Never-ending shades of green carpeted with vines, cork-oak trees and splashes of purple and yellow flowers peppered with medieval towns, Alentejo is rustic romance laced with authentic flavour.
It seemed only minutes ago that I had left the hustle and bustle of Lisbon Airport and crossed the imposing Vasco da Gama Bridge that spans the Tagus estuary. And here I was being welcomed by the beguiling beauty of the Alentejo.
As my driver meandered along the quiet roads, I watched cows grazing nonchalantly and lambs frisking in the meadows. This is a world where the languid pace of life seems to have remained unaltered for centuries. Any gnawing frenzy that stressed-out city dwellers, like me, bring with them quickly melts away. It felt good to be back in Portugal’s agricultural heartland.
Covering almost a third of the country, it stretches from the Tagus in the north to the hills of the Algarve in the south. The name Alentejo is derived from além do Tejo which translates as beyond the Tagus.
It was not long before I glimpsed the arches of Évora’s 16th-century aqueduct appearing beyond its medieval city walls. This hilltop haven of culture and gastronomy was to be my base for the next few days.
|Évora’s 16th-century aqueduct seen from the garden of the M`AR De AR Aqueduto|
They say every city has stories that define them and Évora is no exception. Wherever you go in the capital of Alentejo, walls echo with the past. Whitewashed houses with wrought-iron balconies, from hundreds of years ago, hugging the narrow and winding cobbled streets play with your imagination as you start to wonder who and what has gone before you.
With links to the Celts, this once vibrant Roman city saw the Visigoths and the Moors too leave their stamp. Évora’s golden age was in the 15th century when it became the residence of the Portuguese kings. Today, the historic centre is listed as a Unesco world heritage site attracting people from all over the world.
From the roof top of the Romanesque-Gothic Sé de Évora (Évora Cathedral) you have great views of the town and the surrounding countryside. The inside is lavish and has a unique marble statue of the pregnant Virgin Mary. According to legend, the fleet of Vasco da Gama had its flags blessed here before they set sail to India.
The star of this open-air museum city, as it often is called, has to be the granite and marble Templo romano (Roman temple). It is over 2,000 years old and, my guide Olga Correia Miguel told me, is one of the best-preserved on the Iberian Peninsula.
At the Casas Pintadas (Painted Houses) a stunning set of frescoes from the second half of the 16th century, decorates the garden wall. This is unusual, apparently, in Spain and Portugal as no other garden has anything quite like this still in existence.
The house became part of the complex of buildings of the Palace of the Inquisition and was bought in the 19th century by the founder of the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation, a privately-owned charity based in Évora. You can see what the life of this powerful Portuguese family was like by mooching round the house.
|Chapel of Bones|
From the beautiful to the macabre, we headed to the 15th-century San Francisco Church (NB: it closes at lunchtime). I hate to think what St Francis who was all for simplicity would make of all the glitz here. What makes this grand structure stand out from the crowd apart from the Gothic and Mudéjar features is the Chapel of Bones.
Walk into this small room and you are greeted by the bones and skulls of approximately 5,000 people which plaster the walls. This was the solution devised by 17th-century monks to cope with the problem of overflowing graveyards in churches and monasteries. The eeriness is emphasised by the inscription over the door: “We bones that are here, for yours await.”
Olga pointed out that the message is really whether you are rich or poor, or whatever your skin colour, we all end up as bones.
On that chilling note it was time to take in some fresh air and refuel with a coffee in the Praça de Giraldo, the main square, at one of the many cafés that spill into it. The square also features a lovely water fountain which dates back to the 16th century.
|Praça de Giraldo, the main square|
The Portuguese love their sweets and a small desert is an indulgence that is hard to resist. I kept telling myself that they were good energy boosters. One of my favourites is the pastel de nata, a scrumptious rich egg custard tart made with puff pastry.
Soon the surrounding arcades were calling and it was time to go and explore them. Running off the square the quaint streets are filled with pretty boutiques and shops selling traditional Portuguese handcrafts including Arraiolos rugs made in a town close by, tiles and cork in guises ranging from table mats to bags as well as lamps and chairs.
|Part of the city walls|
And, of course, as you are in the Alentejo there are plenty of places to stop and taste some of the spectacular wines that this region has to offer.
The sensual culinary aromas that fill the air always make you feel hungry and believe me it will be hard to find better cuisine anywhere. Food is important here. What you will get is lashings of top quality fresh produce. With every mouthful, exciting flavours enfold into your mouth. (I could wax lyrical about the cuisine so I will focus on this in another post.
Évora is a rich array of centuries that has been integrated into a modern university city. For a small place it packs a punch well above its weight.
TAP Portugal flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon up to 9 times a day, prices start at £124 return including all taxes and surcharges. For further information, visit www.flytap.com or call 0345 601 0932
I stayed at the impressive five star M`AR De AR Aqueduto, housed in the 16th-century Sepulveda Palace. For more information visit www.mardearhotels.com
Another wonderful hotel is the Convento do Espinheiro. Slightly further out of the city, this is a great place if you want a combination of culture, cuisine and relaxation. For more information visit www.conventodoespinheiro.com
Great places to eat
Café Alentejo restaurantecafealentejo.com
Mr. Pickwick www.evora.net/mrpickwick-mrsnob
Restaurante Dom Joaquim restaurantedomjoaquim.pai.pt
Vinhos do Alentejo www.vinhosdoalentejo.pt
For more information about Alentejo visit www.visitalentejo.pt/en/