The Alentejo covers a huge area, almost a third of the country, stretching south from the Rio Tejo to the northern mountain ranges of the Algarve – the name derives from the words além do Tejo, beyond the Tejo River. This is Portugal’s garden, the bulk of the region given over to huge cork plantations, wheat fields and vineyards – and though much of it is flat, the region repays exploration, offering unexpected surprises, from ancient dolmens and superbly sited castles to Roman ruins and sweeping Atlantic beaches. Much of the population make a living from the huge agricultural estates known as latifúndios, which are handed down from generation to generation – many have been in existence since Roman times. The vast farms are generally wildlife friendly – the Alentejo is home to hundreds of species of bird, from black stork to great bustard, as well as wild boar.
For most visitors, the region’s major draws are its towns, two of which have UNESCO World Heritage status: the spectacular fortified town of Elvas, and Évora, whose Roman temple, medieval walls and cathedral have put it firmly on the tourist circuit. Elsewhere in Alto Alentejo (Upper Alentejo), you’ll find the dazzling hilltop villages of Monsaraz and Marvão, and the marble towns of Estremoz and Vila Viçosa, where the local marble quarries have given an opulent look to many of the buildings.
South of Évora, in the plains of Baixo Alentejo (Lower Alentejo), the attractions lie further apart and can be difficult to see without a car. However, there are some good overnight targets, including the main town of Beja, as well as nearby Serpa, Moura and Mértola, all enjoyable historic towns with a wealth of good accommodation. The coast, too, is an unexpected joy. Only a few small resorts – prime among them Vila Nova de Milfontes – attract summer crowds, but the beaches are superb and you can reach them all by public transport.Read More
The art of wine-making in the Alentejo was already well established when the Romans occupied the country’s vineyards, but it is only relatively recently that Alentejan wines have become widely recognized as some of the best in Europe. Many of the region’s vineyards were torn up in the eighteenth century to protect the newly demarcated port wines from the Douro region, while during the last century the Salazar regime encouraged farmers to replace their vines with wheat. It was only in the 1970s that wine co-operatives were re-established, and heavy investment in modern wine-making techniques saw the quality rise dramatically. What makes the wines stand out from elsewhere is that they are made from local grape varieties which thrive in the harsh soils: Touriga Nacional, Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet, Trincadeira and Periquita for the reds; and Antão Vaz, Arinto and Roupeiro for the whites. The region’s cool winters, warm summers and perfect conditions for ripening grapes give the wines a full-bodied if youngish flavour. Many of the producers allow visits (usually around €6, which includes tastings), where you can find out about the wines, then sample them over dinner – several of the vineyards have restaurants as well as tasting rooms – while the larger ones, such as the Herdade dos Grous, offer tours of their estate by jeep or even horseback. The best place to start is the headquarters of the Rota dos Vinhos do Alenejo (wvinhosdoalentejo.pt) in Évora, which can arrange tours to most of the nearby vineyards. Recommended estates to visit include Esporão; Quinta do Carmo near Estremoz (wbacalhoa.com), which is part-owned by the Lafite Rothschild group; and Adega Mayor (wadegamayor.pt) in the Serra de São Mamede, whose landmark heaquarters is a stunning white edifice designed by Portugal’s most famous architect, Álvaro Siza Viera.
While travelling through the southern Alentejo, you’ll pass mile upon mile of cork oak groves – so it may come as no surprise to learn that the district provides around fifty percent of the world’s entire supply of cork. It has been an important Portuguese export since the late nineteenth century and a major crop for over seven hundred years.
Cork (quercus suber) consists of a layer of spongy cells called phellogen that appear under the bark during the first year of growth. The cells grow radially outwards to form a durable, impermeable material with excellent thermal properties – it’s ideal to guard the tree against pests, fire and extremes of temperature, and also ideal as a material for humans to exploit. Importantly, the cork tree is also able to regenerate itself when a layer of cork is removed throughout the tree’s life (usually over a hundred years) – and each regenerated layer is thicker than its predecessor. Using a curved axe, cork farmers are therefore able to strip away rectangular layers of cork every nine years, the time it takes for the cork layers to be 4–6cm thick – ideal for wine stoppers. The world’s most productive cork tree, the 230-year-old Whistler Tree, in the northern Alentejo, has produced enough corks to stop up 100,000 bottles from a single harvest.
Cork trees cannot be harvested until they are at least 25 years old, and as a result, cork groves tend to be superb habitats for wildlife. Unfortunately this self-sustaining crop is under threat because of the growth in plastic and screw-top wine stoppers, forcing many farmers to rip up the cork groves for more viable crops, and destroying ancient habitats in the process.
The sounds of the Alentejo
The sounds of the Alentejo
Every summer, you can enjoy two of Europe’s top music fesitvals on the Alentejo coast. The otherwise missable town of Sines hosts Portugal’s biggest festivals of world music every July. The Festival Músicas do Mundo (wfmm.com.pt) has taken place annually since 1999, with a main stage alongside the town castle and other events held at the beach or the Arts Centre. Folk, traditional sounds and jazz predominate and recent acts have included American jazz trio The Bad Plus, Mali singer Oumou Sangaré and Bilan from Cape Verde. Day-tickets are a modest €15 or so.
Just down the coast at Zambujeira do Mar is the Festival Sudoeste (wswtmn.com), usually held in mid-August. An annual event since 1997, the festival turns this sleepy coastal resort into a mecca for up to 30,000 music lovers. Three stages are set up for four days of concerts which, in recent years, have included sets by the likes of The Prodigy, Madness, Jessie J and the Ting Tings. One of the stages is dedicated to reggae. Camping is free on the site during the four days, or you can buy a day-ticket which is usually around €50.