MONSARAZ – known locally as Ninho das Águias (Eagles' Nest) – is perched high above the border plains, a tiny village, fortified to the hilt and entirely contained within its walls. From its heights, the landscape of Alentejo takes on a magical quality, with absolutely nothing stirring amid a sensational panorama of neatly cultivated sun-baked fields, dotted with cork and olive trees. To the east, the Rio Guadiana, delineating the frontier with Spain, has swollen in great pools following the building of the Alqueva dam – it presents a waterlogged panorama, crossed by the snaking bridge to Mourão, at odds with the aridity to the west.
There's something peculiarly satisfying about such a small village, with a permanent population of just a few hundred people. It's entirely pedestrianized, and there are only two main streets, parallel to each other, Rua Direita and Rua de Santiago, with the Igreja Matriz at the heart of the village. Here in the square is the turismo and an unusual eighteenth-century pillory topped by a sphere of the universe. A few stepped alleys invite exploration, while artesanato shops hang colourful ceramics and blankets from their walls.
The Torre das Feiticeiras (Witches' Tower) looms from the castle at the far end of the village, part of a chain of frontier fortresses continued to the south and north. The views from the walls are magnificent. When the Moors were ejected in 1167 the village was handed over to the Knights Templar, and later to their successors, the Order of Christ. Their fort has now been converted, rather extraordinarily, into a bullring – the annual village festival, in the second week of September, features bullfights, concerts, dancing and spectacular fireworks.