The Alentejo covers approximately one third of Portugal, occupying most of the area to the east of Lisbon. It is the least populated region in the country and features picturesque villages, roads shaded by canopies of eucalyptus trees, rolling hills covered with olive groves, and wide stretches of plains. Monoliths and megaliths dot the landscape and the smooth line of the horizon is often broken by walled cities perched upon hills, sentinels to the past.
Since the 1940s the Pousadas of Portugal, state owned and operated inns, have provided an excellent value to the traveler. Most were palaces, national buildings or family estates and now offer first class accommodations, as well as being historically rich and fascinating places to stay. There are over 40 throughout Portugal.
This lovely town of Arraiolos, famous for its hand made carpets, surrounds a 14th. century castle and the 16th. century Igreja do Salvador (church). The whitewashed homes are trimmed in blue to ward off evil spirits. The roofs are red tiled resulting in a lovely blending of colors. We stayed at the nearby Pousada de Arraiolos. Nestled in an isolated valley, it is a completely restored 16th. century monastery, blending traditional and modern concepts of Portuguese architecture. The pastels and earth tones are striking. It is comfortable and very modern. The Pousada is surrounded by a garden fence and streams that run through the valley. Activities include swimming, tennis, and horseback riding. One can arrange for a shooting party for rabbit, hare, grouse and partridge. Also available are bike tours, canoeing, and hot air balloon rides.
We had a romantic and elegant dinner in the Pousada’s restaurant. A strolling guitar player and violinist entertained the diners. We enjoyed fresh green salad, gazpacho, monkfish, and lamb. Local wines were featured and we completed our meal with espresso and port. Not many of the staff spoke English, but everyone tried their best to make us comfortable. This was typical of the our treatment throughout Portugal.
At sunrise the next morning, just outside the Pousada perimeter, a herd of grazing sheep woke us with their bleating. It was a first in all of our travels! A sumptuous breakfast buffet, included in the rate, was served. Freshly squeezed juices, local fruit, homemade breads, eggs, sweet honey cakes, and pastries were beautifully presented in the airy dining room. It was a pleasant and civilized way to start the day.
Then we were off for a tour of the Alentejo. We went to Azaruja and saw cork bark from oak trees drying in huge stacks. We met a local artisan who showed us through his home workshop. He presented us with small cork baskets as souvenirs and then he used his knife to spear figs from his backyard tree. We ate a some of the sweet figs with him and he insisted we take more for our day trip. Then we left for Evoramonte, another of the many, charming “castle towns” that dot the landscape of Portugal. From there we stopped in Estermoz at the Pousada da Rainha Santa, featuring beautiful antiques and radiating old world charm and ambiance. It was market day at the Rossio (main square) and we strolled “window shopping” the tables laden with fresh vegetables and fruits, food products, and local crafts all displayed in the stalls. We ate fried mackerel and black figs and picked up “carry out” for dinner. Of note: There is a Tourism Office in town.
On the way to Redondo, we stopped in a small village and had lunch at O Chana, a tiny family-run restaurant. The grandmother cooked while her grown children served us. Grandchildren ran in and out of the combination store/restaurant with their friends. Our first course consisted of cheese, olives, bread and wine. We then ate lamb chops, a bean and pork casserole and finished with melon, more cheese and port for dessert. It was a memorable travel experience.
Next we drove to Vila Vicosa, another castle town, and saw the marble quarry. Portugal is the world`s second largest exporter of marble, mined in the area since Roman times. We visited the Pousada there and toured the lovely Paco (Palace) Ducal. The kitchen with its huge cooking fireplace and enormous copper pots and pans was our favorite room. Then we were off to Redondo where we visited an artist’s studio and bought pottery, for which they are famous, for gifts and our home. We stopped at the mysterious monoliths outside of Mourao and then continued on to the ancient walled city of Monsaraz. We were in time to see the local marching band performing prior to a bullfight. We saw rug weavers, bought wine at the co-op, met Mizette Nelson, the author of A Short Trip in the Alentejo, and visited her rug/craft shop featuring local weavers’ work. Next stop was a megalith outside Anta and then back to Arraiolos. It was an exhausting but informative day. Dinner that evening consisted of figs from our cork carver friend’s tree and fabulous juicy tomatoes, wine, cheese and bread from the outdoor market. We relaxed on our balcony, eating while the sun set and the valley cooled down.
As busy as the day before had been, that was how wonderfully slow paced and leisurely our next day was in Evora, considered by many to be Portugal’s foremost showpiece of medieval architecture. Driving into town we were surprised to see a five mile section of a Roman aqueduct, built in the 16th century, a reminder of the historical significance of the region. When we arrived in the walled city of Evora, an antique fair was being held in the main square, Praca do Giraldo. All sorts of tools, knick-knacks, and garage sale items were displayed on carts, blankets, and table tops. As we continued exploring the streets, we found wonderful painted ceramics, curios, cork carvings and other local crafts on Rua 5 de Outubro. We stopped at the food market to pick up local cheese, bread, figs, wine, tomatoes, peaches and a pastry for dinner. We walked among the Roman columns and visited the Pousada in Evora, Convento dos Loios (previously a convent), which has been given the “World Heritage” title by UNESCO. The Museu de Evora is not to be missed. It is a 16th century palace, once the principal residence of both regional governors and bishops. Now it features an eclectic sampling of modern art and a photo history of Portugal’s most famous Fado singer, Amalia. Fado, translated as “fate,” is the Portuguese equivalent of our blues. The Fado singer is accompanied by a mandolin shaped, 8-10 or 12 stringed “guitarra” as well as standard classical guitar. We toured the Se Cathedral, built between 1186 and 1204, featuring asymmetrical towers, one turreted and the other topped by a blue cone. Probably one of the most remarkable sites is the Sao Francisco, a 15th century church, which contains the Capela dos Ossis or Chapel of Bones. This chapel was built using the bones of 5,000 monks! Walls are lined with femurs, skulls, and other body bones. Very macabre!
Oporto, meaning “the port,” is simply called Porto by the locals. It is the country’s second largest city and was designated as a “European City of Culture” for 2001. We stayed at the award winning Hotel Infante Sagres. This classic 74 room, five star European hotel features 18th and 19th century artwork, an intimate bar, a wonderful restaurant (breakfast is included in the rate) and a well trained, helpful staff. Its location is perfect for walking and touring this terrific city. Porto is located on the Douros River, a major commercial waterway. The riverfront is known as the Ribera district and features narrow streets, wonderful restaurants, nightclubs, and a distinct charm. Beautiful facades, tile work and even the brightly colored laundry hanging from the balconies adds to the flavor. Gaia, across the Douro River from the Ribiera, is the location of the port manufacturers, growers, co-ops, and shippers of the immensely profitable wine trade of Portugal. There are over 80 port lodges in Oporto! Our choice for a wine tour was the Sandeman Lodge established in 1790. Its distinctive bottle label is noted for the wide-brimmed hat and cape silhouette of “the Don” who has appeared on every bottle of their port for over 65 years. The educational tour features the history of port and Sandeman, a slide show, a guided walk through of the caves, and a generous tasting of their various ports and vintages. Over 100,000 visitors a year go through the facility.
The next day, we contacted the National Union of Guides for a personal tour. Information about this service is available at the Tourism Offices throughout Portugal. The guides are licensed and the benefits are worth the expense, but be prepared to walk. We found ourselves led back to the place we started, the train station! The Sao Bento train station, in the middle of town, is a “working” museum. The beautiful blue and white tiles on the walls depict historical scenes and festivals. The rest of our day included the site seeing highlights of Porto, including the Se Cathedral which was built during the 12th. and 13th. centuries. Clerigos is a great stop for the hearty; climb the 240 steps (about 250 feet) for an unparalleled view of the city. Although built in the 18th century, it is still one of the tallest buildings in the country. We stopped at the Lello & Irmao Bookshop which dates back to 1869 and has over 60,000 titles; don’t miss this place! Another one of my “don’t miss” suggestions is a visit to the Palaciao da Bolsa, the historical stock exchange. The fabulous Arabian room is unlike anything I have ever seen. Inspired by the Alhambra in Granada, this salon is gilded in gold and ornately decorated in an Arabian motif that was the rage of the day when built in 1842. Next we went to Sao Francisco featuring a gold covered 18th century high altar leading up to the Tree of Jesse, a carved family tree of Jesus. The cathedral is a montage of cherubim carved into the pillars and columns. We crossed the two tiered Ponte de Dom Luis I (built by Eiffel) to Gaia and viewed the 14th century Fernandine Walls. It was a great travel day, enhanced by the guide and her historical knowledge and cultural insights of Porto.
On day three, we were on our on to explore and wander. We found our way back to the riverfront (it’s easy, walk downhill!). By all means don’t miss a Duoro River cruise. The Douro is the longest River in Northern Portugal. We loved the Five Bridges cruise, which takes 50 minutes and includes passing under all five river bridges along the river front and cruising by Fisherman’s Beach. Look for the English speaking cruise offered by Dourocima. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for a longer cruise, although seven different ones are offered including a two day excursion. There are also day trips and overnight tours by train and boat up the Douro River and through the Valley to view the terraced banks where the port grapes are grown. The rest of our day was spent exploring alleyways, side streets and local markets offering dried cod (the national dish), fresh fruits and vegetables, and local crafts. They are great places to pick up cheese, bread, pastries, wine, and meats for an inexpensive meal and gifts to bring home.
Inescapably, it was time to depart Portugal. The AeroBus in Porto travels between the airport and city center and is available at no extra charge for TAP (Air Portugal) passengers. It’s free and easy; a nice way to end a vacation in a great country! This service is also available in Lisbon.
Here are some travel tips before you go.
The Portuguese National Tourist Office has brochures, travel information and is extremely helpful. Contact them prior to traveling for planning purposes and stay at Pousadas when you can, they are a unique experience. Take a list of Portugal’s Tourist Offices; they are an invaluable resource. The local tourist offices keep lists of working craftspeople and information including the location of their studios and workshops. Wickerwork and cork crafts can be found throughout the region, and various towns specialize in such merchandise as embroidery, carpets, pottery, ceramics and tiles, leather, copper and lace. It’s a great place to find presents and decorate your home.
Mizette Nielson’s guidebook, A Short Trip to the Alentejo, What to do and Where to Stay is an invaluable resource. Hotels have been inspected and restaurants visited. This is a American woman who loves the Alentejo, its way of life, people and culture. Her book is, according to the author, “the first comprehensive guide dedicated to this corner of the Alentejo.”
The train system is punctual, inexpensive and the agents are very helpful routing you.
Money hints: The US dollar goes a long way in Portugal making it one of the best values in Europe. Currently the Escudo trades at approximately 230 to the dollar. Give your credit card company a heads up about your foreign travel. They get suspicious if your card suddenly starts charging out of the country. Also make certain your pin number has only four digits (no letters). Both of these tips can save you a lot of trouble.
While you are at the riverfront in Porto, eat at Cozina Tipica Portuguesa. Fair prices, great food, bountiful portions and a great view from the upstairs dining area.
Here are some websites to help you plan your trip.
Eyewitness Travel Guides Portugal Edition is a must; look at your bookstore or online at www.dk.com
Pousadas de Portugal can be found at www.pousads.pt and seasonal discounts are available online. They are a unique travel experience.
The Portuguese National Airline (TAP) website is www.airportugal.pt
Sandeman Port Lodge: www.sandeman.com. Their caves and the tours are educational, interesting and the ports are wonderful. Although there is a small tasting fee, it is reimbursed with any purchase.
Douro River trips: www.cenarios.com . Look for the English speaking cruise offered by Dourocima; cost 1,500 Escudos per person.
Don’t miss the Arabian Room! www.palaciobolsa.pt
A great place to stay in Porto: www.hotelinfantesagres.pt for rates and to make reservation requests.