Known as “Portugal’s Tuscany,” the Alentejo plains are dominated by vineyards, olive groves, picturesque hilltop white-washed towns, and fortresses – all less than two hours from Lisbon.
They say in Alentejo, that even time takes its time. As one drives through the endless wheat fields and gently undulating plains of Portugal’s largest yet least populated region, the overwhelming desire is to cast one’s watch and worries aside.
Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon recommends spring as the perfect time to go to Alentejo, where the baking sun dictates the pace of life, no one’s in a hurry. Dominated by vineyards and fields of half-naked cork-oak trees and olive groves, the wild scenery is occasionally interrupted by a small white-washed town clustered on a hill or by an austere hilltop fortress. To the visitor, this sleepy yet rich and diverse landscape feels like undiscovered territory, and perfect road trip country.
Across Lisbon’s suspension bridge, Ponte Sobre o Tejo, and less than two hours away, Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, widely considered to be one of Portugal’s most beautiful towns. It is packed with treasures that include Neolithic monuments – the famous Cromlech of Almendres, often called the Stonehenge of Portugal; the 2,000-year-old Roman Temple of Évora, one of the finest Roman monuments on the Iberian peninsula; a 12th century cathedral where the flags of Vasco da Gama’s ships were blessed prior to his journey to India; a 16th-century aqueduct leading north-west out of the city that can be walked for eight kilometres (five miles); plus numerous Renaissance and Gothic churches, squares, palaces and museums. If one dares, the macabre 15th century Capela de Ossos (Chapel of Bones), lined with thousands of bones and skulls is not to be missed, but is not for the faint-hearted.
Four Seasons guests may also choose to visit the region’s small towns, many of which are on hilltops – the baroque Montemor-o-Novo; Vila Viçosa, site of the austere marmoreal Ducal Palace; the fortress town of Elvas; hilly Estremoz with its small whitewashed houses and colourful borders; Arraiolos, renowned for its handmade tapestries and rugs; or the medieval village of Reguengos de Monsaraz on the Spanish border.
If guests are pressed for time and have to choose to visit only one, Four Seasons Head Concierge Luis Miguel suggests Reguengos de Monsaraz, which sits high above the River Guadiana. The tiny walled town is straight out of a medieval fairy-tale; fortified by the Knights Templar in the 14th century, life continues in this atmospheric enclave much as it did centuries ago. White low-rise houses line narrow cobbled streets filled with raspberry-coloured Bougainvillea, in the shadow of the imposing castle. Climb the battlements for a bird’s eye view of this tiny town, the Alqueva, and the vast Alentejan plains and into neighbouring Spain.
“Before you head back to the car you have to find Mizette,” adds Luis Miguel. “It’s a small shop that sells colourful refined blankets and shawls woven according to local traditions, and which are sold internationally at KENZO Home, after the company’s founder Kenzo Takada visited the 19th century factory himself.”
Food Lover’s Paradise
As well as culture and a rich and diverse countryside, after a morning of unforgettable sightseeing, fortunately, the region also has much to offer foodies.
Inside Évora’s medieval city walls, lunch can be enjoyed at one of the many small restaurants tucked down one of the city’s travessas. Expect a table filled with local petiscos; seasoned olives, Nisa cheese, tiny squid, Presunto ham from local black-footed porco preto pigs that feast on acorns from the region’s abundant oak forests, and garlic butter to accompany the robust Alentejano bread. Look for Fialho restaurant – an institution in itself – run by the Fialho family since 1948, for some of the best local gastronomy, or Tasquinha do Oliveira – with only 14 seats in the entire restaurant, guests can expect to feel like they are literally dining at the Oliveiras’ own family dining room.
“Do remember to save room for several Conventual desserts, as Alentejo’s desserts take one within a mouthful of heaven; try Elvas plums and sinful Pão de Rala, packed with egg yolks, sugar and almonds. It’s crazily calorific, but you only live once!” says Luis Miguel.
The region is also fast emerging as one of Europe’s most exciting wine destinations, with Wine Route signs edging the long, straight main roads. Should Hotel guests like a more wine-focused tour of the region, Luis Miguel and his concierge team can make the necessary appointments.
Alentejo’s hot, dry area is best known for its floral reds, the best of which are sold under the Alentejo DOC (Denominacao de Origem Controlada) title. Fifteen minutes away from Évora for instance, Pêra-Manca, one of Portugal’s most prestigious wines, matures in Cartuxa’s 18th-century wine cellar. Here, one can wander past vast barrels containing wines from lesser-known grapes such as aragones, castelao and trincadeira.
“When the day is done, and as you leave behind the green plains and narrow cobblestoned streets of one of Portugal’s most magical regions, the sunset as you cross the bridge over the Tejo is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable moments of your journey,” concludes Luis Miguel.
Did you know?
- Alentejo literally means “land beyond the Tejo, or Tagus”
- The region occupies a third of the country’s overall landmass, despite being home to just seven per cent of the population
- The Capela de Ossos (Chapel of Bones) in Évora, the region’s capital city, is lined with the bones and skulls of some 5000 monks
- All that is known about the Cromlech of Almendres, is that they date to the sixth century BC – that and the fact that, by some baffling oversight, they went almost entirely undiscovered until 1966
- This surrealist assortment of almost 100 granite monoliths makes up one of the largest megalithic monuments in Europe
- Its fertile land produces more than half of the world’s total cork supply
- The olive tree is the only tree that has a renewable bark
- A cork oak can live as long as two centuries, and it cannot be harvested before a tree is 25
- Portuguese law stipulates cork oak can only be harvested every nine years
- The numbers signify the most recent harvest, for instance, 3 for 2003, 9 for 2009
- The region produces almost half of Portugal’s wine, and the Alentejo Regional Wine route is spread across 8 areas: Borba, Redondo, Reguengos, Vidigueira, Évora, Granja/Amareleja and Moura
The Hotel’s Concierge can arrange to hire a convertible or a limo for the day with a private driver (prices starting at EUR 285).
To enjoy an Alentejo day trip this spring, Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon offers the Stay Longer – Third Night Free package, which includes a complimentary third night for every two consecutive paid nights. This 3-night stay starts from EUR 295 per night.
For reservations, contact Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon at tel: +351 21 381 1400 or email: email@example.com or book online.