The sparsely populated plains of the Alentejo are overwhelmingly agricultural, dominated by vast cork and olive plantations. The region covers a huge area, almost a third of the whole 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. Though the interior can be unexciting, the region repays exploration, offering unexpected surprises – from superbly sited castles and remote walled towns to Roman ruins and sweeping Atlantic beaches. Much of the population make a living from the huge agricultural estates known as latifúndios. Handed down from generation to generation, many have been in place since Roman times. Modernization has improved some farms, but many farmers remain some of the poorest in Europe. At least the farms are generally wildlife friendly – the Alentejo is home to hundreds of species of birds, from black storks to great bustards.
For most visitors, the region’s major draws are its towns and cities, with the outstanding attraction being Évora, whose Roman temple, medieval walls and cathedral have put it very much on the tourist map. Elsewhere in Alto Alentejo (Upper Alentejo), few towns see more than a handful of visitors a day. Yet there is much to see and enjoy: the spectacular fortifications of Elvas; the district capital of Portalegre; the hilltop villages of Monsaraz, Castelo de Vide and Marvão; and the marble towns of Estremoz and Vila Viçosa, where even the humblest homes are made of fine stone from the local quarries. This region is also scattered with prehistoric remains, including over a dozen megalithic sites with dolmens, standing stones and stone circles.
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 – limited daily bus departures mean spending nights in places you might otherwise simply stop in for a couple of hours. 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. An alternative route from Évora via minor roads to Beja would take you Viana do Alentejo and Alvito, both small towns of some charm. Approaching the Alentejo from Lisbon and Setúbal, the obvious route south is to take the motorway, which loops around the Rio Sado estuary. A good stop is the old port of Alcácer do Sal and the northern Alentejo coast. Heading inland, Beja is a straight run to the southeast, while motorway and highway speed south through parched tracts of wheat fields towards the central Algarve. The highlight of this side of the Alentejo, though, is its long Atlantic coastline, west of Santiago do Cacém. Resorts such as Porto Covo, Vila Nova de Milfontes and Zambujeira do Mar provide an attractive alternative to the summer crowds on the Algarve. Their only disadvantage is their exposure to the Atlantic winds, which at times create huge breakers and dangerous swimming conditions.Read More
The Barragem de Alqueva
The Barragem de Alqueva
In February 2002 the floodgates opened on the controversial Barragem de Alqueva (Alqueva Dam), a project started decades ago under the Salazar regime. At 250 square kilometres (of which 69 square kilometres are in Spain), it’s created Europe’s largest reservoir from the waters of the Rio Gaudiana and several tributaries, with the aim to provide reliable irrigation in this arid region and provide jobs in the agricultural and tourism industries. There are many who still lament the destruction of over a million oak and cork trees in its construction and the resulting threats to the habitats of golden eagles and the even rarer Iberian lynx, plus the submerging of over 200 prehistoric sites. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the former village of Luz on the east bank of the Guadiana, now submerged, were relocated to a facsimile village above the waterline which, despite similarities of appearance, has become something of a failed experiment, the younger villagers having left and the older ones deeply dissatisfied.
The government, in turn, points to the benefits of the dam, not least the hydroelectric plant, switched on in 2004, which provides enough electricity to supply the Évora and Beja districts combined. Smooth new roads also now radiate from the dam, which has become something of a tourist attraction in its own right, the deep waters lapping on one side, a sheer drop on the other. A little beyond the car park here is a Centro de Informação, which details how the dam was built and how it powers the area, as well as providing information on boat trips you can take on the waters themselves.