, it is considered unusually shaped because it’s rectangular with circular towers molded into its structure. Castelo de Evoramonte’s building is a stunning work of solidity. Thicker at its base, it rises three stories with each level demarked by ring-shaped cornices.. Everything about this castle appears imposing and timeless.
Castelo de Viana do Alentejo is located in the parish of Viana do Alentejo. It was built in 1313 because of Kind Dinis’ order for fortifications of the town. This castle’s plan is an irregular pentagonal with its base in the south consisting of five walls divided by five cylindrical towers at each vertex. The castle’s battlements cover the walls of the structure. Castelo de Viana do Alentejo is implanted on a short rise holding the parochial church on one of its walls and the Church of the Misericórdia along another wall. It is a great source of pride, especially as its center holds the ancient cross of Viana do Alentejo.
Torre de Belém is located in Lisbon and is officially the Tower of Saint Vincent. Built in the 16th century, it served as a point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers. With all the beauty one would expect for the era, it also served as a ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. Built in the height of the Portugese Renaissance, it holds all the best features of a Manueline style castle. This castle holds the well-deserved distinction of being a World UNESCO Heritage Site.
Located along a riverbank, even the history of its location is fascinating. Historians have proven that the castle’s tower was constructed on a small island near the bank of the Tagus and as development extended the shoreline, the tower became integrated over time. The building is divided into two parts: the bastion and the four-story tower. The tower is considered one of the principle works of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style. Torre de Belém’s exterior consists of a rectangular tower and an irregular, hexagonal bastion with elongated flanks projecting in the south of the river.
This castle has many architectural features symbolizing Portugal’s nautical explorations. A unique feature of this castle is that the bases of its turrets have images of animals carved into them, including one of a rhinoceros. This rhinoceros is considered to beh the first sculpture of such an animal in Western European art. Historians theorize the reason for the rhinoceros’ sculpted place of honor in the Torre de Belém is symbolizing the rhinoceros that Manuel I sent to Pope Leo X in 1515.
Castelo de Almoural is situated on an islet in the middle of the River Tagus and located in the civil parish of Praia do Rebatejo. It’s one of the most distinctive castles of Portugal. This castle was part of the defensive line controlled by the Knights Templar and played a vital role in the stronghold used during the Portuguese Reconquista. Despite all that is known about this castle, it’s unclear when it was established. The castle on the islet, as some say, has an irregular rectangular plan consisting of two enclosures. One is an exterior lower level facing upstream with a traitor’s gate and nine tall circular towers. The other enclosure is the interior one located at a higher elevation with walls accessible by a main entrance to the keep.
This castle is one of the most emblematic medieval military monuments of the Reconquista. Despite its functional importance in history, it fell to the same fate as other castles, was abandoned, and fell to ruins. It wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that Castelo do Almoural came back to life thanks to the efforts of those wanting to romanticize castles. But despite what the forces of the human heart may want, nature’s forces may create a different reality. Because Castelo do Almoural’s walls have suffered significant signs of degradation due to water infiltration, the plans for this magical castle changed. Today, the only way to appreciate this castle is to view it from the seat of a tour boat.
These nine castles of Portugal have architectural and historical details too numerous to capture in one writing. People who have visited them say that there’s something uniquely fascinating about each of these timeless treasures and that it is only by visiting them that one can one fully hear the lessons and stories these castles of Portugal tell us. Fortunately for us who haven’t visited them yet, it looks as if these beautiful storytellers of Portugal’s history will be around for a long time.
Glossary of Terms:
Battlements: A defensive architecture feature designed to give defenders something to hide behind and to launch their own missiles. Often found on the upper walled part of a castle.
Corbels: an architectural feature that was designed to support the castle’s parapets but also provided a place for defenders to missiles to the attacking force entering the castle from below.
Crenulated: the description for the castle’s parapet with there are gaps in it that allow for arrows or other projectiles to be launched at enemies. An alternative term is castellated.
Fortifications: Castles are fortifications regarded as distinct from the generic fort or fortress.
Keep: a fortified tower built within a castle.
Merlons: The solid, upright section of a battlement designed for observation or fire.
Military Square: A tower situated at the corner of either a rectangular or square keep.
Parapets: The short wall section on top of a castle’s wall.
Traitor’s Gate: An entrance through which prisoner’s arrive.