Not on many people’s radar but only a short drive from Portugal’s capital is the quiet and beautiful region of Alentejo. Offering remote countryside, wine producers of note and some superb food this is a region that should really be explored.
The ‘it still feels new’ experience of Heathrow’s Terminal 2 is emphasised by swish shops, top class eateries (best bacon breakfast roll is from London’s Pride FYI) and incredibly the latest ‘essential’ electronic dispensing machine where you can buy Bose headphones before your journey. This ‘newness’ seemed most appropriate as I travelled to a ‘new’ area of Portugal, Alentejo. East of Lisbon and north of the Algarve it stretches across the lower section of this slim country all the way to its fatter neighbour Spain. It’s sleepy and deceptively quiet but the region of Alentejo has the coast, wine growing, cheese making, outstanding countryside and history and culture. The word Alentejo means literally beyond the Tegus (Tejo) River. The land gives plenty too, the marble quarried is equivalent to Carrara and is widely sought after the fertile land is great for agriculture and has produced lots of cork trees. What else would they have used up country in Porto for all their lovely bottles!
Occupying nearly a third of the country but housing only 5% of its inhabitants is a good way to quantify how unspoilt and wild it can be in these parts. It is hard to believe that you can be in such a beautiful wild landscape in just two hours. My first real experience was at a rural restaurant called A Escola Primavera, a converted school. Amid olive groves and rice fields it was a perfect introduction to the local food, bread with cheese made by farmers living around the restaurant (which I was to find out turns up at every meal before the starter) fish stew, rice, cold meats and some wonderful pork. And a drop of hazelnut liqueur rounded things off.
As you’d expect it all happens rather slower than at home. It is wise to get used to this calmer pace, as it is the norm in Alentejo. My other word of caution is to beware of the extremely tasty desserts from cheesecakes to pastries and the famous Portuguese pastéis de nata or custard tart. These little beauties are so lovely and small that it is easy to eat three or four before realising it.
But it’s not all rustic and traditional (although that does have its place) you can escape to Sublime Comporta a chill out hotel extraordinaire only 100k from Lisbon. With suites, rooms and pools to match anybody’s needs this is a top-notch escape plan. Check in for a few days, wander amongst the hundreds of acres they have at their disposal or maybe just chill by the waterside and enjoy the superb service. Either way you will not forget your time at this incredible retreat.
Évora is the capital of the region and has been a world heritage site for 30 years. Founded by the Romans in 57BC the most prominent remaining mark is the temple, used as a slaughterhouse, its columns rise majestically at the top of the hill. It’s a delightful town that beckons you to explore on foot. Little cobbled undulating streets, ancient buildings full of charm. After the Romans came the Moors then the Portuguese with the help of Gerald the Fearless won the city back. By the Middle Ages it was one of the country’s most important trading points.
An aqueduct was built by the Romans to provide water at this crossroads in the Lusitania region making it a strategic stronghold and the centre for salted fish. Next to the 13th century cathedral is Pousada Dos Loios, one of the luxury historical buildings that are run as hotels, worth a peep if you have time. The cathedral has an historically important organ dating from 1532 and is the oldest playable example. It combines Gothic and Renaissance styles of architecture and is a real treat for the eyes. For the ghoulish there is a whole room with walls made of skulls, quite spooky.
2000 years older than Stonehenge the megalithic Cromlech of the Almendres are near Guadalupe. One of the largest collections of stone formations, one elliptical and a tangential circle they were only discovered in 1966. Visitors are free to walk around the smooth and curved stones placed to worship various equinoxes. Some have carvings and are all aligned to point towards Évora.
The 5-star Alentejo Marmõris was once an olive oil factory, now it’s one of the Small Hotels of the World. A chic marble clad oasis set in the sleepy town of Vila Viçosa. It’s the perfect place to unwind and enjoy a spa treatment or two. The restaurant is also worth checking out. Superb food and service along with local wines guarantee a culinary highlight. The town is perfect in every way, large municipal building with a clock tower, litter free streets, whitewashed walls and a couple of sleepy cafés and eateries.
Driving through the country the symbiosis of land and man is clear. Take cork trees, the first harvest is after 30 years it is then possible to remove cork every 9 years or so. The wine produced around the Alentejo region (especially concentrated around Vila Viçosa and Estramez where the summers are hot and the winters cold) has been grown and bottled since Roman times.
Rural tourism couldn’t be summed better than at Herdade da Amendoeira an eight room B&B farm where not only can you relax and watch how they make goat’s cheese but also enjoy the honey and soaps they make. This working farm also makes a number of fortified wines which you can see on a tour and take wine tasting lessons. The outdoors experience is perfect for walkers and ramblers who enjoy wildlife spotting in a beautiful setting amongst the red barked cork trees.
The accommodation is rustic but up-to-date with air con en suites in all the rooms. Rita Alves runs the place with a faithful three-legged dog by her side. If the place doesn’t win you over the dog will! Royal Penny is the name of the dog and their most famous drink infused with oregano from the farm each spring. Founded in 1893 it feels that not much has changed since then except the addition of an outdoor pool and free Wi-Fi.
Not too far away is Herdade da Ravasqueira a vast country estate and winery. Offering 37 impeccably restored historical horse carriages, tastings and a fabulous view from the enviable terrace. Over the 3000 hectares the estate has interests in cork, wine, cattle, pork, honey and olive oil. The biggest concern is the wine with 1.5 million bottles a year production. The terrace I mentioned earlier is one of the ‘it looks like a film’ affairs with a pergola draped in plants, old flagstones and a glorious view. Wine tours start from €11. You can eat here as well if you’re attending an event. The food is prepared by a couple of ladies of a certain age who cook from memory and the heart. The roast leg of lamb in white wine was sublime.
Modern techniques are employed in this traditional estate such as infrared photography to access the harvest. Photographed from a plane that maps the entire estate this system can pinpoint each vine making it easier to decide on the right time to pick.
My final stop was at another gem, Pousada da Arriolos. Located in the hill top town of the same name this 16th century convent is chic and cool. There are 32 rooms a chapel and swimming pool so it’s perfect for weddings and private parties, with plenty of space in the public areas giant arches and flagstones are everywhere. It took me about five minutes to walk from reception to the restaurant and bar. The food is good and the wine (local) excellent. My room was once a ‘cell’ but these days light is everywhere and all the mod cons of convenience are at hand including a luxuriously appointed marble bathroom.
Estramoz has a weekly flea market on Saturdays that is worth checking out. As I wandered around before heading off to the airport I saw chickens in boxes (alive) rabbits ready to be skinned (dead) and the whole of society rummaging through fresh vegetables, antique watches, chairs, cameras, bronze statues. You name it and it was there, a fantastic market in which to lose oneself.
A spot of lunch and a fantastic bit of local beef at Restaurante Alecrim just by the market was my final taste of this beguiling part of Portugal. Over a few days I was transported to another world, a world of slower pace, quality food with zero mileage and great wines. This is a world that I strongly urge you to explore, only one hour from Lisbon and you could be driving through fantastic countryside where you’ll be lucky to meet anyone on the road until you come across a sleepy little town that just might have one of the best meals you’ve ever had.
Neil Hennessy-Vass is a widely-published globetrotting food and travel writer and photographer and one of our regular writers.
Photographs by Neil Hennessy-Vass
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