Portugal. A well known and popular destination. However most of us have been usually going for a weekend in Lisbon, walks around the streets of Porto or sunbathing on the beaches of Algarve. Am I right? 🙂 Sometimes Madera, if you’re feeling like going somewhere where it’s warm in autumn or winter, or for a honeymoon without having to fly the other end of the world. And who of you have ever checked Alentejo? Since we always liked to go upstream – going to the North of Spain instead of South, to Normandy instead of French Riviera and constantly looking for everything off the beaten track – Alentejo was our first choice in Portugal.
Alentejo which literally means The Land behind Tagus (Tagus river) covers 1/3 of Portugal’s surface and spreads from Atlantic ocean in the West to the border with Spain in the East. This region is stunning when it comes to views, white little towns which seem to go to sleep during siesta, peace and quiet – there’s only 10% of Portuguese people living here! If you travel East, towards Evora, Monsaraz or Portalegre, you will findreal Portougal, untouched by mass tourism and concrete hotels. That’s precisely what we’ve been looking for! We also found delicious food and on some occasions, we opened our eyes wide when we encountered restaurants with great vibe and food on European capitals level in inconspicuous, tiny and empty towns.
1) CHARMING TOWNS
There’s a few gems in Alentejo which you just have to visit and without seeing which you simply cannot say ‘I’ve been to Alentejo!’. However, there’s also plenty of little towns which seem inconspicuous yet they let you feel the magic of the region. Our favourite spots surely include Estremoz or Portalegre which stun with yellow house foundations and picturesque views. It’s also worth stopping in places like Vila Vicosa for a moment – quiet, peaceful where you get the impression that all people do is talk and drink coffee.
I always loved southern little towns where the life perishes midday, during siesta. I know that it may be irritating at times… shops are closed, restaurants are having a break, banks, offices – everything is closed. But for me there’s some irresistible charm about it. Respect for the free time, for yourself – a chance to relax and to eat a small lunch at home. These are places where you celebrate life. Simple, no unusual impressions but inspiring in their simplicity. Try it sometime. In Alentejo if you get the opportunity! Here there’s another explanation for siesta – the temperature. It gets really hot inland – as much as 35-40 degrees! The Portuguese from Alentejo rest during the day, work in the evening, meet, go for walks and play (children) until late night.
3) KUCHNIA I WINO ALENTEJO
We weren’t huge fans of Portuguese cuisine before we went to Alentejo. We have always valued Portugal for great fish and seafood – in Warsaw you can try them at Fish Lovers market – they import their products directly from Portugal. Yet, no restaurant managed to amaze us during our last trip to Porto in 2011. That’s why our expectations were quite low. But we changed our minds right on the first day: cuisine of Alentejo is absolutely amazing! You can read more about our first day and first lunch HERE.
Plenty of fish (including the famous bacalhau – cod), cold soups perfect for the heat such as gaspacho a la alentejanaor a cold melon soup with dried ham as well as cheese which deserves a separate column. Traditional meals such as migas or desserts that add to Alentejo’s charm (you can read more about those HERE). And if you add the fact that it’s easy to find a high quality restaurant in city like Gadanha Mercearia in Estremoz you’ll get the picture of a perfect destination for foodies! Be sure to try goat’s cheese with pears and nuts as well as perfect octopus with potatoes – best one I had! Ever!
Dinners go best with local wine obviously. What’s interesting, people in Alentejo all drink red wine cold. That’s their way of fighting with tiring heat. And you know what? It tastes godly! Try it whenever you have to face terrible heat! 🙂
4) PORTUGUESE CHEESE
I fell in love with this cheese in December 2004. I was 4 months pregnant and we went for our first, long-awaited plane trip to Lisbon – one of my favourite places. I ate this cheese like mad since pretty much all the restaurants serve bread, butter, olives and cheese – sliced or in a ring. Sometimes it’s harder and intense, sometimes soft and creamy – you spread it on your bread. I love both. Thanks o this cheese I can even let the Portuguese get away with extra money charged for it. Bread and cheese usually costs extra 2-5 euro. If you don’t want it, tell them right away. But be sure to try it for lunch or dinner like the locals do 🙂
5) MARVAO AND MONSARAZ
Two cities that absolutely need to be seen. Two places worth coming here in the first place. We started our journey through Alentejo fromMarvão and ended it with Monsaraz. We still can’t decide which did we like more. Both are former fortresses which made thm perfect attraction for Maks – you know, CASTLES!. Especially in Marvão where he could go for a little ‘hike’ and see the views of the neighbourhood. The city is located at 862 mamsl and you can even see Spain from there. Both places are amazing with all its tiny alleys, white houses, peace and quiet.
Évora is one of the must sees in Alentejo, even in Portugal. It’s the capital of Alto Alentejo and the biggest city in the region (56 thousand inhabitants). It is mainly known for beautifully preserved Temple of Diana left from the times of Roman Empire as well as Romanesque cathedral (Sé) with beautiful sculptures and impressive interior. However for us it didn’t look as stunning as the little gems. Yet it’s still worth a visit! For a quiet walk for instance!
Azulejos is one of the things Portugal is famous for. These are distinct blue tiles which can be found EVERYWHERE! Sometimes whole tenement houses are covered with these blue azulejos. I love them and they instantly remind me of something nice. When I entered Daleko Blisko cafe in OFF Piotrkowska in Łódź last weekend and saw that kind of blue tiles with Portuguese writing on them in the bathroom I instantly thought about the time spent in Alentejo. Names of the streets are made from azulejos, holy images and building facades too. Maks loved them and searched for new ones during our walks in Alentejo. All sorts of azulejos imitations are among the most popular Portuguese souvenirs.
8) OLIVE TREES AND CORK OAKS
Cork oaks and olive trees are some of the most distinct elements of Alentejo landscape. It’s not called the most agricultural area of Portugal for nothing! In Horta de Maura in Alentejo near Monsaraz you will find one of the oldest olive trees in Portugal. It’s more than 2450 years olf and still produces olives which are then transformed into olive oil. If you stay for the night there, you will have the opportunity to try it as well as intriguing food served in Horta de Maura, perfect for hot days.
9) COLOURFUL POTTERY
Alentejo is known not only for azulejos but also for beautiful and colourful pottery. You will find it on picturesque stands in Evora and Monsaraz. It’s worth buying some for home or as a git for somebody close. Such travel addition to the kitchen always makes me happy – we’ve been using little sauce bowls from Istanbul for many years now.
10) STAYING IN UNUSUAL PLACES
We spent 3 nights in Alentejo. Each in a different place. Each in an intriguing place that we will remember for a long time. We spent our first night in O Poejo in Santo Antonio das Areias near Marvão. A tiny hotel or rather a guesthouse situated by one of the main streets of the town, where you won’t meet anybody at night while in the morning old gentlemen come out for some coffee and gossip. An ordinary place but with an owner who knows EVERYTHING about Alentejo, draws maps and shows you where you should go.
Casa do Terreiro do Poço in Borba is a place that’s worth mentioning thanks to very original rooms which are taken care of personally by the owners – Rita and João. They import the furniture and decorations from various places of the world. In their hotel you can stay in a room perfect for a traveller, but also in one for a gourmand or a cooking enthusiast – in a former kitchen an oven became a shelf, there are pots hanging on the walls along with large spoons. Remarkable vibe! On hot days you can also jump into the nearby pool.
Last place was something different – far from tiny hotels with a soul. Ecorkhotel is a large hotel where you can’t really talk with the owners while eating breakfast yet it’s still worth remembering. It’s a so called ecohotel where cork place the leading role. Guests stay in houses surrounded by olive trees and cork oaks. The restaurants advantage is the beautiful view which makes you feel like on savannah, especially with sheep grazing around who often come close to the fence. Add great food at the restaurant and the pool on the roof and you’ll get just the spot1 A perfect place – especially to rest a little bit after intense travelling around Alentejo. Just have a walk, take a bath in the pool or see the are on a bike.
11) CROMELEQUE DO ALMENDRES
Cromeleque do Almendres are the best preserved stone circles on Iberian Peninsula and the one of the biggest in Europe. The circle consists of as much as 95 vertical stones – menhirs. Supposedly, the mysterious rocks are from 6th century BC, even though they were discovered quite recently – in the 60s.
12) BREATHTAKING VIEWS AND WILD BEACHES
Alentejo is a place with truly amazing views. It’s one of those lands where you want to stop to take some pictures all the time. Breath in the beauty, admire it, love it. We loved the views around Monsaraz, Sao Mamede hills, large and empty spaces and white houses. There are also… beaches in Alentejo. Beautiful and wild. Completely different than the ones in Algarve. Unfortunately we haven’t seen the beaches but after seeing Alenejo I guess they must have their own charm as well!!! 🙂
Think about Alentejo as a place for unusual vacation or for a trip if you’re visiting Lisbon (approx. 200 km)
* You can fly to Portugal with Wizzair – to Lisbon twice a week. One way ticket costs PLN 369.
* We visited Alentejo thanks to Visit Alentejo.