They say in Alentejo, that even time takes its time. And as you drive through the endless wheat fields and gently undulating plains of Portugal’s largest (yet least populated) region, the overwhelming desire is to cast your watch and worries aside. In Alentejo, where the baking sun dictates the pace of life, no-one’s in a hurry. Dominated by vineyards, olive groves and the world’s largest cork oak forest, Alentejo prides itself on sustainable agriculture and the richness of its land and heritage.
It is also fast emerging as one of Europe’s most exciting wine destinations (while thankfully still favoring the region’s indigenous varieties of grape), with Wine Route
signs edging the long, straight main roads (call ahead for appointments). In the towns, small whitewashed houses with flat roofs and colorful borders cluster around gothic castles: head to Portalegre, Nisa, Marvão, Castelo de Vide and Alter do Chão in the north east for five excellent examples. There are also three extraordinary Natural Parks: South West Alentejo and the Vicentina Coast (the only place in Portugal where you can see otters in their natural habitat); Guadiana Valley on the banks of the River Guadiana and Serra de São Mamede occupying Southern Portugal’s highest ground.
Regional handicrafts include ceramics, weaving and cow-bells. The rugged coastline hides a plethora of unspoiled beaches and bays. And to top it all, Alentejo is a gastronome’s dream. Home to pata negra (the cured prosciutto-like meat of the black Iberian pig), staples include pork, bread, olive oil and an infusion of local herbs and spices. Must-trys include açorda (a soupy combination of bread, garlic, coriander, olive oil, water and egg) and the cold gaspacho soup. Alentejo’s desserts will take you within a mouthful of heaven; try Elvas plums and sinful Pão de Rala, packed with egg yolks, sugar and almonds: it’s crazily calorific, but you only live once!
Less than two hours from Lisbon, Evora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, widely considered to be one of Portugal’s most beautiful towns. It is packed with
treasures that include Neolithic monuments, the 2nd century Roman Temple of Diana, a 12th century cathedral (where the flags of Vasco da Gama’s ships were blessed prior to his journey to India) plus numerous Renaissance and Gothic churches, squares, palaces and museums. If you can stomach it, don’t miss the macabre 15th century Capela de Ossos (Chapel of Bones), lined with the bones and skulls of some 5000 monks: not for the faint-hearted.
Near to Evora, high above the River Guadiana on the border with Spain, the tiny walled town of Monsaraz is straight out of a Medieval fairytale. Fortified by the
Knights Templar in the 14th century, life continues in this atmospheric enclave much as it did centuries ago. White low-rise houses with outdoor staircases line narrow
cobbled streets in the shadow of the imposing castle. Climb the battlements for a bird’s eye view of the town, the vast Alentejan plains and into neighboring Spain.
Vila Viçosa is a sparkling vision of marble—a whole town constructed from the local ‘white gold’, the mainstay of the local economy since Roman times. The 16th century Ducal Palace with its imposing 110-meter marble façade tells the story of the mighty Bragança dynasty whose kings reigned Portugal for nearly 300 years.
The family’s former hilltop castle, replete with secret passages and high vaulted ceilings, now houses the Palaeolithic, Roman and Egyptian treasures of the Museu de Arqueologia (Archaeological Museum). Other local treasures come in the form of divine desserts; try the tibornas (with eggs, sugar, almonds and squash).
-Restaurante Luar de Janeiro in Évora for typical Alentejo cuisine and the most amazing pata negra ham
-Loja da Mizette in Monsaraz for mantas (blankets), rugs, carpets, double-sided travel rugs and made-to-order Capote Alentejano (caped coats)
You can check out Condé Nast Traveller's top picks, here.
And Chicago Tribune's article Alentejo, "The land where most corks come from, delivers great wine too" here.