Few of the local wine towns south of Santarém stand up to a visit in their own right, but if you’re not in a hurry the drive down the N3 towards Vila Franca and Lisbon isn’t a bad one. Many vineyards offer tours and tastings and they are all signposted from the road. The drive below can occupy half a day, with lunch taken in either of the two prettiest towns, Alenquer or Arruda dos Vinhos.
Wine has been produced on the banks of the Tejo for around two thousand years and, while it’s long had a reputation for quantity rather than quality, the offerings of some new producers have recently begun to acquire an international profile. At CARTAXO, the self-declared “capital do vinho” 14km south of Santarém, the Museu Rural e do Vinho is the single best place to investigate the subject. It’s housed in the signposted Quinta das Pratas, a municipal park and sports complex on the town outskirts, and as well as the exhibits you can taste and buy the local wines.
AZAMBUJA, 13km to the southwest, is known for its reds made from the Periquita grape, though the town itself isn’t worth a stop. However, for a true off-the-beaten-track sight, follow the signs to the Vala de Azambuja, a 26-kilometre-long canal built parallel to the river by the Marquês de Pombal, designed to drain the land when the Tejo was in flood. Three kilometres up a dirt road (fine for cars; signposted “Palácio”) stand the forlorn ruins of the Palácio das Obras Novas, used as a staging post for the steamers plying the route from Lisbon to Constância in the nineteenth century.
At Carregado, the N3 meets the N1, and offers a choice of routes further into the rolling hills. Five kilometres north, and perched on a hill above the Alenquer river, ALENQUER mainly produces lemony flavoured white wines. Traffic chokes the main road alongside the river, but it’s an enjoyable climb up to the attractive upper town, where you can visit the Manueline cloisters of the church and convent of São Francisco, the oldest Franciscan house in Portugal, built during the lifetime of St Francis of Assisi.
However, it is in the valleys around ARRUDA DOS VINHOS, 13km west of Carregado, that the region’s vineyards are at their most attractive. It’s a pretty town, too, with an enormous eighteenth-century public fountain and handsome Manueline church, but is top-heavy with restaurants and real-estate agents, both the consequence of the weekend influx of Lisboans.Read More