If you like heat and wide open spaces then Portugal’s Alentejo might just be for you. Cork and olive trees, wheat and vines: all were introduced to these parts by the Romans. Ancient megaliths, menhirs and dolmens dating from 3,000BC dot the countryside. Fiercely hot in the summer, in spring and autumn it’s a pleasure to climb the winding streets of its medieval towns and villages, and sample some of its excellent red wines.
The walled city of Evora lies at the heart of the Alentejo and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s about 2 and a half hours drive from Lisbon, through rolling countryside. Parking is free in the large open space outside the town walls. Once through the gate, follow Rua Serpa Pinto inwards to the main square, Praca do Giraldo. This is where the beauty of the place first hits you. Moorish arcades line two sides of the square and within them smart boutiques rub shoulders with traditional Portuguese stores. Pick up a map at the Tourist Information office in the square and follow the signs for the Roman Temple, dramatic ruins dating from the 2nd century. The temple is believed to have been built for the worship of the goddess Diana.
Sweeping views look down over the town and across the plains. The Quiosque Jardim Diana is a good place to rest your feet and gaze at the ruins and the asymmetric towers of the cathedral beyond. If the weather isn’t cooperating, or you have a bit more cash in your pocket, you could have coffee at the pousada, the Convento dos Loios. A former monastery, it has been elegantly converted into a state owned hotel. The adjoining chapel, Sao Joao Evangelista, doesn’t look very inviting but inside are stunning floor-to-ceiling azulejos (traditional wall tiles). By comparison the cathedral seems rather dull apart from the cloisters, but you won’t be disappointed in the University buildings. The classroom entrances are decorated with azulejos representing the subjects taught there. What a place to study!
By night Evora takes on a magical quality. The temple and cathedral are spectacularly floodlit and the whole area radiates light. If you are using Evora as a base you can enjoy wandering in the narrow streets, finding the Agua de Prato (silver water) Aqueduct and the artisan workshops beneath the city walls. In the last week of June, the Feira de Sao Joao takes place, with folk dancing and singing and hearty Alentejan cuisine.
For an aqueduct on the grand scale you should head on along the N4 towards the Spanish border town of Elvas. The Amoreira Aquaduct took nearly 200 years to complete. A staggering height, with 843 arches and up to five tiers it still delivers water across the valley to the fountain in Largo da Misericordia. Elvas was a Moorish stronghold for 500 years and has some of the best preserved fortifications in Europe.
A steady climb up through the town brings you to the castle and the impressive ramparts with their endless views. In Largo do Pelourinho the battered white walls of Nossa Senora dos Aflitos disguise a church whose interior is small but achingly lovely. Marble columns and azulejos reach high into the cupola. Behind the church and through an Arab archway the ornate pelourinho (pillory) is a reminder of less happy times. Elvas is also known for its delicious preserved plums – the original sugar plums after which the Nutcracker Fairy was named.
It’s necessary to return along the N4 and through the marble town, Borba, to my next destination, Vila Vicosa. Huge stacks of marble in it’s raw state fill the quarries along this route. When you arrive in Vila Vicosa you can see that it’s been put to good purpose. The Ducal Palace was the favourite and last residence of the Dukes of Braganca, rulers of Portugal for 270 years. The main façade of the palace is completely covered with local marble and fronts an enormous marble-tiled square. Centre stage sits the 8th Duke, King Joao IV, on horseback. On becoming king in 1640 he was reluctant to leave his country estate to take up the throne in Lisbon. You can see why -Vila Vicosa with its “white gold” is a quietly charming place.
The Convento das Chagas sits discreetly in the corner of the palace square. With unexpected niches and decorative murals, this former convent is another perfectly placed pousada. It’s a short walk from here to the castle where the Bragancas lived until their palace was complete. Extraordinary that these castle walls once contained the whole of the town. The Porta do No with its carved knot symbol of the Bragancas was the original entrance gate. The cemetery is especially beautiful, crammed full of marble tombs and carved religious statuary.
Monsaraz next -a tiny hilltop fortress and an unmissable sight. Just two narrow cobbled streets, secure behind its walls, Monsaraz feels like it sits at the top of the world. Climbing up to the castle and keep, the views are glorious out over the River Guadiana and the vast waters created by the Alqueva Dam. In such a tiny community there is just space for two lovely churches. In September the spectacle of the bullfight comes to the courtyard below the keep, and the sky explodes with fireworks.
Estalagem de Monsaraz is a tiny hotel, but the poolside views are glorious.
Just south of Monsaraz you can cross the river over the bridge to Mourao, with spectacular views, and back across the Alqueva Dam. Cruise boats operate on the dam, bliss in a hot summer. The route heads back to Evora via Portel, or you could step back in time in Serpa, a delightfully sleepy walled town. Nearby larger Beja contains the 15th century Convento de Conceicao, source of more fabulous azulejos, a gilded Baroque chapel and the regional museum. (all closed Mondays)
So many choices, but if you enjoy wine, a visit to one of the many local vineyards is a must. A heady way to put romance into the Alentejo!
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