The Alentejo Region of Portugal

Alentejo means beyond the Targus River in Portugese, and the region makes up almost a third of the country. It is a region of plains and rolling hills; of cork trees and holm oaks; of vineyards and olive trees; of white washed buildings, hilltop towns and ancient megaliths; of stork nests perched precariously on top of poles; of marble cobble stones and buildings. The colour of the region is predominantly olive green, with dusty brown and splashes of red earth. It is dry, and very hot in summer (temperatures of 40 degrees in summer are typical). And, it is increasingly being put on the tourist radar, particularly Evora, which is an easy drive from Lisbon.

   

  
After indulging in the Albergaria do Calvario’s amazing breakfast spread,  we spend our first day in Evora being very low key tourists (partly because I am felled by a headache, and partly because we need some down time as we have covered a lot in a short period of time). The Albergaria is the perfect place to unwind.

   
   
   
 
For the first time in our trip the weather is inclement, warmish but with intermittent drizzle and sometimes brief shower bursts. So, armed with our brollies, Pete and I spend several hours wandering the old city. The old part of Evora consists of narrow cobble stone streets, lined with white houses with blue, grey or more often yellow trim, and terracotta roofs – and of course, churches; interspersed with medieval buildings.

   
    
    

  

A 16th century aqueduct runs through one part of the town, with houses built into the ancient arches:

   

  

  In the centre of the old city stands the remains of a Roman temple dating from the 2nd or early 3rd century. Amazing that so much of it remains, and it looks so incongruous in this setting.

   
 

Across from the temple is a contemporary art museum – entry is free on Sundays, so in we go. The building itself has been beautifully restored – plain, simple lines with a gorgeous wooden floor and window shutters, and clever detailing. On the ground floor is an interesting exhibition about a public housing project in Evora devised by the Portugese architect  Álvaro Siza. On the second floor is an exhibition entitled, “Ah, At Last,Nature” – fascinating art from wood arrangements:

   
 
Also opposite the temple is a small park, with views across the town – and three beautiful marble statues (the Alentejo area is also famous for its marble):  

    
 
  
In fact, there is a lot of public art in both Spain and Portugal. Almost every roundabout, even in the smaller regional towns, has a sculpture in its centre, and sculptures in parks are prevalent. A nice touch. I took a picture of this roundabout sculpture for our bike loving friend:

  
And of course, there is always street art. In the old part of Evora, it is small – almost secret:

   
 
There is more to see in Evora, like the Chapel of Bones in the Sao Francisco church, and the Roman Baths – but instead my headache gets the better of me and I take to my bed for the rest of the afternoon.

Sunday is a quiet day in the city, with many shops and restaurants closed. Evening finds us at one of the few restaurants recommended by the hotel (and Lonely Planet) that is open – Luar de Janeiro.

  
We struggle a bit with the menu – not helped by the fact that we are given only one for the four of us. What is it with menus in Portugal?  They seem to be as precious as hen’s teeth. Invariably you are given only one, which is difficult in itself, but when you are trying to work out what the dishes actually are, it makes for very slow decision making. At Luar de Janeiro the decision making is made even harder as the majority of the dishes are for 2 people, and most of the fish is priced per kilo (and as it is a pretty expensive place, the numbers are somewhat frightening). The waiter, who has a very Eyeore manner, explains the menu to us – but given all four of us are trying to peer at the single menu, and there a lot of dishes, we struggle to remember what there is on offer (and his woebegone air makes us hesitant to ask him to repeat it yet again!).

We have come to learn that you really only need one main between two people as the serves are so large, particularly after you have indulged in some of the appetisers that come automatically to the table. At Luar de Janeiro we enjoy the marinated mushrooms, a lovely runny local cheese, a tangy tomato and cucumber salad and our first para negra (cured ham from the black pig that is fed on acorns). Then Pete and I share roasted kid goat – very tasty, but again lots of oil and too many potatoes (as yummy as they were). 

We emerge well fed, but well and truly over heavy, rich regional food that has been cooked in an abundance of oil. And also much lighter in the pocket – this was an expensive restaurant, and not one that we felt justified the higher price.

The next day is again overcast, with predictions of rain later in the afternoon. We have an 11am wine tour and tasting booked at Herdade Do Esporao, an hours drive from Evora. The estate dates back to 1267, but wine production did not happen until 1985. The estate was privately owned in the 70s, but was taken away from the owner and given to the rural people in the 1974 revolution, however was given back to the owner in the mid 80s.

 The winery is enormous, and it now also owns an estate in the Douro Valley. It produces 12 million bottles of wine a year, but the majority of the wine is table wine – only 10-12% are aged wines. And, most are blends – only 5 wines are single varietals. The chief winemaker is an Australian, David Baverstock, from South Australia, who was voted Portugese Winemaker of the Year in 2013.

  
While the estate is huge (1800 hectares )  only a part of it (650) is under grape cultivation as they are adopting sustainability practices and leaving part of the land under natural vegetation. They have their own water supply from a man made dam, and are hoping to expand their small organic wine production. And they produce 1 million bottles of olive oil each year ( see, we did listen to the tour guide!).

  
The wine production building is beautiful, designed by Portugese architect Miguel Oliveira; making creative use of the discarded wine barrels.

   
   
They are also experimenting with ageing the wine in clay urns, called amphoras. Not sure what the wine is like, but the urns are beautiful.

  
From the winery we move on to the small town of Sao Pedro do Corval, the pottery workshop town. As is our habit, we seemed to have turned up when many of the workshops were closed – but, we did manage to have a look in a couple of them; all were producing very similar products, mainly with traditional hand painted designs.

   
 
We throw ourselves into the only restaurant we see open – making the owner’s day, only to disappoint him greatly by ordering one main course to share between the four of us ( we are getting wise to the size of servings in Portugal). He shakes his head in disbelief. 

Our final destination for the day is the lovely hill town of Monsaraz – where not a lot was happening. Few places open, but fortunately not a lot of tourists (probably how Obidos was a few years back). Was a charming spot to wander around and admire the views. 

   
    
   
  
That evening the grey skies that have been overhead all day open, just minutes after we arrive at the restaurant we have chosen for the night – BL Lounge (Rua Das Alcacarias, 1). We watch other diners arrive soaking wet – and are entertained by the clear drain pipe running down one wall of the restaurant. The food here is terrific – lighter than the traditional Portugese fare, with more use of vegetables. We select an interesting variety of appetisers, and then follow it with two main courses for the four of us – risotto with asparagus and BBQed squid. All of it was great – the first meal we have really liked in Portugal. Highly recommended.

  
We end the night with another glass of wine and a cheese platter back at the Albergaria ( rustled up by the ever obliging staff, even though it is 10.15pm and the Cook has gone home):

  
Our final day in Evora is spent partly being tourists and partly being car shufflers. ‘The beast ‘, which we rented in San Sebastián, would cost us an 800Euro penalty if we dropped it off in Lisbon. So, Darryl had cleverly worked out that we could rent a car in Evora, then drive both cars over the border back into Spain to a town called Badajoz ( about 1 hour from Evora), drop off ‘the beast’ there, and then all four of us drive back to Evora (and on to Lisbon the next day) in the Portugese hire car. Thus saving ourselves the 800 Euro – although we do still incur a 68 euro penalty for a one way drop off Evora to Lisbon. Genius.

So, we begin the tourist part of the day by driving to the small town of Arraiolos, about 20km north of Evora. It is a carpet making town, but these are not your normal woven carpets. They are called tapetes, and are hand embroidered in wool onto a fabric backing (linen, or canvas or course hemp), using an oblique cross stitch that is now known as the Arraiolos stitch.

   
    
   
The history behind them is quite fascinating. In 1496 there was a royal decree expelling Muslims and Jews from Lisbon. They migrated south and settled in Arraiolos where they began making their rugs. The rugs of Arraiolos became increasingly popular throughout the land, reaching a zenith in the second half of the 18th century. Production went into decline in the 19th century, but in the early 20th century the local women started a resurgence of the ancient skill, and now there are rug sellers throughout the town.

We learnt much of this from a delightful young woman in a rug shop on the corner of the main square. We also talked to her about the gaggle of old men seated around the square outside her shop. She had us in hysterics telling us that all the old men in the village congregate there every morning, and then again in the afternoon, to gossip the day away. She claims she knows everything that is going on in both the country and the town as they love to argue about politics, and they love even more to gossip about their fellow villagers. 

   
   
We learn a bit more about the rugs from the Tapete de Arraiolos Interpretative Centre – where, as we have found out elsewhere in Portugal, no one questions that we are senior citizens and automatically offer us the Seniors’ rate, an offer that I am very miffed about given that a Senior over here is 65 and over!

  
The other fascinating thing about the Centre, apart from the rugs – and the glass floor that allows you to see the centuries old dye chambers that were carved into the ground rock – were the toilets that are completely lined with marble, including an inch thick marble door that was almost impossible to open. Was like weeing in a marble bank vault – I was worried I would be trapped in there as the doors were sooo heavy to open.

  
The town of Arraiolos was, like most of Portugal, very quiet (apart from the buzzing main square, thanks to the old guys). Our delightful young lady explained that many young people live in the smaller towns as it is cheaper to buy a house but then they travel to their work. But, this still doesn’t explain why so many of the shops, and cafes, don’t seem to open until …….. ??? When we are yet to discover.

It is a charming town none-the-less, where blue and white is the major theme. And, we found yet another example of excellent street sculpture (which we are guessing depicts something to do with the tapetes):

   
    
From Arraiolos we head on to Estremoz, one of the marble towns of the region. This part of Alentejo has numerous large marble quarries – apparently its marble production rivals Carrara in Italy. They have so much of the stuff that they use it for everything ( hence the marble toilet in Arraiolos) –  building facades, furniture, cobblestones, statues, fountains. The marble cobblestones make for dangerous walking in the wet (luckily it isn’t wet today).

   
    
 
We stop for a coffee and a pastel de nata at a lovely green tiled building, but not the best pastel de nata ( in our continuing search for nirvana).

   
 
And then head off up the hill to see the Royal Palace, which was built by Dom Dinis in the 13th century for his new wife, Isabel of Aragon, and the marble 27m high keep, known as the Tower of the Three Kings. A beautiful modern marble statue of Isabel faces the Palace ( which is now a hotel). And of course there is the inevitable church next door; this one has a very interesting roof line  – and marble arches.

   
    
   
From Estremoz we drive back to Evora via the small village of Evoramonte, which is dominated by its towering 16th century castle that can be seen from miles away. The castle is a huge, blocky fortress, incongruously adorned with bows – which it turns out is the symbol of the Bragaca family, who must have been the family that built the castle; the knot symbolises fidelity. 

  
   
Despite Lonely Planet promising an upmarket cafe at the castle, it is very closed up, with no sign of a cafe having ever existed. The sign on the door claims the castle will open at 2.00pm, which we scoff at given there is absolutely no sign of any life around, apart from a crew of stray cats. But, sure enough, on the stroke of 2 a stocky lady emerges from her cottage, clutching a huge key, and duly opens the castle door. We have a brief look around, and then climb one of the towers. I wish I hadn’t as towards the top of the spiral stairs we discover that the staircase has become the home of 1000s of earwigs, all clustered on the walls and floors. Yuck. Explains why the castle is surrounded by swooping starlings though.

   
   
Then it is back to Evora to collect the new hire car, ‘the sleek beast’ – turns out they have upgraded us to a Mercedes! Which may look better than ‘the beast’ but has much less room, both in the boot and in the back seat. Anyway, Darryl and Hazel lead off to Spain in ‘the sleek beast’ while Pete and I follow in ‘the beast’ . It is an easy hours drive across the border to Badajoz, and we find the Europcar office with no problems, bid farewell to ‘the beast’ and all four of us pile into ‘the sleek beast’ for the trip back to Evora, via a stop at the town of Elvas.

Elvas, like so much of Portugal, is a UNESCO World Heritage site – mainly due to the fact that it “boasts the largest group of bulwarked dry-ditch land fortifications in the world” (says Lonely Planet). In other words, it has amazing walls all around the city. Our quick visit reveals an interesting, albeit quiet, city. 

   
    
 
It also has an amazing multi level aqueduct, something we have not seen before :

   
 
Our drive back to Evora is graced by a glorious sunset:

  
Once back, we have time for a quick drink before heading out to dinner. For our final night in Evora we have chosen to eat at 1/4 para as 9 ( A quarter To Nine – so called because the owner’s clock stopped at a quarter to 9):

   
We had been recommended the restaurant both by the hotel, and by a fellow Aussie we met on the winery tour yesterday. We were not disappointed – a lovely range of appetisers, and then we shared one of the specialities of Portugal, seafood rice – which was absolutely delicious. All served by a charming man, who spoke terrific English.

   

 And so, our stay in the Alentejo comes to an end. Next stop Lisboa.

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