“This used to be a smuggling route,” Sara, our guide told us. “See there? Right over that mountain is Spain, where we keep our other horses. People used to take coffee and tobacco across during the dictatorship.” We carefully trotted along the narrow, wild path… if you could really call it a path. Up, over, down, around… rocky hills and rough brush on one side, a steep drop on the other. Regardless of the appearance of a lack of safe route, the horses seemed to know where to go just fine, and we were at their mercy. Luckily, they were happy horses, used to carrying newbie passengers through the Serra de São Mamede…. a small mountain range in the northern Alentejo region, bordering with Spain.
For me, travel is way more than just seeing the sights, it’s about experiences. Being a chef, quite often those experiences involve food, but sometimes I just want to dive into local culture and get the feeling of how things have been done for centuries, so I try to search out unique things to do that are authentic to the region. At first glance, horseback riding may seem like a super touristy activity, but out here in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, many tourists don’t venture in this direction. Due to lack of public transportation, exploring deep into Portugal’s interior means renting a car and braving the country roads, often not marked or even paved. Horses have been such an integral part of local culture in this region for centuries, so I figured we’d be able to avoid the tourist trap label this time.
Sara and her father, who’s also a local doctor, are originally from just across the border in Spain, but live and run Caballos Marvão on the Portuguese side of the mountains. Sara is a student of archeology and history, as is clearly evident with her in-depth knowledge of the history of the local area, but you can tell this family has had horses in their blood for generations. The passion they have for what they do is the first thing that shows upon meeting them.
As we pulled into the long dirt driveway and parked the car, a man came confidently striding out of the front door of an old stone house. We weren’t sure where to go or who to talk to and started looking around for any sign of what to do. “Have you been to horses before?” the man asked us in his broken English and heavy Spanish accent, “You will have the best time of your life… it’s like nothing you ever done before. Sorry, my English is not good, but my daughter Sara has good English. Lucky she is your guide!”
After our initial introductions, we were instructed that we’d go help reign in our horses from the corral and get them ready to go. Apparently, going through this process at the beginning helps the horses establish a bond with us, making the overall ride more comfortable. Off we went, riding out the back of the property into an area I never would’ve guessed is traversable. I wanted to connect with local culture and history during this activity, and that’s exactly what happened.
The landscape provided for a truly majestic setting. At moments, it felt almost like we were in the Wild West of America, with thick brush across rocky hills. Then, we were reminded where we were, being instantly transported to medieval Portugal. At times, I had no idea which direction we were going, but acting as our compass, was the was the 13th century fortified town of Marvão, perched high up on granite crag like an eagle’s nest. I knew this was a very old area on the Iberian peninsula, but I didn’t quite realize how ancient it was. In addition to the amazing landscape, the history made this more than just a horse ride. Having a historian as our guide made it a great opportunity for me to learn as well.
This mountainous northern region of Alto Alentejo had been lived in by people for thousands of years. The immediate area is absolutely littered with Neolithic dolmens, menhirs, and antas – large stone formations (think, Stonehenge type of thing) used as ceremonial sites and tombs by the first inhabitants.
About 10 minutes down the road is the barely-excavated ruins of Ammaia, a once prominent 1st century Roman city during their 500 year occupation of Lusitania.
Then, of course, is Marvão itself. The town was originally founded (and named after) Ibn Marwarn, a Muladi duke (Muslims of mixed Berber and Iberian descent), but then expanded and further fortified by Sancho II, Portugal’s 4th king.
Sara led us over a high-arching cobble-stoned bridge and through a small town, passing and old stone house that looked more like a small tower. The shoeless horses’ hooves click-clacking on the ancient roads definitely made for a more authentic-feeling experience. She explained to us that it was actually a customs house when it was first built. When the Spanish Inquisition took root, Jews fled Spain to safer lands in Portugal. With such a massive influx, as well as pressure bearing down from Spain, customs points had to be set up along the border towns to control the flow of people crossing the over. We were being carried by horses along the same path that 15th century Jewish refugees would’ve ridden on as well.
Our 3 hour ride through this wild and historic landscape seemed to pass so quickly. A nice addition was our mid-way stop by the side of a creek, to give us (and the horses) a short break. Sara’s father met us, bringing a snack of beer, bread, and really amazing Spanish chorizo.
When we arrived back to the house, we unsaddled the horses, gave them food and water, and thanked them for a wonderful ride. I wished we could’ve spent more time there. I’ve always had a love for horses, and being around animals that majestic is transformative in a way, but it was quickly getting dark and we had to navigate back through the rough terrain to our B&B in the nearby town of Beirã.
Caballos Marvão offers many different riding packages, and is great for everyone of every skill level. They will pair you with a horse based on your ability and personality and will customize a ride based on your interests… even doing cross-border full day tours. The horses are beautiful, the scenery is awe-inspiring, and the company couldn’t be more welcoming.