Discover more places in Portugal
- Alcácer do Sal
- Vila Nova de Milfontes
The Alentejo, a region in southern Portugal, covers a huge area of around a third of the country, stretching south from the Rio Tejo to the northern mountain ranges of the Algarve. The name, Alentejo, 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 wild boar and hundreds of species of bird, from black stork to great bustard.
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 Moura, Serpa and Mértola, all enjoyable historic towns with a wealth of 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.
Many of the producers allow visits, 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 Alentejo in Évora, which can arrange tours to most of the nearby vineyards. Recommended estates to visit include Esporão; Quinta do Carmo near Estremoz, which is part-owned by the Lafite Rothschild group; and Adega Mayor in the Serra de São Mamede, whose landmark heaquarters is a stunning white edifice designed by Portugal’s most famous architect, Álvaro Siza Viera.
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.
Just down the coast at Zambujeira do Mar is the Festival Sudoeste, usually held in mid-August. An annual event since 1997, the festival turns this sleepy coastal resort into a mecca for up to thirty thousand 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, Wiz Khalifa, Jessie J and the Ting Tings. One of the stages is dedicated to reggae.
The vibrant Monday market (held on alternate weeks) is another big attraction, held just outside town behind the aqueduct. Otherwise, the town’s main annual bash is its week-long Festa de São Mateus, starting on September 20 and including the largest procession in southern Portugal.
Four thousand years ago, the region around Monsaraz was an important centre of megalithic culture, and various dolmens (covered temples or tombs), menhirs (standing stones) and stone circles survive today. An hour and a half’s driving circuit takes in most of these, and if you throw in lunch and a vineyard visit at nearby Reguengos that’s a good day out.
The discovery of naturally carbonated thermal springs in the late nineteenth century prompted Moura’s eventual prosperity; the spa water still dribbles from the Fonte das Três Bicas (Fountain of Three Spouts), but the spa no longer operates. Nevertheless, the adjacent Jardim Doutor Santiago gardens make a pleasant place to stroll, with lots of shady trees. West of here rises the Manueline Igreja de São João Baptista, with the entrance to the castle beyond, just past the large market building.
The government 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 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. Small marinas have also been built to provide watersports and boat trips.
A visit to Serpa's local Tourist Office will leave you with various options, such as guided walks and bicycle tours, hot-air balloon rides and nocturnal activities such as guided star-gazing, thanks to the distant location of Serpa providing a clear view of the night skies.
Mértola’s history goes back as far as Phoenician times, when it was an important river port, and it was later fortified and expanded by both Romans (as Myrtilis) and Moors (Martulah), before being taken by Dom Sancho II in 1238 as part of the Christian Reconquest. With the walled town occupying such a small area, successive conquerors and settlers simply built on what they found, which provides Mértola with its current fascination – the evidence of thousands of years of habitation visible in almost every building and street.
The inland alternative is the Caminho Histórico (Historic Way) which follows ancient pilgrimage routes from Santiago do Cacém, mostly inland, to Cabo de São Vicente. Be aware that, as with all Portuguese trails, way-marking can be sporadic and poorly maintained, so if you tackle the path, take a good map or GPS system – but it is worth the effort, as the routes embrace some of the loveliest scenery in the country. Full details are on rotavicentina.com, which also includes five shorter, circular alternatives.
The town’s long, sandy river beach lies just a few minutes’ walk to the west. Swimmers need to be aware of the strong river currents – the town beach has roped-off swimming areas that you should heed – and even more so at the beaches either side of town, where the breakers can be fierce. Swim close to the locals who know the waters well, and you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Even though the town beach is spacious, it gets busy in high season, when you might want to take the ferry from the jetty at the foot of the castle across the estuary to Furnas, a long, sandy beach also accessible off the main coast road.
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.
With a car or a bike you can also spend an enjoyable day tracking down dolmens, menhirs and antas, which are the remains of an important megalithic culture that once flourished between the modern-day settlements of Castelo de Vide, the Barragem de Póvoa and the village of Póvoa e Meadas, 10km to the north. The turismo has useful leaflets and more information.
Featured Image, Alentejo © Pixel to the People / Shutterstock