4 top reasons to enjoy Alentejo
An immense golden region of rolling plains, white lime washed houses and monuments that testify to the long presence of human life, the Alentejo is a land that must be discovered slowly. Here, there is always a landscape to be contemplated; a secret place to be visited; a new flavour to be discovered. In the plains, the wheat fields quiver in the wind and nestled amidst the olive groves are small villages, newly restored for rural tourism, where all visitors are welcomed with open arms.
The Alentejo (literally “land beyond the Tagus”) is a warm, dry, mostly gentle region north of the Algarve that has been ignored by all but a few. A long history of turbulence means many of its towns are on hilltops, not just Évora but the medieval village of Monsaraz on the Spanish border, the baroque Montemor-o-Novo above the main E90 from Lisbon, and the pantiled city of Beja in the south.
This big fertile region, a third of the country by area, is known as Portugal’s gastronomic soul. The food is neither peasant nor sophisticated, but rich with ingredients such as sheep’s cheese, black pork, salt cod, wild mushrooms and asparagus. Towns have their own specialities, such as peppery olive oils or egg-yolk based desserts. It’s this rich individuality that makes Alentejo special and the fact that it produces almost half of Portugal‘s wine.
The local gastronomic delights compete against one another: the cheeses of Serpa, Évora and Nisa, the local wines and bread, the typical regional dishes perfumed with the herbs and spices from the fields and the divine sweet dishes based on traditional monastic recipes, which are like pieces of heaven that one has been allowed to taste on earth.
Now the region is being touted as the new Tuscany, or the affordable Tuscany. Certainly it’s just as food-orientated, and entry-level wines are better value than in Chianti. Architecturally, the Alentejo also has an abundance of Roman remains: Évora has city walls, a huge aqueduct and a temple dedicated to Augustus.
After the Romans, the Visigoths and then the Moors ruled the Alentejo. Its rich soil helped make it famous, and when the Jesuits arrived in the 16th century, they boosted the viticulture and transformed cities like Évora with their florid architecture. So why has this beautiful, fecund, food-orientated region been neglected by the rest? Maybe it’s because all think of Portugal in terms of Lisbon and the Algarve. The Alentejo, as the land that lies between those two popular tourist attractions, is too easy to overlook, despite its size.
The seaside of Alentejo is also among our favourites. Competing with the Algarve in fame and quality it is however quite distinct. Here the beaches are wider, the water is colder (you must remember it is the Atlantic Ocean) and the sea is not as calm (making it good not only for a swim but also for water activities like surf, windsurf, kite surf and others). It is also more secluded so you will not find as many People!
Where to eat
Taverna Os Templários, Monsaraz
Be sure to eat outside at this small, family-run restaurant 20km from the Spanish border, which has a terrace looking across to the massive Alqueva reservoir. Order the local black pig with a bottle of Reguengos red, or the bacalhau com espinafres (salt cod with spinach).
Restaurante Maçã, Lavre
This plain but award-winning village restaurant in the Alvalade mountains is proud of its Alentejo cuisine and does a good ensopado de borrego (lamb stew) and fish soup. The small bar also serves a petiscos (snack) menu if you arrive early.
Back in 1948, Manuel Fialho began serving local snacks. Today his busy, strip-lit restaurant is credited with having saved a number of traditional dishes such as favada real de caça, a bean stew served to royal guests after hunting trips, and sopa de beldroegas (purslane soup). Walls are covered with deer antlers and Manuel’s awards.
Where to drink
Convento Cartuxa, Évora
Cartuxa Wines occupies an old Jesuit winery farm outside Évora’s city walls. It’s a tranquil whitewashed place where you can wander past vast barrels containing wines from little-known grapes like aragones, castelao and trincadeira.
Herdade dos Grous, Beja
This modern wine bar sits on a country estate in the south of the Alentejo, with its own vineyards and cork forests. Herdade dos Grous’s Reserva red won the Oenologist Union of Alentejo’s top award for 2006. Visitors can also learn about horse breeding, olive plantations and organic farming.
Carmim Enoforum, Reguengos de Monsaraz
Carmim is the largest wine producer in the Alentejo. At its modern headquarters 15,000 bottles are produced every hour. Visitors can take a tour and also visit the olive press.
Where to stay
Considering as ideal introduction to Portugal’s Alentejo region the Hotel Convento do Espinheiro & Spa which has given new life to a 15th century convent, considered a national monument, where important nobles throughout history helped shape Portugal’s destiny. The Convento do Espinheiro & Spa offers a total of 92 rooms with 6 different categories of room, including 6 large suites, decorated in a variety of styles to suit your preference. It houses one amazing restaurant, the Divinus Restaurant, which is located the convent’s ancient wine-cellar converted into the Wine-Bar. It is an exclusive location, entirely dedicated to wine-tasting and the enjoyment of the excellent Alentejo regional produce. The hotel also has two pools, one indoor and one outdor and in this latter there’s a delicious bar that provides great summer heat relaxation. As facilities it also offers tennis and paddle courts with complimentary equipment and bike tours throughout the grounds and local area. The Spa has many relaxing or enervating treatments available that have been derived from different ancient cultures, brought to you in a meditative, beautiful and peaceful environment.
To recap: Top Reasons To Go
Travel back in time
Wander amid megaliths erected 2.000 years before Stonehenge, Roman ruins, Moorish forts, and medieval monasteries in the province where Portugal’s history is best preserved.
With a third of Portugal’s land area and only one-twentieth of its population, the Alentejo offers pristine open space even in one Europe’s smallest countries. Stand atop a well-preserved medieval fortress and gaze out at undulating cork and wheat fields on every horizon. Even the more densely populated coastline has all of the Algarve’s charm with a fraction of its tourists.
Traditional rural festivals
From Portuguese-style flamenco and bullfighting along the border with Spain, to autumn chestnut roasts in northern hill-town squares, and sardine festivals on the coast, every weekend offers another reason to celebrate in rural Alentejo.
Food and wine
Alentejano cuisine is considered Portugal’s best, with centuries-old farming practices that were organic long before it was trendy. The highlight is porco preto, free-range black pigs that graze on acorns under Alentejo’s ever-present cork trees.