An Alentejo Road Trip Guide – Drive Yourself
Traversing the breathtaking landscape of fields, rivers, mountains and pre-historic ruins, Ishay Govender-Ypma explores Portugal’s wild Alentejo in Portugal, a region as yet unmarred by tourism. For Journey magazine by Sure Travel – an Alentejo Road Trip Guide.
Lessons from the Land
Looking down from the buttress walls of the castle in Marvão, a medieval city in northern Alentejo, the landscape spreads in hues of vivid greens, deep golds and mottled amber. I stay a few moments longer; it isn’t easy to tear the eyes away.
The Alentejo, known widely as Portugal’s breadbasket and wine cellar, has a vastly contrasting landscape that diverges between a rocky and rugged coastline, the yellow-and-brown patchwork wheat fields of the interior and the ruddy sun-scorched fields of the south. The region spans roughly a third of Portugal between the northern Algarve mountain range at the bottom to south of the Rio Tejo at the top. As it’s set out in Nobel prize laureate José Saramago’s semi-autobiographic work: Raised from the Ground, the Alentejo is a difficult land to tame, one where many farmers have perished and been forced into destitute. Vines were replaced by wheat under the Salazar dictatorship, only being gradually restored since the seventies. The wines that are produced, are known worldwide to be very good, a fact we confirm during the week we spend exploring the region. For all its abundance and agricultural splendour, the Alentejo is still a poor region, but as we discover, one that deserves a great deal more marketing to an international market than it currently receives.
You can stop at each town and village if time allows. I suggest the following to select from: Sines, Beja, Barrancos, Monsaraz, Evora, Montemor-o-Novo, Avis, Vila Viçosa, Marvâo, Portagem, Estremoz and Monsaraz.
We soon learn that good road signage, the presence of tourism offices in even wee towns (English-speakers can be few though) and well-maintained, virtually empty roads make for an easily navigable drive from Lisbon, the county’s capital. Every turn seems to carry a form of reprieve for the city-weary soul. If it’s “escape” you’re after, the Alentejo embodies it. Bucolic pastoral scenes of plump cows grazing at pasture and sheep roaming lazily unfold next to calm lakes that invite even the most reluctant kayaker. The slumbering medieval walled towns such as Monsaraz and Marvão summon eager feet and curious eyes. We pass clusters of cork, ancient oak and olive trees – and even sample the oil of one that’s a startling 3000-years-old at Horta da Moura, a “hotel rural” and working farm in Monsaraz. Grandly restored pousadas – there are 34 of these pristine former monasteries, palaces and castles across the country, offer a unique place to sleep and sample the Alentejo classic dishes like ensopado de borrego (lamb stew), scrambled eggs with farinheira (flour and fat) sausage, and pork with clams, while immersing yourself in the Portuguese culture and heritage and ogling magnificent collections of art and artefacts. Diving further back in time, the well-preserved Neolithic structures, like those at Zambujeiro, a burial chamber outside Evora, the capital of Alentejo, establish the area’s historical significance.
But as few foreign travellers venture further north past Evora, into the Alto Alentejo, you’re very likely to encounter an authentic slice of farm life. Being a fan of the stirring melodies of fado, my playlists of Amalia Rodrigues, and her modern-day reincarnation, Mariza, accompany the slow shifting of landscapes during our drive, but an interlude from energetic Michel Telo, who croons upbeat in Portuguese, is needed from time-to-time. The Alentejo, for all its hardship, is a place of bright blue skies, pretty whitewashed houses and smiling faces too.
Fishermen and Palaces
We start at the port town of Sines, where we try the peasant dish migas – a simple combination of old bread softened and flavoured with mashed vegetables like asparagus, that features as a side with many of the meals served in the Alentejo. A platter of just-caught grilled John Dory served with splash of olive oil and an entire clove of raw garlic, a bowl of briny clams cooked with coriander, and crusty bread are brought to the table. We’re offered one of my favourite delicacies, precebes or goose barnacles (which despite their strange appearance are tasty) and the server tells us about the often dangerous conditions that divers face having to pluck them off slippery rocks that are battered by waves.
From the coastline where it starts raining, we leave to the hilltop town of Estremoz, via the capital, Evora where we base ourselves for a few days. At Queen Santa Isabel’s former palace (now a grand pousada, where you can enjoy a meal and stay in a stately room) we admire swathes of floor-to-ceiling curtains, stately portraits of kings and queens, tapestries and antiques worth undisclosed sums of money. Eunice Tiago, the manageress tells us that some guests (mostly local) try to stay at all 34 pousadas, a feat that usually takes a while. The plush cavernous dining room, with suited waitstaff evokes the splendour of a bygone era, and is the perfect place to try the variety of Portuguese egg-yolk heavy cakes and puddings, that have endured over time.
Weary from the warm drives and the hearty meals, I book into the lavish spa at the Marmoris Hotel in Vila Viçosa, and try to steam away some of the overindulgence. Made entirely from local marble (the dining room table must be seen to be believed), the over-the-top hotel offers luxury and fine dining, if you fancy a break from Alentejo-rustic.
In under and hour we’re back at Evora and employ the services of two guides to teach us about the area’s history. Olga Manuel specialises in the Alentjeo and historian Melanie Vagar, who lives in medieval Estremoz offers walks filled with anecdotes she’s researched during her studies. Melanie also offers pottery workshops with local artists and a picnic with local products on the banks of the Ribera Grande, which we regret having no time to book. “Next time,” I say, making a mental note for a future trip.
First to the Farm, then the Market
We first meet Alfredo Cunhal, a farmer and teacher, at the Mercado da Ribeira in Lisbon, a food court and market complex, made shiny and hipster-worthy by Time-Out. Here he sells organic produce, cheese and meats from his montado, a traditional agro-forestry farming system near Montemor-o-Novo, not far from Evora. The next time we meet Alfredo is at his eco-farm on our road trip, on the way back to Lisbon . At Herdade do Freixo do Meio, Albert has turned his hand to the old ways of farming, balancing low-density forestry with agricultural and pastoral activities, and opening up the old farmhouse doors to international academic conferences. The work is painstaking, much of it taking place by hand. On the morning we visit, cooks tend large pots of stew on the outdoor fires, to feed a visiting Scandinavian academic delegation. A young woman nudges a herd of sleepy cows, taking them to pasture. For a moment, the meaning of truly being immersed in Portugal’s countryside starts to make itself clear.
Volunteers spend a year or more, helping with herding, farming, processing of milk and meat and the baking of bread at the montado. You can’t have a farm like this and not play an integral part in every aspect of the end product, Albert tells us, and rushes off to the butchery where his junior staff await his assistance. Bolota, or acorns, once thought of as “food for the pigs”, I’m told by many in the region, have only recently been found to be both nutritious and excellent for human consumption. In the farm’s small bakery with an old wood-fired oven, a twenty-year-old German volunteer who’s extended her stay, shows us how the acorn-flour loaves are made. She packs the cooled loaves, which Albert will take to Mercado da Ribeira for sale. I ask her how she finds village life in the Alentejo, away from all the things young people usually gravitate towards. “It grows on you quickly,” she says, ”We’re like a family here, and the volunteers go out together. You get very involved in your tasks. When I started, I knew nothing about baking. Lisbon isn’t that far anyway.”
In the region of Casa do Porco Preto a ham processing factory and warehouse, in hilly Barranco, in southeast Alentejo on the border with Spain, conditions for the Alentejo black pig are ideal. Here, the prized pigs, a variety protected under European law, are valued highly for their characteristic intramuscular fat. This gives the thinly-shaved ham called presunto, the Portuguese version of jamón Ibérico, a melt-in-your-mouth texture. The pigs feast on acorns (which add a subtly nutty flavour) and roam freely between the ample cork groves, thriving at high altitude in this Mediterranean microclimate. As we sample a variety of hams, after a fascinating two hour factory tour, João Chamorro, commercial director at Casa do Porco Preto, tells us that a five-year-old vintage can fetch upwards of €1500. Customers from across the country, and even over the Spanish border, reserve select legs and pay a charge for having them age in the warehouse. At one stage during the financial crisis, João tells us, pig farmers cut their losses and turned the animals into ham, relying on the in-demand porco preto.
These products, as well as more of Albert’s acorn flour bread and the wines we sample at L’and Vineyards in Montemore-o-Novo outside Evora, we spot on our return to Lisbon in gourmet delis and at restaurants. I’ve long known that I’ll always be a city-girl, but to experience the countryside as marvellously rugged and pure as the Alentejo, is a break worth seeking.
LISBON TRAM 28
A perfect way to experience Lisbon is to board the yellow “electrico”, specifically Tram 28 that runs up the impossibly steep hills and narrow streets. Join the locals with their shopping bags, and fair number of tourists too, to some of the city’s loveliest neighbourhoods like Baixa, Graça, Alfama and Estrela. Tram 28 forms a loop between the east and west, stopping at or near some must-see attractions. Tickets can be purchased on board and it’s best value to buy an unlimited 24 hours – though this isn’t available on the tram.
Don’t miss these stops:
- Start at multi-ethnic neighbourhood Praça Martim Moniz.
- The tram passes the magnificent São Jorge castle. Do come back for a visit
- Portas do Sol – also good viewing point, and you can walk to São Jorge castle from here.
- Alfama and Graça (get off near majestic convent Igreja da Graça, and relax at Largo da Graça)
- Chiado – vist famous Café Brasileira.
- Estrela – visit the Basilica
- Campo do Ourique – residential neighbourhood with great cafés and a market
- Don’t miss ageing Mouraria and lively bar district Bairro Alto
DIY – Drive there!
South Africans need a visa to travel to Portugal, which forms part of the Schengen states.
-Hire a car at the airport or in the city in Lisbon and pick up a map at one of the tourist offices prominent in each town. You can easily hire a GPS here at the car rental too. I used Avis: www.avis.com/car-rental/location/EUR/PT/Lisbon.
-Roads are good most of the way, so there’s no need for an SUV.
-Drivers stick on the right-hand-side of the road.
Pousada Estremoz: www.pousadas.pt
L’and Vineyards: Montemor-o-Nova, www.l-and.com, +351266242400
Alentejo Marmoris Hotel in Vila Viçosa
Horta da Moura Rural Hotel: www.hortadamoura.pt
Eat & Drink
Book at any of the pousadas: http://www.pousadas.pt/ (wondrous places to stay)
L’and Vineyards: Montemor-o-Nova, www.l-and.com, +351266242400
Restaurant Server, Portagem, www.serverhotel.com, +351 245 993 192
Arte & Sal, Sines – for outstanding fresh seafood: Arte.Sal@netvisao.pt , +351 269 869 125
Monte Novo e Figueirinha, www.montenovofigueirha.pt, +351 284311260
Olga Miguel: email@example.com
Melanie Vagar: www.vagarwalkingtours.com