Portugal: Under the Alentejan Sun
Friendly people, beautiful countryside, and delicious food and wine…. The Alentejo region of southern Portugal has everything that those famous areas in Europe haveexcept the crowds.
At a dinner party last fall, I was seated across from a hotshot investment banker from Lisbon. Given all the fluctuations in the market, I decided to stick to more upbeat topics and asked him if he'd heard of Zambujeira do Mar, a beach town in the Alentejo region of Portugal.
"I was just there with my girlfriend's family," he answered, hiking up his sleeve to flash his enviable tan. "But how in the world do you know about it?"
It was on my radar because I was about to go there, and I'd done my research. For centuries, the Alentejo has been known as a place where delicious things--wine, honey, ham, cheese, herbs, olive oil--come from, rather than as a place that people go to visit. Spread across more than 12,000 square miles of southern Portugal, stretching from the São Mamede Mountains to a chain of secluded Atlantic coves, the Alentejo seems to be populated with little more than grapevines, cork oaks, and herds of acorn-fed black pigs. Towns are small and few. Even the region's name conveys a slightly cast-off status; Alentejo is derived from alem Tejo, or "beyond the Tejo," as the Tagus River is called in Portuguese.
But the region is slowly being rediscovered by the Portuguese and foreign travelers alike--whether it's to savor the velvety red wines of the Upper Alentejo (to the north) or to sunbathe on the beaches of the Lower Alentejo (to the south).
I drove down from Lisbon, planning to first explore the medieval towns of the Upper Alentejo. From its founding by the Romans in 80 B.C. to the long line of Portuguese kings that followed, the tiny walled city of Évora has a big history. Today it's the principal town of the Upper Alentejo, but Évora also did a stint as the country's capital between the 15th and 16th centuries, which left it with a legacy of ornate palaces, cathedrals, and monasteries. Crammed along the Largo do Conde Vila Flor square are some of the city's most prized sights, including the ruins of the Temple of Diana and the 12th-century Sé Catedral de Évora. Nearby is the São Francisco Church, where the chapel was constructed out of monks' bones.
But Évora isn't all relics, particularly in the commercial center of Praça de Giraldo, where mosaic-tiled sidewalks line such aptly named streets as Rua dos Mercadores. In the 16th century, the country's second-oldest university was established there, and to this day, students lend enough joie de vivre to keep things lively every night. At one of the more intimate taverns, Tasquinha d'Oliveira, Manuel and Carolina d'Oliveira follow the local custom of serving diners an array of tapas-like petiscos before the main course. I was only halfway through the stewed partridge, baby lamb chops, and scrambled eggs with cod when I wondered if I'd even make it to the entrée.
Of all the sleepy villages in the northeast corner of the Alentejo, Vila Viçosa is by far the most stunning. The town was a favorite hunting retreat of King João IV, who reclaimed the Portuguese throne from the Spanish in 1640. It's his larger-than-life statue that guards the square in front of the Ducal Palace and Pousada D. João IV, a former royal convent where the cells have been converted into guest rooms. The fourth duke of Bragança built the convent so he'd have a place to put spinster daughters who couldn't find noble husbands--or so the story goes.
The artisans of the Upper Alentejo produce a remarkable range of crafts--fine weavings, ceramics, just about anything fashioned from cork--and each town seems to have a specialty. On my way back to Évora, I stopped in Arraiolos because I'd heard that Lisboans have been known to travel across Portugal just to buy the town's rugs. With a simple cross-stitch, the weavers create refined designs that often incorporate baroque leaf patterns; custom-made carpets can cost upward of $300 per square meter. In Sempre Noiva, a couple checked out the newest pieces. "We bought our first rug in Arraiolos when we got married 15 years ago, and my wife is still collecting them," said the husband.
In the village of Monsaraz, known for its thick woolen blankets and tapestries, the first thing I noticed was all of the ReMax signs. The remote hilltop town is apparently the place for Lisboans to snap up second homes. A softly whirring spinning wheel drew me into Mizette, a small shop stocked with hand-painted wooden toys and stacks of blankets. Wowed by many of the bold stripes and geometric patterns, I made the mistake of asking the owner if the blankets were imported. She quickly set me straight. "We like color here in Monsaraz," she said while spinning a fat skein of bright orange wool. "The shepherds in this part of the Alentejo have been wearing these patterns for centuries."