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Inbuilt rock house of Monsanto, Portugal.

Monsanto: The Thriving Medieval Town Built Around Giant Boulders


In most parts of Europe, the medieval period ended around the fourteenth century, right around the time Giotto introduced perspective into the art of pre-Renaissance Italy. Yet for the twelfth century municipality of Monsanto in Portugal, the middle ages were just beginning. With Mount Monsanto rising in the east, a shortage of supplies and space forced those living within its shadow to merge with it, forming one of the single most intriguing cities still thriving in the world today. In essence, one could call the inhabitants of Monsanto people of the mountain.

In the province of Idanha-a-Nova (since renamed Idanha-a-Velha), the people of Monsanto live in, under, beside and between the enormous boulders that shaped the village. Situated along the Spanish border "in the Northeast" and "nestled on a steep hill slope [the] Monsanto hillock (Mons Sanctus)…abruptly rises out of the prairie and reaches 758 meters on its highest point. There are several hamlets scattered along the several slopes and at the bottom of the hill, which shows the population movements towards the plain." This mountain-side village has thrived since its medieval founding, holding tight to its early traditions, merging with the very essence of the city's foundation—the rock of Mount Monsanto itself.

House constructed under a rock in Monsanto.

House constructed under a rock in Monsanto. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Called a "geopark" under UNESCO, the villagers were forced to work with the granite rocks protruding from the mountain, adapting the medieval structure of their city to fit the overwhelming, unmovable arms of the mountain. Where the boulders fell, house walls, street boundaries, and structural stability were dependent, and this constructive pattern has only continued as time has gone on.

The village has kept much of its medieval construction.

The village has kept much of its medieval construction. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the present, Monsanto remains unwavering. In lieu of automobiles, trains, etc., "the streets of the village are too narrow and steep to use any kind of transportation except donkeys." Built atop a mountain, one would expect the steepness. But rather than attempting to restructure their community so that houses are made of brick and mortar rather than of "boulders…fitted with doors" and "red-roofed cottages tucked against" the same boulders, the inhabitants of Monsanto continue to live amongst the mountain’s crevices. The lack of modern conveniences is refreshingly not a deterrent.

House constructed between two boulders.

House constructed between two boulders. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Though the majority of what remains of Monsanto village is structurally medieval, the origins of the town extend much further back. Traces of Stone Age habitation have been found, along with archaeological evidence of a Lusitanian fortress and of Roman occupation in St. Laurence's field, at the foot of the hill, as well as of Visigoth and Arabian occupation. Likely settling in the region under the Roman Empire, the Romans thrived at the base of the mountain while the native culture was still widely considered Gallic.

The Visigoths (5 th-8th centuries AD) arrived at the end of the Roman Empire, usurping the Roman hold that had long laid over the previously Gallic community. During the Reconquista (approximately 718– 1492 AD), King Afonso Henriques conquered Monsanto from the Moors, eventually establishing the country of Portugal in the process. In 1165, the king granted the city to the Templar monks and Monsanto became something of a highlight of religious worship.

Above the village is a medieval castle/fortress that originated in the 12th century.

Above the village is a medieval castle/fortress that originated in the 12 th century. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Throughout all of the turmoil surrounding creation and support of the impressive rock-friendly village, the city continued on with its stoic existence. While the landscape changed around them, the mountain-top village was relatively constant. It thrived embedded in the foundation of the mountain, watching as a silent observer of the various religious and political battles, and vigilantly continues to serve a stoic guardian of the Portuguese and Spanish borders.

Top image: Inbuilt rock house of Monsanto, Portugal. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Riley Winters


Andrea Magrath. "They've been living under a rock! The stunning medieval Portugal village build in and around gigantic 200-tonne BOULDERS." Daily Mail. Accessed January 20, 2017

Virtual Portugal.

Goran Blazeski. 2016. "The inhabitants of Monsanto village in Portugal live in houses built within huge rocks." The Vintage News. Accessed January 20, 2017.

Unusual Places. Accessed January 13, 2017.

Riley Winters's picture


Riley Winters is a Pre-PhD art historical, archaeological, and philological researcher who holds a degree in Classical Studies and Art History, and a Medieval and Renaissance Studies minor from Christopher Newport University. She is also a graduate of Celtic and Viking... Read More

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