Belmonte is an interesting town in central Portugal near Portugal's border with Spain. Belmonte has a castle built in the 13th century (see the picture at the end of this article) which was transformed into a fortified manor house in the 15th century by the family of Pedro Alvares Cabral, the Portuguese "discoverer" of South America (Brazil). Cabral was born in the castle, which now hosts theater and music festivals in the courtyard.
The 16 room Discoveries Museum uses some impressive high technology to illustrate the voyages of Cabral and other Portuguese discoverers who set off for destinations like Brazil. It's a very good place to bring your kids--as special interactive displays bring these places and voyages alive in a very visual way.
Belmonte is also host to a community of marranos, Jews forced by the inquisition to go underground with their religious traditions to become Crypto-Jews to avoid persecution. You can learn all about the Jewish community in the new and informative Jewish Museum of Belmonte (Museu Judaico de Belmonte), located in a remodeled eighteenth-century Catholic school. Jews in Belmonte to this day are still quite secretive about their religious practices, according to Rachel Nolan writing in the Jewish Daily Forward.
Your history lesson can continue with a stay at the Convento de Belmonte, once the Convent of Nossa Senhora da Esperança and now a Pousada, a historic inn for travelers with a fantastic restaurant.
Perched at the edge of town on the slopes of the Esperança Mountain the restaurant terrace offers impressive views over the valley and mountains. Its gourmet restaurant, presided over by chef Chef Lubave pays homage to the local food traditions, including
that of Alheira, the "Jewish" sausage made from chicken, rabbit or game and bread crumbs to look like the pork sausage the villagers of Belmonte
made. We had an excellent meal in the Pousada, which you can read about here.
Just outside the village-facing windows of the Pousada are remnants of the older
structure of the hermitage that preceded the Convento de Belmonte.
I enjoyed Belmonte, from the tangle of streets in the Jewish quarter to
stargazing from the balcony of my room at the Convento de Belmonte. It's
fascinating to be able to stay in a place with historic roots and a
fine restaurant the melds ancient traditions with modern tastes
seamlessly. (Speaking of melding seamlessly, transforming a chapel and
sacristy into a bar, seamlessly, is a good trick as well.)
The Pousada makes a fine hub from which to explore the traditions of the Serra da Estrela, the mountain region to the east of Belmonte. Don't miss Queijo do Serra cheese when you go.
Spring draws many toursts, but fall is less ideal for visitor and can be chilly. Summer is warm and dry, with the average temperatures in August maxing out below 70 degrees Farenheit.
Portugal's Centro region is full of interesting destinations. 15 km northeast of Belmonte is the Serra de Estrela mountain range. It's become a center for traditional Portuguese handicrafts. A little further on is Viseu--don't miss its centerpiece, the Cathedral. If the rural life is what you seek, don't miss the Schist Villages. For a great city that anchors the region, there's Coimbra.
Here is a map and guide to the centro region of Portugal.
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