May 31, 2011
I had only previously visited the Algarve and Porto in Portugal, so a week in another region of the country (which I confess I knew nearly nothing about), courtesy of a newly-launched weekly flight from London Heathrow into Beja, in the centre of The Alentejo, was a revelation about this little-known yet vast region of Portugal, just north of the Algarve.
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The Alentejo extends from the pristine Atlantic coast in the west (part of a National Park) to the Spanish border in the east. Intensely rural – we spotted numerous shepherds and cowherds guarding their animals – it was like going back in time in both the countryside and little fishing villages, while wine tasting, spa treatments and excellent restaurants gave us a level of sophistication that I hadn’t expected.
Storks nesting along the roadsides – on nearly every telegraph pole in some places, not to mention on the roof-tops of disused agricultural buildings, chimneys and churches – were fascinating and required many photo stops. The storklets were huge babies and the nests untidy messes of huge twigs tied together with a mix of mud and straw, also providing homes for an array of much smaller, sparrow-like birds in a kind of colony arrangement.
At the end of May, spring flowers were past their peak but still provided splashes of yellow, white and blue in many of the fields. Poppies lined the roadsides. Other fields were full of wheat, sunflowers, vines, olive trees and cork trees.
Wine production is a key industry in Portugal and 45% of the country’s wine is made in The Alentejo. Portuguese wine ranges from cheap, crisp and cheerful Vinho Verde, produced in the north (€7 a bottle and much enjoyed in a beachside restaurant with grilled fresh sardines and large prawns at the little town of Vila Nova de Milfontes) to those produced in the Alentejo itself, for example the deeply fruity and desperately expensive Pera Manca (€195 a bottle at the excellent restaurant at the Hotel Convento do Espinheiro, Evora, and only slightly less in a wine shop), which appears in small quantities only every few years from the much-admired Adega Cartuxa in Evora. The Pera Manca white was much more affordable than the red, at €19 direct from the winery.
The ever-present cork trees have their bark harvested every nine to ten years, and cork now has many more uses than just as stoppers for wine bottles. It can be made into thin waterproof material, ideal for umbrellas, hats, jackets, menu cards – you name it! Cork is also used to make attractive bracelets and other jewellery, plus of course table and drinks mats.
Pretty long-horned cows and their calves, both a velvety-brown colour, chomped their way across rolling grasslands while goats, sheep and their offspring did likewise. The scent of eucalyptus trees – they seem to be everywhere despite the water shortages suffered in the very hot summers – pervaded the breeze and perfumed our rental car as we drove with windows down. The vegetation was luxuriant – bougainvillea climbing over verandahs and up walls, plus many other flowering creepers, with rosemary and lavender in scented gardens, and the silver-grey of olive leaves offsetting the brighter greens and vivid colours of the sunflower fields… all manna to the senses.
We dined superbly – on olives, simple sardines and giant prawns grilled in front of us on the coast, and risotto, flavoursome soups (the gazpacho in particular) and stews of meat and fish plus a superb range of cheeses wherever we went. I loved the mini chicken pies, home-made with short pastry by chef Joaquim at the traditional Restaurant Dom Joaquim in Evora. Bread – really crusty and tasty – is a staple, served from breakfast through to dinner, with first-class local olive oil into which to dunk it. Puddings included honey and herb ice creams, fresh regional fruits and many egg-based dishes made from old convent recipes. Portugal – and the Alentejo region especially – is not, perhaps, the type of holiday to suit dieters. It is, however, perfect for walkers and cyclists, with very little traffic to speak of and no crowds, so the answer is probably to enjoy the food and to exercise away the calories…
On our return trip from the beautiful and oh-so-unspoilt Atlantic coast to Beja Airport, we had an early start but saw only 12 cars and two people in an hour and a half. The Alentejo is a driver’s dream, and the airport – right in the heart of this beautiful region – is served currently only by one airline, BMI, which flies but once a week on Sundays; the comfortable 49-seater plane is chartered by Sunvil Discovery. With flights from just £169 return (low season) and £189 pp (high season), including taxes, full catering (complete with stainless steel cutlery, proper glasses and so on), it’s stunningly good value and gets you to The Alentejo in only two and a half hours to enjoy warm sunshine and one of the best value-for-money destinations in Europe.
Sunvil can also, of course, arrange car hire and an excellent range of accommodation all over The Alentejo – from simple 2-star pensions on the coast or inland to 5-star (but not at all stuffy and still good value) de luxe hotels. Sue Ockwell