Situated in southern central Portugal, Alentejo covers about a third of the country with vast rolling plains punctuated with fields of wheat, olive groves, vineyards and cork oaks that are grown on a commercial scale. This region is the world’s largest producer of corks, an industry dating back 300 years. The fertile plain and favourable weather contribute to its reputation as the “bread basket of Portugal” famed for its bread, cheese, smoked ham, wine and olive oil. Seduced by this promise, we set out to explore this hidden gem of Portugal.
Alentejo: The Castle of Alcácer do Sal
Our first night is spent at the Pousada de Alcácer do Sal (pousadas are the iconic brand of inns converted from restored Ancient heritage buildings and castles in Portugal). After getting lost in the dark to find the pousada, there in the inky night sky the outline of a medieval Castle looms in sight. It is a wonderful boutique hotel in the splendid ground of the castle, aesthetically marrying antiquity with contemporary design for the comfort of guests. At daybreak, I look out of my window and am thrilled to see the castle wall right outside my room. How cool is it to sleep in a medieval castle! The pousada is built within the rampart of the castle on the ruins of the Convent of Aracoelli, the most recent restoration of the fortress. Perched high on a strategic defence position on a hill overlooking the Sado River, the castle was built by the Moors over a Roman ruin and remnants of civilisation in the Iron Age. If walls could speak, it would tell of the many battles and conquest between the Christian and Islamic rulers over the centuries each adding a tower here or a rampart there to further fortify the castle. Its last incarnation was the convent with parts of the building and the Chapel beautifully restored and converted into the hotel today.
There is an amazing museum underneath the castle at the Archaeological Crypt where remains of ancient civilisation including the Neolithic and the Iron Age period were discovered. It is a timeline of the various periods of civilisations of Romans, Moors and Christian settlements and many artefacts from jewellery, pottery and stonework to votive offerings among other fascinating objects. It gives an insight into the importance of Alcacer do Sal in ancient times.
Alentejo: Evora A Living Museum
We continue our journey to the capital of Alentejo, the citadel city of Evora and an UNESCO World Heritage site. Every inch of this fascinating city is steeped in history with remains of a Roman wall still hugging the city limit and a Roman Temple ruin in the historic centre.
Evora is a living museum showcasing its rich architectural heritage that ranges from Roman to neo-classical, Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance and Baroque aesthetic. Located at a strategic position in ancient times, it flourished as a city and was occupied by various foreign invaders including the Romans and notably the Moors from 715AD till 1165AD until it was reconquered by King Afonso I in 1166AD. Its many beautiful churches, cathedral and magnificent patrician buildings reflect the historical wealth and importance of the city especially in the 15th century during the “Age of Discoveries” of Portugal at the height of its navigational power that brought great wealth to the country.
A labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and squares criss-cross the city and at very corner there would be a splendid ecclesiastical edifice, an impressive monument or a grand residence. Praca do Giraldo the bustling main square has a gruesome history of public execution especially during the inquisition period but today the ghosts of the past are consigned to history and lively cafes and restaurants surround the square patronised by tourists and locals. We have a lovely lunch at Café Alentejo near the square. It was once a royal inn. It boasts of an excellent wine cellar stocking the best wine in the region and serving typical Alentejo cuisine. They recommend a local speciality of oxtail stew simmered with red wine and herbs that is delicious.
The existence of a cathedral in a city signifies its important status, thereby the Cathedral of Evora proclaimed the historical power of the church and the city with its prominence. It was first built in 1184 and later extended between 1280 and 1340. It is the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal built in an eclectic architectural style of Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline and Baroque and completed in 1746. Its outstanding feature is the lantern tower with its spire surrounded by six turrets; each turret is a miniature copy of the tower itself. The commodious interior has a central nave leading to the richly gilded and ornamented main altar. Along the central nave is a 15th century Gothic statue of a pregnant Virgin Mary who is very rarely portrayed in this state. The statue is dedicated to maternity and pregnant women often pray to the Virgin Mary for safe birth.
Evora is also famous for its Chapel of Bones at the church of St. Francis. It was created by a Franciscan monk in the 16th century to illustrate that life is transitory with a warning at the entrance to the chapel with these ominous words: “We bones that are here, for yours await”. The small chapel walls and 8 pillars are completely decorated with bones and skulls from 5000 skeletons of monks collected from several cemeteries in churches throughout the country. I find the chapel both bizarre and fascinating at the same time to be surrounded by bones and skulls painstakingly arranged like works of art. Inscribed on the roof of the chapel are the words, “ Better is the day of death than the day of birth’. As death is inevitable, it should not be a taboo subject and this chapel celebrates death in a realistic way.
Alentejo: Sleeping On Holy Ground
We are billeted for the night at the amazing Convento do Espinheiro, a once derelict monastery of the order of the monks of St. Jerome now restored to its former glory and converted into a luxury boutique hotel.
The architects stayed true to the heritage of the building and synergised ancient and contemporary designs with perfect harmony for the comfort of modern guests. It was said that the Virgin Mary appeared above a burning thorn bush (espinheiro in Portuguese) to a humble shepherd in the 14th century and the event lent a religious significance to the wild landscape in that area. A monastery dedicated to Our Lady of Espinheiro was later built on the site and its origin as a monastic inn began its root here when the monks used to host royal guests and nobilities in its hostels. The monastery enjoyed royal patronages that brought many privileges and wealth to the Order. So it was deemed apt to convert the monument into a hotel today.
The sprawling whitewashed building stands on the slope of a hill surrounded by olive groves and farmland. Just a short distance from Evora, it is the perfect place to chill out and soak in the historical ambience of the monastery with its original naves, cloisters and sweeping arches still intact. The old wine cellar of the monks has been transformed into a splendid restaurant serving contemporary Portuguese cuisine using fresh products sourced locally. My favourite is the beautiful church attached to the main building. It is a gorgeous annexe embellished with religious iconography of splendid tile works, side altars of marble, two ornate rococo pulpits and a wide nave with painted ceiling leading to a gilded main altar with a statue of the Virgin Mary the patron saint of the church.
Alentejo: A Rural Sanctuary
On the final leg of our journey we drive through the countryside and call briefly at the town of Arraiolos, a hilly medieval town famous for their hand-woven rugs. We stop for lunch at the Pousada de Arraiolos, a tranquil hotel in a country setting converted from a former 16th century convent complete with a beautiful chapel decorated with azulejos hand-painted tiles. From a vantage point from one of the terraces, the Alentejo landscape manifests its beauty in the gentle undulating hills and sweeping plains dotted with whitewashed houses.
Our final day in Alentejo ends with a high note when we stay at Herdade de Agua D’Alte (www.aguadalte.com), a fabulous homestead set in a rural landscape of green pastures, eucalyptus and pine forest. Restored from an old farmhouse, it is beautifully decorated in rustic chic and all the bedrooms, named after local plants, open out to a patio overlooking a lovely scenery of a meadow and flowering shrubs. The communal lounge where breakfast and meals are served is cosy and homely and comes with an affectionate black cat that makes my day. The two staff in attendance provide impeccable service making us feel at home with an incredible dinner and breakfast. There is a swimming pool in the back garden with a wonderful thatched-roof pool house tastefully decorated with comfy sofas and animal carvings and a bar for refreshment. The relaxing atmosphere amid a tranquil rural calm and gorgeous rooms live up to its tag line “a very special place to stay”.
On the way back to Lisbon, we stop at the old town of Estremoz for lunch at Mercearia Gadanha, a great restaurant-cum-grocery store with a fine selection of wine, smoked meat and cheese. The menu showcases cuisine and products from the region cooked in traditional style with a contemporary twist. Estremoz is famous for its fine marbles that have been used in many famous buildings and sculptures in Portugal since time immemorial.
We leave Portugal with reluctance and fond memories of Alentejo. Sparsely populated and comparatively untouristy, it is a wonderful destination to savour the real Portugal and be enthralled by the medieval towns graced with castles, palaces, convents and ancient monuments, all indelible legacies left behind by the Romans, Moors and Portuguese kings of yore. This is what makes Alentejo so alluring.
The Historic Centre of Evora is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Discover Alentejo on www.visitalentejo.com TAP Portugal flies directly from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon 60 times a week; return fares starting at £121 including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call +44 (0)345 601 0932.