Alentejo, Portugal

Most tourists who travel to Portugal will visit the Algarve or they go to Costa de Lisboa for a city trip to Lisbon (which I also did earlier this year) or they go further north for a city trip to Porto. But Portugal has so much more to offer and an area that is definitely worth a holiday is the Alentejo region (pronounced: Allanteezjoo)! The area lies under the Tagus river and that is exactly what the name Alentejo means. It is a sparsely populated area with a wealth of culture and history and beautiful nature. And as I will find out: they have delicious food and very good wine.

Day 1: from Schiphol to Évora

This trip is a work related one. One of the pleasures of working at a travel agency. We travel with a select group; there are only 5 travel agents from the Netherlands and that is why I call myself One Lucky Traveller… because I am one of them. We gather very early in the morning at Schiphol Airport. We fly with TAP to Lisbon. It is a 3 hour flight en during this time we get acquainted. Apart from the 7 travel agents, there are 2 representatives from tour operator Girassol who accompany us during this trip. Once we arrive at the Lisbon, we walk straight towards the parking. We only carry hand luggage with us. Waiting for us is Filipe, representing Visit Portugal, who will guide us around the Alentejo. What a sweet man. He introduces himself, reaches out bottles of water and we hop on a minibus towards our first stop of the day.

Vasco di Gama bridge, Lisbon

The Alentejo lies south of Lisbon and ends where the Algarve starts. So we have to go south. First (after paying toll) we cross the immensely long (12 kilometres) and beautiful Vasco da Gama bridge. We enter a landscape full of cork trees, olive trees and rice fields. It is the end of the season and there is not a lot of traffic. We are on our way to Alcácer do Sal, where large numbers of storks fly through the air. Our first stop is at the beautiful Pousada D. Afonso II (pousada is a Portuguese term for a mostly luxurious hotel that is often located in a historic building), where we are offered a tasty breakfast.

After having a look around, we meet Ana, who works for Visit Alentejo. Ana is a sweet and enthousiast young lady who gives us a short presentation and we see a video about this region. We are treated to coffee and tea and Pastéis de Belém (or Pastéis de Nata); yummie! After the video we would like to continue our journey to see everything we just saw on screen with our own eyes. Ana is also coming with us; together with the driver we are 10 and I am truly in great company.

Our next stop is at Herdade do Freixo do Meio. It is a large agricultural estate where, among other things, they keep their own cattle, grow vegetables and fruit, make olive oil and wine, all in an organic and responsible manner. They sell their products in their own store in Lisbon. We get a try at making or I should saying baking our own bread, but we do not “bake” much of it. We do have a lot of fun and the great atmosphere that is created there and then we have with us for the rest of the trip. We get a tour around the estate, we see staff and volunteers working hard and then we are offered a delicious lunch with a glass of wine (well maybe 2). Of course, the entire lunch is made by the chef with their own products. The food is really amazing. If this is how the rest of our journey is going to be like… I will have to go on a diet when I get back!

After lunch we go to the Monte da Ravasqueira estate. It is owned by a wealthy family that has a beautiful collection of carriages. They no longer have horses, but the carriages are beautiful and exhibited in all sizes and models at the estate. The family is now active in wine and olive oil production and they do a very good job! Here too we get a tour of the estate, which is huge and very peaceful and beautiful. Our visit ends with wine tasting (second we have wine today). The wines are really incredibly good and taste amazing. We are getting more cheerful as we taste the various wines. We hit the road again, all carrying a bottle of wine and olive oil with us! To me… these are the best souvenirs to take home!

Our next destination is Évora. Visit Portugal writes: Évora, a book of Portuguese art history. I am curious. We will not see much of today as it is getting late. We drive straight to our overnight address Convento de Espinheiro, which is just outside the city. It is housed in an old monastery that has been converted into a five-star hotel (the trip just keeps getting better and better!). It is dark when we arrive, but what we can see is beautiful. We check in, are in awe and very happy with our rooms. We receive a short tour through the beautifully restored hotel and the accompanying church.

Before we sit down for dinner we are expected in the Cisterna Wine Bar (in the cellar). We have another wine tasting today, this time it is a super delicious bubbly wine (champagne like). The bottle is opened with a sword. We have the feeling that this is becoming a theme trip, because the alcohol flows abundantly this first day (but we do not have any problems with this!). I must say that I am pleasantly surprised by the incredibly good quality of the Portuguese wines. OK, I am not an expert, but I do like a glass of wine now and then and so far I enjoyed what I tasted (and drank). In addition, the food in Portugal is delicious; so the food and wine are already reason enough for a holiday in the Alentejo!

Day 2: from Évora to Beja

The next morning we get up early. We have a wonderful breakfast and check out (unfortunately). OK, this may be a five star hotel and a bit expensive for most of us, but Portugal has many authentic accommodations for every budget. I however do like to stay in various places during my holiday and treat myself now and then. But do try to stay some place authentic, something different from what you are used to. Like the next accommodation we visit. We go to a quinta of Dutch owners, Monte da Serralheira. Quinta means (Portuguese) wine farm and often the name of the owners is put behind it. Not all quintas are still wine farms though. This quinta is a very easy going, relaxed place to spend a few nights. The owners are welcoming and friendly and it is special to see how wonderful they run their quinta, not being Portuguese. It is a place where everyone can stay; young and old, families, couples … there are all kinds of facilities.

Quinta Monte da Serralheira

After the visit to the quinta we go to the centre of Évora for a city tour by foot. The minibus drops us of close to Sé Cathedral where we meet Olga Miguel, who is our official guide during this tour. Before we start our tour she tells us a little about the city. Since 1986 it is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and for sure it is one of the prettiest cities in the country. From what I can see this city is an open air museum; past and present come together, but it is mostly its history that gives Évora this special atmosphere. Olga tells us about Sé Cathedral, which has been beautifully restored and is open to public again. It is the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal. It is a beautiful monument, that showcases the transition from Romanesque to Gothic style, and Renaissance and Baroque additions were introduced later. Unfortunately we do not have the time to go inside, but please do when you visit Évora!

Sé Cathedral, Evora

We walk to the São Francisco (St Francis) church, only 500 meters from the cathedral. The church is perhaps best known as the home of the mysterious (and rather spooky) chapel of bones. The original design of the Igreja de São Francisco was the work of architect Martim Lourenço, who designed the structure to stand on the site of a former Romanesque church dating back to 1226. We go side. Just like in Sé Cathedral there are many styles to be found in the interior, dating from different periods. Lovely Renaissance features, as well as Baroque. The church is stunningly beautiful. Throughout São Francisco you can see plenty of extravagant gilding, pretty wood carvings and beautiful hand painted tiles in Portugal’s traditional white and blue ceramic colouring, as well as some lovely frescos by famous Flemish artists.

At the back of the chuch lies the famous Capela des Ossos, the Chapel of the Bones. Yes, it literally is a chapel that is completely covered with bones and skulls. It is a bit macaber, but weirdly enough, there is no dark and twisty atmosphere. But everywhere you look you see human bones. I wonder how many corpses are in here and I ask Olga. She explains that the chapel was the work of a group of Franciscan monks who designed it as a practical solution to the problem of 42 monastic cemeteries taking up too much space in and around the city which was getting bigger and bigger. They simply moved all the remains from each of the sites and relocated them to one single, consecrated chapel within the church so that the land could be freed up for further use and development. Instead of hiding the bones away, they took a very unusual decision and put them on display, cementing the remains of more than 5000 individuals from all walks of life, all over the chapel walls and ceiling. It is impressive and actually I think it is a beautiful tribute to all the monks who dedicated themselves to what they believed in.

We had quite a bit of time to have a look around, I keep taking photographs because the church is so beautiful. Once we leave I see the light coming through one of its windows, creating a palette of colour in the church. Everyone is outside, but I manage to quickly point it out to Filipe and we both take some photographs before leaving the church.

São Francisco (St Francis) church

We walk through the historical city centre that looks very cosy and atmospheric. There are lovely restaurants, terraces and shops with a large assortment of cork products (from postcards to wedding dresses). Évora is filled with narrow picturesque streets with beautiful buildings and beautiful relics from its history. We stand still now and then when Olga has a nice story to tell us. We pass the Roman temple, we have a look inside the university. Évora: you are really beautiful, I have to come back and take the time to see more. But right now we have to move on to our next stop, which is much too soon, but I am happy with what I saw this morning.

We stop for a delicious lunch in Hotel Évora, just outside the centre. We are having such a good time. I guess that is what I mean with being One Lucky Traveller: a beautiful destination, great company, lovely weather, tasty food and good wine… After lunch we drive to Monsaraz, we climb our way up with the minibus. We stop at the Cante Alentejano Monument. The people in Alentejo apparently sing like no other in the world, reason why UNESCO has recognised the cante as world heritage. This monument is to pay tribute to all those beautiful voices!

Cante Alentejano Monument

Monsaraz is one of Portugal’s most picturesque medieval villages, also on the UNESCO World Heritage List and it looks very enchanting. Less than 1000 people live here. Only a few cars are allowed to drive around and of course we discover the village by foot. Upon arrival guide Maria Gamado is waiting for us, who first takes us to a wine tasting. There we go again… OMG 😉 Ervideira Wine Shop has delicious wines and I wish (just like at Ravesquira) I could take a box home with me. After the wine tasting we walk through the village and Maria tells interesting stories while we stand in the fort, visit the Misericordia church, stroll through the streets with its white houses. Monsaraz is built on a hill and that means the view around us is spectacular. We have to say goodbye to Maria and move on once more. We leave peaceful Monsaraz at the end of the afternoon.

Our last stop today is Beja. On our way to Beja, we enjoy an amazing sunset! This means by the time we reach Beja is is evening and dark. Beja is the traditional capital of the Baixo Alentejo. It is an agricultural region in the deep south of this province. The hill on which the city is situated was often contested and occupied more often. Filipe tells us that Beja came under Muslim rule in the 8th century and was not fully recaptured by the Christians until the 13th century. In the meantime, it was almost completely destroyed by ongoing conflicts. We quickly stop to take have a look at a luxury Pousada Convento Beja. It is located in the old Convent of São Francisco in the city centre just 700 metres from the castle. The Pousada is the result of a majestic, architectural project that is representative of Portugal’s religious and Gothic architecture. The Pousada and its rooms have all the comfort you could want and what a great location! Before we leave we (of course) have a drink (OK, a glass of wine) with some tasty appetizers. Do we have to leave?

Sunset on the road to Beja

It is only about a half an hour drive to our overnight hotel Vila Galé Clube de Campo. We cannot see that much since it is really dark. We check in, the rooms are comfortable and we immediately get ready for dinner before the restaurant closes; we arrived really late. We chat away and go to sleep straight after; it was a day full of impressions. I absolutely enjoyed this day.

Day 3: from Beja to Lisbon

In the morning we wake up early! The sun is shining again. It is October, but the weather has just been amazing. I finally get to see where we are staying. When I wake up, I immediately open the door to the terrace and I see 2 hot air balloons flying by. I remember this from the promotional video we saw upon arrival. How I wish to be in that hot air balloon right now. The view must be spectacular.

We have breakfast together and after this the hotel manager gives us a tour around the property. I can see that there are so many facilities for the guests and that there are plenty of other activities besides the hot air balloon rides, such as horse riding and cycling. It is a comfortable hotel, just perfect for families. There is a lot of cultivation on the estate: we see all kinds of fruit trees, olive trees, vineyards and there is a petting zoo, riding school and a winery. Luckily we are not going to taste that early in the morning, but we do have a quick look. The icon of the petting zoo is the donkey Colombo. He is separated from the other animals, since he has quite an attitude. He makes everyone laugh and I end up taking some pretty portrait photographs.

We head towards the coast: YES! I cannot live without the sea. I manage for a couple of days, but then I really need to breathe in the salty sea air and hear the seagulls. I love going for long beach walks, always carrying my camera with me, collecting shells… on bare foot feeling the sand between my toes. So I am really happy right now. We arrive at Porto Covo, a pleasant and touristic coastal town, located on a beautiful stretch at the Atlantic Coast. The Alentejo really has it all! We walk through the centre, filled with restaurants, little shops… all buildings are in white and blue (my favourite colours). We end up at the beach where I immediately take off my shoes to dip my feet in the Atlantic Ocean. The beach on which I walk is beautiful! The waves are high and I do not manage to keep my feet dry, but I love it. There are fishermen on the rocks, the sun is shining and the waves make a wonderful noise. I do not want to leave any more…

But we do have to move on at some point. We take the coastal road towards our next stop, where we have lunch. It is only a 7 kilometre drive. The restaurant is called Arte e Sal and is separated from the beach only by a road. We get to eat a most delicious fresh fish meal, with all kinds of tasty side dishes and yes … the wine flows richly again! This is the good life! And I realize I will never take moment like this for granted.

During lunch I get an unexpected visit from my colleague’s parents. They are travelling through Portugal with their camper and are in the Alentejo region for a few days. They knew I was doing a promo trip around the same time they were going, but had no idea about our program. They saw the little bus outside and thought, let us stop and see if she is in there. What a coincidence. We have a quick chat before they move on. After lunch, I cannot resist walking on the beach for a while as do the others. The weather is just beautiful and I want to enjoy the sand under my feet and the sun on my face. I envy my colleagues parents. They are having the time of their life and literally they have so much more time to spend here.

Porto Covo/Sines, Atlantic Coast of Portugal

After half an hour we drive on to our last stop, which is Cais Palafítico da Carrasqueira. It is a two hundred year old fishing port, entirely made of wood and a home port for the fishermen from the area. We arrive there while it is low tide, so there is hardly any water and the boats are resting on dry land. We walk over the wooden jetties and admire the beautiful view while the sun is setting. What a beautiful place and what a great ending to this trip!

We drive back to Lisbon where we arrive around 8 pm. We actually do not leave tonight, but very early tomorrow morning we will return to Amsterdam. So we spend the night nearby the airport and have a quick bite in the hotel before we go to sleep; we need to get up at 4 in the morning. Our trip was short but very impressive. We sure got the most out of these 3 days. I will definitely go back to the Alentejo. You can actually combine your trip to the Alentejo with a city trip to Lisbon. And if you have more time (and money) on your hands, you can also start from the Algarve and drive from the through the Alentejo to Lisbon (or the other way around). Whatever you decide to do, just visit Alentejo and take your time!

Travel Blog by Elisabeth, One Lucky Traveller

October 8, 2015

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