It certainly seems that way. Located in the Portalegre district, at an altitude of 2,838 feet, Marvão is the highest village in Portugal (although Guarda, in the district of the same name, holds the distinction of being the highest city in the country). Standing on the topmost crest of the Serra de São Mamede mountains, a view from the village’s breathtaking castle grounds reveals the Serra da Estrela mountain range to the north and the nearby border with Spain to the east.

In fact, when Jews fled from Spain to Portugal at the time of the Inquisition, a port of entry (and where they paid a toll or portagem) was located just down the mountain from the imposing castle. The town of Portagem is noted for its four-arched Roman bridge, the nearby Roman ruins of Ammaia, and a refreshing river beach on the clear waters of the Sever River.

The narrow streets of Marvão which lie below the castle feature Gothic arches and are lined with the white buildings typical of the Alentejo region, their doors trimmed in Manueline style. There are a few shops offering traditional dolls, woolens, candles, handmade jams, etc., as well as places to eat, but I recommend Mil-Homens in Portagem. We once ate there with a large group of family and friends, and the food and service were excellent.

The centuries-old Igreja de Santa Maria, built in the Gothic style, was remodeled in the 17th century and in 1987 was converted into a small municipal museum. Archeological artifacts dating to the Stone Age, an interesting display of knives and swords in the armory, and details about local life make it worth a visit.

Thinking about visiting Marvão? It’s about a 4.5-hour drive from the Algarve, using Lagos as a starting point. The good news is there is plenty to see along the way. All of Portugal has its unique charm and beauty, and the Alentejo is no exception. Especially if you avoid the autoestrada and pass through smaller towns and villages, you will be treated to the sight of olive groves and orchards, cork trees and fields of purple, pink, and yellow flowers, and long low stretches of gently rolling hills.

One obvious city to stop in is the university town and historic capital of the region of the Alentejo, Évora. Another special Alentejano locale, former home to many kings and queens of Portugal such as Dom Dinis and Queen Isabella, is the “white city” of Estremoz, so named because of its highly prized and world-famous white marble.

Closer to Marvão—only twenty minutes away—is Castelo de Vide. Again reflecting the influence of its Jewish heritage, the Synagogue of Castelo de Vide is one of only two existing medieval synagogues in Portugal, the other being the Synagogue of Tomar. (A quick side note: We were just in Tomar again recently and decided to try a different eatery, rather than our usual Taverna Antiqua. The burgers, steaks, sides, and wine at Restaurante Do Costume were amazing. Highly recommended if you are in that area.)

Where to stay in Marvão? If you’re a fan of pousadas, Hotel Santa Maria is an option, but on our trips to the village, we have always opted for the Dom Dinis and would definitely return. You can walk from the hotel and in just a few minutes admire the manicured gardens of the castle, and then walk its ramparts. Follow up with a drink or meal in the hotel’s dining area, or on the outdoor patio where the view is spectacular.

When to go? The Alentejo is renowned for hot temperatures in the summer, so an alternative might be to try a cooler season. Each year on the second weekend of November the town sponsors a chestnut festival. With many thousands of partygoers in attendance, the municipality offers bus service into the walled city after parking your car at the base of the mountain. A parade with processional giants, musical performances, the sale of handicrafts like soaps and woven goods, and, of course, plenty of savory roasted chestnuts and beverages, all combine for a true celebration.

But if you don’t mind it when the heat is turned up a bit, you might want to consider a trip this summer. Those with a taste for classical music can check out the Marvão International Music Festival from 19 July to 28 July. Drawing artists from around the world, it has been described by Andrés Moreno Mengíbar in Spain’s classical music magazine Scherzo as “The most important summer music festival in all of Portugal.”

To bring it full circle - and to inspire you to pack a bag - here’s another Saramago quote: “A journey never ends. Only the travellers end.” Happy trails!


Native New Yorker Tricia Pimental left the US in 2012, later becoming International Living’s first Portugal Correspondent. The award-winning author and her husband, now Portuguese citizens, currently live in Coimbra.

Tricia Pimental