Portugal — A Nation of Castles
Throughout Europe’s tumultuous, war-ridden past, castles were necessary fortresses built to defend territories against enemy armies. Predominately constructed during the Middle Ages, castles were built by the lord or prince who reigned over the region, and they were located in the center of the ruler’s territory. Portugal is home to more than 150 forts and castles — proof of the nation’s dedication to remaining independent and empowered. Portuguese castles are striking historic sites: not only do they showcase the cultural influences brought to the country by the Romans and the Moors, but they also played an enormous role in maintaining the country’s borders for over 800 years despite the military prowess of the zealous, expansionist surrounding kingdoms (which would later unite to form Spain). Although a large portion of Portugal’s castles fell into ruins or were damaged by earthquakes, many have been restored and now exist as amazing tourist sites.
In the year 711, the Moors, a Muslim group from Northern Africa, invaded the Iberian peninsula. They took control of southern Portugal and ruled it prosperously until 1492, when the Spanish Inquisition expelled them from the peninsula. During their rule of the area, however, the Moors left a significant mark on Portuguese architecture; their specialized and innovative construction tactics put Portugal’s castles far ahead of those in other parts Europe. While Northern Europe and England were still building wooden forts, Portugal was constructing tall stone castles with heavily fortified gates that were impenetrable in comparison to the castles of their European counterparts.
The Castle of the Moors, or Castelo dos Mouros, located 30km from Lisbon in the municipality of Sintra, was built by the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries. This castle was a crucial strategic point during the Reconquista, and it was taken over by Spain’s Christian troops in 1147. In its prime, the castle had massively fortified stone walls, ramparts, and impressive battlements. Now, it lies in ruins due to earthquake damage. It is classified as a National Monument and is a site frequented by tourists — if you climb to its battlements (the squared openings at the top of a castle that soldiers shot through), you are rewarded with an amazing view of Sintra. The castle, even in wreckage, holds a certain charm to it that makes it one of the most breathtaking sites in the country.
Saint George’s Castle, or the São Jorge Castle, is a Moorish construction located on the highest hilltop of Lisbon. The castle can be seen from almost any spot in the city and has a very rich history: it served as the Moorish Royal Residence until 1147 when it was captured by the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques, with the help of northern European crusaders who were en route to the Holy Land. The king was so appreciative of the crusaders, specifically the Englishmen, that he named the castle after the patron saint of England, Saint George. The castle became a royal palace for Portuguese kings, and one of its chambers often accommodated the famous explorer Vasco da Gama when he came home after a voyage. The castle was largely destroyed by the Great Earthquake of 1755, but its 18 towers and ramparts have remained, thus allowing visitors to climb up the towers for an awe-inspiring view of Lisbon. As an added bonus, the castle’s gardens are home to amazing wildlife such as peacocks, geese, and ducks.
The Estaus Palace, located in Rossio Square, Lisbon, was the primary headquarters of the portuguese Inquisition. Though originally built in 1450 to house foreign dignitaries and noblemen during their stay in Lisbon, by 1536 the palace became a more sinister site. The palace’s dingy prison and dungeon held thousands who were accused of heresy, witchcraft, and, most importantly, anyone alleged to practice the Jewish faith. These prisoners were subject to persecution, torture, and death. The Inquisition Palace was damaged by the Great Earthquake of 1755, but was rebuilt under Carlos Mardel. Fate was cruel to this palace, and in 1836, it was burnt down. Later, in 1842, the remnants of the palace were replaced by the Teatro Nacional D. Maria II.
Another renowned Portuguese palace is the National Palace of Pena, the most famous edifice in all of Portugal. Its myriad of colors, imposing location, and vibrantly decorated battlements make this site absolutely unforgettable. The palace was built in the 1800s for King Ferdinand II and served as an opulent summer home for Portuguese royalty. During the Revolution of 1910, however, the royal family had to flee the country, so the palace went abandoned until later in the 1900s when it became classified as a UNESCO heritage site. Nowadays, anybody willing and able to visit the palace is welcome, and the trip is well worth it to view this fairytale-esque building firsthand.
Portugal’s abundance of castles and palaces make it an extraordinary place to visit. Lisbon itself has 8 of them, and a quick trip to any of its neighboring cities will supply even more. The loaded stories and histories offered by these castles make them a stop you just cannot pass up on a visit, even if it’s a quick one.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Williams is the CEO and Co-founder of NOMADX with his base in Lisbon, Portugal. Dave is a US pioneer in the digital marketing, advertising, and ad tech industries as a serial digital entrepreneur over the past 20+ years with multiple exits in the early formative stages of the search engine marketing, social media, and ad tech industries.