One word to describe a trip to the beautiful Portuguese region of Alentejo? Let’s start with ‘beyond’. Surpassing all expectations, not only is Alentejo beyond what you might expect, the evocative name itself actually refers to its location as beyond (‘alen’ in Portuguese) the Tagus (‘Tejo’) river. Covering almost one third of Portugal, the Alentejo landscape has a timeless feel, with glorious, sweeping vistas of wildflower-covered hills, vineyards, olive groves and colourful orchards. Beyond the verdant hills and fields, Alentejo’s UNESCO heritage towns and cities are crowded with ancient ruins, fascinating history and enough tourist sites to satisfy even the most curious visitor. Alentenjo might just be one of the finest European travel destinations you’ve never heard of.
My Alentejo trip began with a visit to the Port of Carrasqueira in Troia: a coastal region recently lauded as ‘the next Algarve’, albeit with less tourists. Its golden sands may tempt traditional holidaymakers, but don’t miss a visit to the charming fishing village of Carrasqueira – all tumbledown wooden jetties and colourful boats. Authentically atmospheric and suggestive of simpler times, an evening spent staring out to sea in Carrasqueira is one you won’t forget.
From here we drove on to Mediaeval UNESCO heritage city and Alentejo’s capital, Evora. Sitting atop a hill overlooking the region’s expansive – and much-lauded – wine country – Evora is the perfect base to explore the local vineyards. All crumbling ruins and Gothic churches, you’ll find everything here from a Roman temple to Moorish kasbahs and Mediaeval cathedrals. Well worth a visit is 16th Century Franciscan chapel Capela Dos Ossos (House of Bones), a chapel decorated entirely with the bones of more than 5,000 ancient corpses. This creepy altar served two purposes; it solved the issue of cemetery overcrowding in 16th century Portugal and gave the wealthy residents of Evora an opportunity to meditate on the transient nature of life.
Ticked off the culture and ready for a little retail therapy? You’ll find a plethora of charming, crafty independent stores in Evora, with accessories and homewares created from cork one of the typical souvenirs to take home. Cork is one of Alentejo’s biggest natural resources and the striking sight of the bright red-stripped barks of cork trees are a feature of every journey in the region.
Past the tourist souvenirs, a visit to the Estremoz Saturday flea market in central Alentejo comes highly recommended. Around 40 minutes drive from Evora, Estremoz is part quaint, part grand. Known as one of the region’s three ‘marble towns’, most of the buildings here are carved from the soft pink and grey stone. The Saturday flea market is an eclectic mix of fresh produce, second-hand books, religious curios and my favourite quirky style of Portuguese pottery; with bowls, plates and tea sets designed to look like cabbage leaves!
After enjoying Alentejo’s culture and shopping, it was time for us to indulge in some of its impressive epicurean delights. Much of the region is an official DOC wine area and as such most wine starts at a certain (very decent) standard. But for a real bacchanalian treat, Monte Da Ravasqueira vineyard – in the Arraiolos region, – is where it is at! Situated in acres of undulating vine fields around one hour from Lisbon, the estate is a typically gentile Portuguese one, all white-washed buildings with blue shutters and vivid purple-flowering climbers.
After touring the winery, guests can taste some of the produce on the estate’s beautiful terrace. The sun shone on us as we sampled the Ravasqueira Premium Rose, overlooking the vines and eating bread dipped in the estate’s own olive oil and white wine jelly. The Ravasqueira wines are multi-award winning and it was easy to taste why – don’t forget to buy a bottle to take home. Committed wine fan? You could very easily devote an entire trip to Alentejo’s eno-tourism…
Done the region’s wine producers and fancy something a little stronger? Head to Herdade da Amendoeira and sample their unusual but delicious botanical liqueurs. After a guided tour of the distillery, guests can try the artisan liqueurs: think blackberry, tangerine and lemon, all made using fruits from the farms’ own orchards. Herdade da Amendoeira also has its own idyllic bed and breakfast, with traditional Portuguese-style rooms, as well as regular yoga classes and shiatsu massage on offer.
For something a little more luxe, a stay at the Pousada Covento Arraiolos. Pousadas are unique to Portugal as luxury hotels set within traditional and historical buildings. Formerly run by the state, tourists can now enjoy sleeping in these incredible historic sites – they’re chic yet aim to stay true to their heritage. The Pousada Covento Arraiolos where we stayed was once a 16th Century convent and we slept in the converted ‘monks cells’ in a little more luxury than I imagine the monks would have had! Swimming in the Pousada’s infinity pool, you have stunning views across the densely wooded Alentenjo valley. A tranquil and truly relaxing experience – Alentejo is a magical place just waiting to be discovered.
TAP Portugal flies direct from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon up to 9 times a day, prices start at £98 return including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932.