Marvão, let the music play!

At the tiny village of Marvão, protected by its walls on top of a rocky ridge, like a watchtower overlooking the Alto Alentejo, stations go by smoothly, time passes at its heart’s content and peace reigns sovereign. Almost all year long. Except… Every summer, come July, Marvão wakes up to the sound of music flooding the streets, the squares, the churches and the hidden spots, among the white houses and the steep cobbled streets climbing up to the castle.

Up to 600 musicians from all over the world gather here to join the Festival Internacional de Música de Marvão (FIMM), an event born out of the passion of a German director, Christoph Poppen, for music and for the village that stole his heart.

This charming Portuguese village owes its name to Abd-ar-Rahman ibn Marwan ibn Yunus, known as Ibn Marwan or Ibn al-Jil·liqí, literally meaning “the son of the Galician”, an emir from the second half of the 9thC, born into a converted Muladi family from the north of Portugal.

Because this quartzite peak rising at the heart of the São Mamede mountains – with a 360 degree view over the Tagus basin, the Estrella Mountain Range and the Spanish border-, have always been a strategic point luring men since the dawn of time, as the plethora of dolmen and megalithic sites in the area attest. Celts, Vettons, Lusitans, Romans, Suebians, Vandals, Moors and Christians (Templars and Hospitallers), Portuguese and Castilian… They all came by the ‘Mui Nobre e Sempre Leal Vila de Marvão’, the impregnable fortress impervious to the passing of time.

From the nearby archaeological sites come the fascinating idols and other objects exhibited at the small but really interesting Municipal Museum, located inside the Santa Maria church, by the castle’s door.

After Lusitania became a Roman province under the rule of Emperor Augustus in 27BC, the city of Ammaia was established at the shores of the Sever river, where we find San Salvador d’Aramenha today, at the foot of the Marvão hill. It was the Romans who started farming the terraces around and drawing a network of roads crisscrossing the whole Alto Alentejo. With the fall of Rome and the arrival of Visigoths Ammaia fell into ruin. The Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 would bring 5 centuries of Islamic dominion, of which the main legacy for Marvão may be the name itself. Reconquered by Alfonso I at the 12thC and repopulated by colonists coming from Galicia it became an important defence post for the young kingdom of Portugal against the attacks of the neighbouring Castile.

Alfonso III gave the post to the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John, who reinforced the existing castle in the style of the fortresses built by crusaders in the Middle East. Adding features like the central tower and the semi-round towers in the wall, the openings for the archers, the open spaces to shelter population and troops, the big merlons, the curved doors, the defensive walls reinforcing the natural defences of the rugged rock, which surround the whole village, and a big cistern to collect water.

Music at the Cistern

And this cistern has become today one of the most iconic venues of the FIMM, where the most intimate and atmospheric night concerts take place, under candlelight. We had the privilege of hearing the violinist Clara-Jumi Kang playing Bach there and it was magical.

It is worth to walk the perimeter of the marvellously preserved wall, a stroll which allows us to enjoy the coveted panoramic view over the whole region and to contemplate this village of only a hundred inhabitants framed inside the walls like a painting of white facades and clay roofs.

By the village entrance we find the Tourist Office, where we can get a map and an audio-guide to explore at our own pace. We can calmly discover its heritage, like the Paços do Concelho – the City Hall- the clock Tower and the Pelourinho –a 15thC stone cross located on a square with a viewpoint-, the 17thC House of the Governor, the 15thC church of Santiago and the castle, among others. Outside the walls, we can visit the 15thC Nossa Senhora d’Estrela nunnery.

All these places and some neighbouring towns become stages for this unique festival, the FIMM, which within only 6 years of existence have put itself on the map. The 40 concerts spread to the towns of Castelo de Vide and Valencia de Alcántara –this one already in Spain. Because music now transcends these borders which years ago had to be protected by fortresses. From soloists like the trombonist Bertl Mütter, the trumpeter Felix Klieser, singers like the soprano Juliane Banse or pianists like Alexander Krichel, to ensembles like the Camera Orchestra of Cologne, or Israel, or the Macao Symphonic, artists and composers come to this summer appointment to fill Marvão and the Alentejo with music.   

The organizers hope to reach all audiences, connecting several styles, from classical music to Fado and Soul, combining them with dance, visual arts and other forms of creative expression, opening thus an infinite range of possibilities. And keeping all of this far from the traditional cultural and touristic centres like Lisbon and committing to a rural and interior region like Alentejo without risking its authenticity. For 10 days every year they turn this hidden Portuguese gem into the focus of all eyes… And all ears.

Come the end of July though, the music stops, the artists put away their instruments and head back home. And in the tiny village of Marvão silence falls. Until next summer.

How to get there

We rented a car at Lisbon airport, which gave us the freedom to move around Alentejo from Marvão.

Where to Sleep

Hotel El-Rei Dom Manuel. Located in a pretty traditional restored house in the village, this 4* hotel with 15 rooms is family ran and has a restaurant offering regional specialties, like pork with clams and bacalhau à Brás (Golden Cod).

Where to eat

Varanda do Alentejo. This restaurant offers regional traditional dishes, and we can taste specialties like the local tomato soup, the moelinhas, and fish and meat dishes. With some Alentejo wine to wash the food down.

Festival Internacional de Música de Marvão (FIMM)

The festival website offers all info, images and programmes for this special musical event.

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