High up on a rocky plateau within the Serra de San Mamede natural park sits the tiny town of Marvao. Home to just 1,000 residents and surrounded by a 17th century wall it sounded like the kind of place we love to visit. As we wound our way slowly up and around the hillside getting higher and higher, the views opened up around us and our anticipation grew.
Pulling into the motorhome aire and looking around at the panoramic scenery below we couldn’t help but say ‘wow’. We’d found this parking place in our ‘All The Aires’ book and it stated that there were full services and it was free to park day and night. We were all set to stay so set about getting the chocks out and levelling up ready for later. Suddenly a Frenchman came hurrying over alerting us to a sign saying ‘Campsite behaviour (including overnight stay) not allowed 150-200 euro fine’. We were so disappointed we couldn’t quite believe it. There was a whole lovely motorhome area all neatly laid out with a breathtaking view but we weren’t actually allowed to stay there!
Feeling rather fed up at this point we put the kettle on, had a coffee at the picnic ables provided and tried to look online for somewhere nearby to stay. The sign had a couple of suggested campsites but we couldn’t get an internet signal at all so weren’t able to look. It would have to wait until we drove back down. Coffee drunk we went off to explore through Portas de Vila, one of the old original gateways through the wall and into the heart of the town hidden inside. Stumbling over the jumbly stone-paved streets, passing a couple of old cannons, we made our way to the walkway along the wall. It’s quite a high drop in place and there’s no handrail so it’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s also quite wide so no problem if you’re ok with heights and the views are just incredible.
There aren’t many people living here but those that do have some delightful little whitewashed homes with window boxes and baskets in bloom. The little streets looked picture postcard pretty, bright white walls and red tiled roofs, striking against the blue skies. Bright tumbles of flowers cascade like a carpet over sloping gardens, yellow broom flourishes on the hillside and bright splashes of red poppies creep out from the ancient stones of the wall.
Some of the homes are wedged against the town walls, others slotted into steep narrow streets. It’s a tiny town but big on character and most of it looked very well cared for with just one or two shabby buildings needing a bit of TLC. The charming white painted church is home to the Municipal Museum and has an immaculate garden with low trimmed hedges alongside it. There’s a dramatic drop on one side, down the craggy rockface with a tremendous outlook across the plains of Alentejo. The town’s strategic position gives it a 360 degree outlook over the Serra da Estrela on one side and the Serra de Mamede on the other. On a clear day you can see all the way over to Spain and on others the town can disappear within the clouds. There’s an enormous underground cistern at the castle which was built to store enough water to last the entire town for 6 months in the event of a siege.
On our way out we popped into the Tourist Office and a very helpful woman showed us where the nearest campsites were. They were both a few miles away and not remotely convenient for vising the town. She explained to us that overnight parking used to be allowed but then ‘some people came and talked to us all’ and then the council banned it. We presume ‘the people’ were the campsite owners who don’t like the idea of people staying here for free when they could pay to stay there but we don’t know the full story. She said she lives in the town and sees that sometimes people do stay overnight but we didn’t want to risk it. It’s a shame because we would have happily paid to stay here. Those views could have kept us happy for quite some time.
This is such an enchanting little place, totally authentic and not at all spoiled by tourism. There were no gift shops here, nobody trying to pull you into their cafe or restaurant. This was just the real Marvao and we thought it was rather marvellous!