I pulled the car into a parking space with a jolt. Laid out before me was the most magnificent view: a patchwork of green hills, dusky mountains meeting a cheerful blue sky, the afternoon sun illuminating vineyards and whitewashed houses with a flattering golden hue. Somewhere lay the invisible border, dividing this harmonious landscape into part-Portugal, part-Spain. It was the kind of view to be savoured, gasped over, truly and deeply appreciated. But I couldn’t really process it; not at that precise moment. My only thought was: ‘I can’t drive through that!’
‘That’ was a set of quaintly narrow archways set into the medieval stone walls which encircled the town of Marvão. My car was on the small side, and I had just watched two cars emerge from the town, unscathed. It’s just that my nerves were a little shot after being tailgated around hairpin bends by an impatient idiot, and I knew all too well what small town Portuguese roads were like – impractically if attractively cobbled, and as narrow as they could possibly be.
After a moment or two of taking deep breaths, I fired up the engine and crawled through the arches, feeling more like I was steering a ship through a tight harbour than simply driving a car. I was relieved to find that my hotel, and the town’s main car park, were only one tiny street away, and I was able to relax.
This is a long way of saying that Marvão is a town which far pre-dates cars. There are several of these medieval fortified towns dotted around Portuguese hillsides, but Marvão was the most spectacular I had visited. Though it has the honour of being the highest town in Portugal, and the views to prove it, tourists were pretty thin on the ground, meaning that I could wander round to my heart’s content, undisturbed and lost in my medieval imaginings.
Every twisting street, every collection of buildings, every glimpse of the landscape beyond the substantial stone walls, seemed to have been composed just perfectly, as if Marvão was an artist’s finest work, brought to life. Apart from the odd car in the wider streets, it really did feel unchanged by the centuries.
A set of steep stone steps climbed vertiginously toward the castle, without a handrail or barrier in sight. It was too much of a temptation, and I raced up them, towards the very highest point of the highest town of Portugal. I’m not ashamed to say it gave me quite a thrill.
If the view from one side of town was impressive, the panorama from the castle almost swept me clean off my feet. You could argue that they built Marvão here simply for its supreme defensive position; it’s one heck of a trek to get up here, and from the castle, you’d see anyone coming days before they reached you. But there must also be some spiritual reason for it. This place – the soaring mountains, the undulating hills, the immense rocky outcrops, just somehow connects with the soul. Even the locals can’t get enough of it. Two old men stood chatting, leaning on the wall, watching as the sun began to set. Even the landlady at my hotel was out, with a couple of her friends, taking in the evening spectacle in this heavenly place. It must be very hard indeed to ever get bored of the views.
Returning later, after a short but strenuous hike in that wonderful landscape, dusk was just beginning to settle on Marvão. As I entered through a lamp-lit arch, a curve of stone wall ahead of me, the sound of cosy evening chatter and clinking glasses beyond, I could have believed that I’d time-travelled to the 12th century.
It clarified a difference between the UK and Portugal, one which had been niggling at me for some time. Both countries, like great swathes of Europe, are mind-bogglingly rich in history. Their medieval treasures are particularly evocative and plentiful. But the two countries take a very different approach to preserving their heritage. In the UK, it is something definitely, unequivocally ‘past’. We cordon off old castles and stick up signs warning visitors to ‘keep off’ for fear of damaging and eroding the centuries-old stones. We put up barriers and charge people to get in, where they snap a quick picture, maybe have a picnic, read the odd information sign which tells you which part of the castle or town or abbey this unidentifiable piece of rock used to be. Then everybody goes home again, to their towns with wide, car-friendly, tarmacked streets.
In Portugal, the past blurs into the present. These old, fortified citadels would be uninhabited relics in the UK, but here, they are used as they were always intended – for people to live in, work in, build a community in. These walls, and castles, whether in Marvão, Viana do Castelo, Obidos or Tomar, are used, touched, walked on, climbed on, bashed by the odd inept driver (not me!), yet they are far better preserved than in the UK. They may have been patched up, or have sections rebuilt over the centuries, but if so, it has been done in an entirely authentic, sympathetic way, rather than just letting them crumble and decay. It is more than living history; it is a continuation of the past into present, maintaining certain traditions, employing modern conveniences elsewhere – it is, to my mind, exactly how it should be.
By the time I had finished dreaming up my letter of complaint to English Heritage (sigh, I am still British, at my core), night had well and truly fallen on Marvão, and its cloak of darkness was exceptionally becoming. Its warren of tiny streets was lit by the pale glow of lanterns. The churches and castle were lit in such a way that I had to blink twice to be sure they were really there. The mountains were obscured in darkness. Marvão was cast into a sea of night, anchored only by the galaxy of stars above and the distant lights of villages and farmsteads far below.
I clambered up to sit on the wall, dangling my legs deliciously over the dark abyss below. I stared at the sky until my vision was filled with a million twinkling stars, the constellations lost among them, and I felt the full marvel of Marvão.