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 northeast 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-tries include açorda (a soupy combination of bread, garlic, coriander, olive oil, water, and egg) and the cold gazpacho 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!
Across Lisbon’s suspension bridge, Ponte Sobre o Tejo, and less than two hours away, Évora 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 famous Cromlech of Almendres, often called the Stonehenge of Portugal; the 2,000-year-old Roman Temple of Évora, one of the finest Roman monuments on the Iberian peninsula; a 12th century cathedral where the flags of Vasco da Gama’s ships were blessed prior to his journey to India; a 16th-century aqueduct leading north-west out of the city that can be walked for eight kilometres (five miles); plus numerous Renaissance and Gothic churches, squares, palaces and museums. If one dares, the macabre 15th century Capela de Ossos (Chapel of Bones), lined with thousands of bones and skulls is not to be missed but is not for the faint-hearted.
Four Seasons guests may also choose to visit the region’s small towns, many of which are on hilltops – the baroque Montemor-o-Novo; Vila Viçosa, site of the austere marmoreal Ducal Palace; the fortress town of Elvas; hilly Estremoz with its small whitewashed houses and colourful borders; Arraiolos, renowned for its handmade tapestries and rugs; or the medieval village of Reguengos de Monsaraz on the Spanish border.
If guests are pressed for time and have to choose to visit only one, Four Seasons Head Concierge Luis Miguel suggests Reguengos de Monsaraz, which sits high above the River Guadiana. The tiny walled town is straight out of a medieval fairy-tale; 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 line narrow cobbled streets filled with raspberry-colored Bougainvillea, in the shadow of the imposing castle. Climb the battlements for a bird’s eye view of this tiny town, the Alqueva, and the vast Alentejan plains and into neighboring Spain.
"Before you head back to the car you have to find Mizette,"
adds Luis Miguel.
"It’s a small shop that sells colorful refined blankets and shawls woven according to local traditions, and which are sold internationally at KENZO Home after the company’s founder Kenzo Takada visited the 19th-century factory himself."
Food Lover's Paradise
As well as culture and a rich and diverse countryside, after a morning of unforgettable sightseeing, fortunately, the region also has much to offer foodies.
Inside Évora’s medieval city walls, lunch can be enjoyed at one of the many small restaurants tucked down one of the city’s travessas. Expect a table filled with local petiscos; seasoned olives, Nisa cheese, Presunto ham from local black-footed porco preto, pigs that feast on acorns from the region’s abundant oak forests, and garlic butter to accompany the robust Alentejano bread. Look for Fialho restaurant - an institution in itself - run by the Fialho family since 1948, for some of the best local gastronomy, or Tasquinha do Oliveira - with only 14 seats in the entire restaurant, guests can expect to feel like they are literally dining at the Oliveiras' own family dining room.
"Do remember to save room for several Conventual desserts, as Alentejo’s desserts take one 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!" says Luis Miguel.
The region is also fast emerging as one of Europe’s most exciting wine destinations, with Wine Route signs edging the long, straight main roads. Should Hotel guests like a more wine-focused tour of the region, Luis Miguel and his concierge team can make the necessary appointments.
Alentejo’s hot, dry area is best known for its floral reds, the best of which are sold under the Alentejo DOC (Denominacao de Origem Controlada) title. Fifteen minutes away from Évora for instance, Pêra-Manca, one of Portugal’s most prestigious wines, matures in Cartuxa’s 18th-century wine cellar. Here, one can wander past vast barrels containing wines from lesser-known grapes such as aragonês, castelão, and trincadeira.
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 in 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.
"When the day is done, and as you leave behind the green plains and narrow cobblestoned streets of one of Portugal’s most magical regions, the sunset as you cross the bridge over the Tejo is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable moments of your journey,"
concludes Luis Miguel.