Alentejo, Portugal

James Articles, Features

Alentejo, Portugal

Closer to home

Just north of favourite coastal holiday destination the Algarve, this dry, hot region of Portugal is often overlooked as a place to unwind. As such, it remains relatively untouched by tourism, but takes advantage of its close connections to Lisbon and Faro to allow visitors to quickly immerse themselves in the tranquillity of the ‘real’ Portugal. Within an hour of leaving Lisbon airport, you can be pootling about on the Sado river, spotting wild dolphins as they leap out of the water.

The region’s landscape, replete with vineyards and olive groves, is dotted with megalithic monuments and Roman relics, but it is the cobbled streets of its towns that really feel historic. The tiled houses in Beja, the capital of Lower Alentejo, hark back to the region’s Moorish period, reflected further in the decorative motifs adorning the white-washed houses of neighbouring villages.

Tourists are encouraged to stay in pousadas, old castles, convents and other historic buildings, now under state control and refitted as luxury hotels as a way of funding the area’s preservation. Pousada Sao Francisco in Beja is a great example of this, a converted convent with beautifully painted ceilings and frescoes.

Climbing up the fourteenth-century castle’s tower in the centre of town affords wonderful views over the rolling golden landscape. And there are numerous ways to get out and explore these enticing surroundings, including canoeing down the Guadiana river among herons and other birdlife, or winding through the local vineyards on quad bikes or horseback.

You can even float above it all on a hot air balloon ride, alone with your thoughts and the roar of the burner.

Local lore

Beja’s coat of arms features a bull’s head, which, local legend has it, is featured because of an encounter way back when Beja was still just a small hunting settlement, surrounded by impenetrable forest.

A serpent monster was the torment of local people, killing everything in sight. One man produced a plan to poison a bull and leave it in the serpent’s forest. A great struggle between the two beasts followed. Eventually the bull succumbed and was eaten by the snake. A few days later, of course, the serpent too lay dead, having unknowingly ingested the poison in the bull.

This legend was passed from generation to generation, though historians now say that the coat of arms is more likely to have been a sign of the region’s wealth in cattle.

Don’t miss…

Noudar Nature Park An unspoilt and largely unpopulated nature park. Wild boars, deer, foxes and several bird species make their home among the oak forests, above which the ruined Castle of Noudar is an imposing sight.

Food Alentejo is proud of its regional specialities. Wines, cheeses and olive oils are well loved, but it is the cured meats, and the black pig in particular, that receive greatest praise. Wild boar, partridge and wood pigeon often feature on menus.

Evora Alentejo’s capital city, still partially enclosed by medieval walls, and home to a Roman temple and numerous other historical monuments. Once home to the explorer Vasco da Gama, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

First published: Traveller magazine, Winter 2008 / 2009
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JamesAlentejo, Portugal