PORTALEGRE is the capital, market centre and transport hub of Alto Alentejo, a busy commercial centre of around twenty thousand people in the foothills of the Serra de São Mamede. Despite its attractive whitewashed old quarter, it’s not the most appealing of the Alentejo’s towns, but it’s Portalegre’s industrial history that makes it warrant a visit. Until the end of the seventeenth century, the town was a major textiles centre, though the 1703 Methuen Treaty largely put paid to the trade. However, reminders of a prosperous past still survive and lend the town a certain character. The largest tapestry factory – once housed in a Jesuit college in the lower town – has been beautifully restored as city council offices, while the great brick twin chimneys at the very top of town belong to the Fábrica Robinson, a cork factory originally established by an enterprising Yorkshireman (there are plans to turn this into a cultural centre).
All roads converge on the Rossio, the nineteenth-century square with a fountain that’s at the heart of modern Portalegre. Beyond here the town gardens flank Avenida da Liberdade, the lower part featuring a renowned plane tree (plátano), planted in 1848, whose spreading branches are now so long they have to be supported by pillars. The old town is reached up steep cobbled streets lined with grand mercantile mansions, a legacy of the wealth from silk workshops and textile factories that once thrived here.