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The Alentejo is an area of massive prairie landscapes, as well as an outstandingly beautiful coastline. Portugal’s best-kept secret has serene and hospitable people and is dotted with sleepy whitewashed villages and castle towns and well as boasting two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Évora and Elvas). Whilst the local gastronomy and excellent locally produced wines are well worth writing that postcard home about…
Inside Évora’s 14th-century walls, narrow, winding lanes lead to a medieval cathedral and cloisters, the cinematic columns of the Roman Temple of Diana and a picturesque town square. Aside from its historic and aesthetic virtues, Évora is a lively university town hosting summer concerts and with excellent eateries, serving some of the best Alentejo gastronomy.
We recommend you book a table at Fialho where you can sample traditional dishes such as “favada real de caça”, a bean stew served to royal guests after hunting trips, and “sopa de beldroegas” (purslane soup).The walls are covered with deer antlers and the restaurant’s awards.
The contrast of well preserved whitewashed village houses within castle walls and the narrow streets surfaced with schist makes the medieval village of Monsaraz a living monument. Perched on the top of a hill, the panoramic views from within the 13th century castle walls stretch over Alentejo plains to the Great Alqueva Lake & Dam (the biggest man-made lake in Europe) towards the Spanish border nearby.
Not to be missed, the Alentejo factory of Mizzete Nielsen, manufactures traditional blankets, rugs and carpets and sells them in a shop of the same name in Monsaraz.
Another interesting village with a castle, Arraiolos is best known for its internationally renowned hand-embroidered wool carpets of naïf like designs of plants and hunt animals. They don’t come cheap but if looked after properly, they are incredibly hard-wearing – head for the Rua Alexandre Herculano, which is closed to traffic, so ideal for strolling and shopping!
You can also visit the Centro Interpretativo do Tapete de Arraiolos – a rug museum housed within a former medieval hospital in the main village square. It covers the wool production and dyeing process through to the weaving as well as the designs and stitch work involved in creating these tapestry rugs.
A bit closer to the Spanish Border, the Palacio Ducal at Vila Viçosa spreads over 18,000 sq meters and dates back to 1501.
The House of Bragança was the ruling family of the kingdom of Portugal from 1640 until 1910, and they are still based here.
The palace is open to the public and is well worth visiting, not least for its beautiful tiled walls but also for hosting one of the largest and most varied permanent expositions of carriages in Europe.
Construction of the star-shaped fortification surrounding the garrison border town of Elvas began when Portugal regained its independence from Spain in 1640. It served to guard the key border passage between Lisbon the Portuguese capital and Madrid in Spain.
Within its walls, the town contains barracks and other military buildings as well as churches and monasteries. There is also a magnificent 7 kms long aqueduct consisting of 843 arches, constructed by the same man who built the Tower of Belém in Lisbon, architect Francisco de Arruda.
All the exploring will surely make you build up an appetite, so we suggest you order a “sericaia com ameixas de elvas” a speciality of the town. The original recipe for this pudding made with plenty of eggs, sugar and cinnamon is thought to come from the nuns at the Elvas and Vila Viçosa convents.
This traditional vocal music genre without instrumentation was created as a means to coordinate efforts amongst Alentejo bull herders or “campinos”. In 2014 it was included in the UNESCO’s List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as one of two Portuguese music traditions (the other is Fado). Since then its popularity is on the up, and we hope that you will come across a local group singing to an audience in one of the Alentejo’s many historic sites.
The Costa Vicentina (from Sines to the Algarve Coast) is a natural coastal park of unrivalled natural beauty.
Around Sines, the beaches are particularly popular with mostly Portuguese families and surfers, especially in high summer. One such place is the former fishing village of Porto Covo with its pretty beach attracting many holidaymakers, although you would be hard pushed to find a foreigner amongst them.
Malhão beach situated between Ilha do Pessegueiro and Vila Nova de Milfontes has a more remote access but the effort is well worth it – you will be rewarded by a small sandy beach nestled between rocks and fragrant scrub, protected from the wind and with a small freshwater spring.
Vila Nova de Milfontes with its XVII fortress and located the middle of the Costa Vicentina national park is a small low-key town most of the year-round with a lovely river beach (Rio Mira) – so you can swim in the river or the ocean. However, the town does get somewhat oversubscribed in July and August and the river tides can be quite strong!
Furnas beach located on the south side of Vila Nova de Milfontes links up with the Mira estuary (signposted approximately 2 kms after crossing the bridge over the river). This beach is ideal for families with children, as the low tide provides several meters of wide shallow water and the dunes are quite fun for playing in.
Zambujeira do Mar is a small fishing village almost on the border between Alentejo and the Algarve provinces – it sits on top of a cliff with vast ocean views and there are some rugged and stunning beaches around it (some deserted). The area is popular with surfers, but best to avoid it August if you’re not into crowds, as the village hosts one of the biggest summer music festivals in Portugal.
One of the major attractions of the Alentejo is the richness of its gastronomy.
The area was formerly a major grain producer and amongst the oaks and olive trees, large herds of pigs pastured on the open plains; thus, bread, pork and olive oil form the basis of the regional cuisine. Of particular note is the way herbs and spices are deployed to infuse countryside aromas.
Some delicious bread, a sheep’s cheeses, olives and cured pork sausages or “presunto” (smoked pork ham) will almost certainly be served as soon as you sit down for a meal.
Soup may be served cold, as in the “gaspacho Alentejano” or hot, like the bread, egg and coriander “açorda Alentejana”. The wheat influence continues with “migas” that usually accompanies pork dishes, or the stewed lamb bread dish “ensopado de borrego”.
“Porco preto” is a great delicacy of the Alentejo – roaming freely over the countryside to eat acorns of holm oaks and seeds of cork oaks native to the area, the meat of the black pig is quite delicious, succulent and with a somewhat nutty flavour.
Alternatively, opt for a plate of game, also typical of the region and gain an insight into quality rural cooking!
And with such a great coastline, fresh fish and shellfish also feature regularly on the menu with “percebes” (goose barnacles) being a particular seafood characteristic of this coast. Seabass, seabream and cuttlefish will be grilled and served simply with boiled potatoes and a tomato salad; but bread based dishes like the “açorda de marisco” (mashed bread with garlic, coriander, olive oil, eggs and prawns) or “açorda de bacalhau” (with cod) are other specialities to try out.
Make sure you leave some space for some of the convent-originated sweets (mostly egg-based and very sweet) or local cheeses such as Nisa or Serpa.
This huge sun-drenched region in the southern half of Portugal boasts wines that will surprise you for their excellence, as well as their value for money.
The white wines are aromatic and fresh whilst the red wines are more intense and full-bodied.
Old Herdades and Quintas (wineries) that have been in the same family for generations are an important part of the Alentejo’s culture and identity.
Like Herdade do Mouchão where despite some modernization, work rhythms remain largely unaltered since the late XIX century: grapes are hand-picked and crushing continues to be done by foot, then pressed in manual ancient basket presses, which produce low yields of the highest quality.
For further information on local wines, producers and where the wineries are located checkout the Alentejo Wine Route.
If you’re into your wines you should also learn about cork! You can do this at Serra d’Ossa with Cork Trekking.
You will feel part of the Alentejo landscape and learn about the cork tree cycle from the cork oak to the cork in your wine bottle!
The “Lusitano” is closely related to the Spanish Andalusian horse and at the Coudelaria de Alter Real you can admire the haughtiness of the breed!
Occupying eight hundred hectares of stunning Alentejo countryside, here you can also have riding lessons, watch the mares and foals grazing, visit the stables and the museum, and learn everything there is to know about how these beautiful Portuguese horses and breed, including how they become top stallions and are selected for the Portuguese Riding School of Equestrian Art and for the Alter Real Dressage team.
We hope that you enjoy our suggestions!