Most tourists who travel to Portugal visit the Algarve. Also popular is the Costa de Lisboa combined with a city trip to Lisbon (which I did earlier this year) or they go further north for a city trip to Porto. But Portugal has so much more to offer and an area that is definitely worth a holiday is the Alentejo region (pronounced: Allanteezjoo)! The area lies between the Algarve and Lisbon under the Tagus river and that is exactly what the name Alentejo means. It is a sparsely populated area with a wealth of culture and history and beautiful nature.
Day 1: from Schiphol to Évora
This trip is a work related one, one of the pleasures of working at a travel agency. Girassol (a Portugal specialist) invited me to join them. We travel with a small group; there are only 5 travel agents from The Netherlands. That is why I call myself One Lucky Traveller… because I am one of the 5!
We gather very early in the morning at Schiphol Airport. I always get excited when arriving at Schiphol. It usually means I am off to a new adventure. And Schiphol is a busy and buzzing airport. We fly with TAP Air Portugal to Lisbon and during this 3 hour flight we get acquainted. Apart from 5 travelagents there are 2 representatives from tour operator Girassol, who accompany us during this trip.
Once we arrive at Lisbon, we do not need to collect any luggage, since we only carry hand luggage with us. From the gate we walk straight towards the exit and parking, where Filipe is waiting for us. He represents Visit Portugal and will guide us around the Alentejo for the next 3 days. He introduces himself (what a sweet man), hands out bottles of water and we hop on a minibus, leaving the airport behind us and driving towards our first stop of the day.
The Alentejo lies south of Lisbon and ends where the Algarve starts. So we go south. First we cross the immensely long (12 kilometres) and beautiful Vasco da Gama bridge, for which we have to pay toll. We enter a landscape full of cork and olive trees and rice fields. It is the end of the season and there is not a lot of traffic on the road. We are on our way to Alcácer do Sal and upon arrival we see large numbers of storks flying through the air. Our first stop is at the beautiful Pousada D. Afonso II (pousada is a Portuguese term for a mostly luxurious hotel that is often located in a historic building), where we are offered a tasty breakfast upon arrival.
After breakfast we have the opportunity to look around the pousada, which is set in a medieval Moorish Castle, and overlooks the River Sado. The pousada is a focal point of the town, whose history stretches back 5000 years. This luxurious hotel incorporates the castellated walls and towers of the original structure, ancient stonework and a Baroque coat of arms whilst injecting modern touches which compliment the traditional. I love it! The swimming pool and large terrace are set against the stunning backdrop of the original castle structure.
We meet Ana, who works for Visit Alentejo. Ana is a sweet and enthousiast young lady, who gives us a short presentation and shows us a promotional video about this region. We drink coffee and tea and we are being treated to Pastéis de Belém (or Pastéis de Nata); yum! After watching the video we cannot wait to continue our journey. so we can see what we just saw on screen with our own eyes. Ana is also coming with us; together with the driver we are 10 and I am truly in great company.
Our next stop is at Herdade do Freixo do Meio. It is a large agricultural estate where, among other things, they keep their own cattle, grow vegetables and fruit, make olive oil and wine, all in an organic and responsible manner. They sell their products in their own store in Lisbon. We have a go at making (or baking) our own bread, but we do not “bake” much of it. We do have a lot of fun and the great atmosphere that is created there and then, we take with us for the rest of this trip. We get a tour around the estate, we see staff and volunteers working hard and then we are offered a delicious lunch with a glass of wine (well maybe 2). The entire lunch is made of their own fresh products. The food is really amazing, if this is how the rest of our journey is going to be like… I will have to go on a diet when I get back!
After lunch we leave Herdade do Freixo do Meio behind us. We go to the Monte da Ravasqueira estate, which is owned by a wealthy family that has a beautiful collection of (horse) carriages. They no longer have horses, but the carriages in all sizes and models are exhibited at the estate. The family is now active in wine and olive oil production and they do a very good job! Here too we get a tour around the estate, which is located in a very peaceful and beautiful setting. Our visit ends with a wine tasting (this is the second time we drink wine today). Although I am not a connoisseur, I can say that the wines are incredibly good and taste amazing. We are getting more cheerful as we taste various wines. We hit the road again, all carrying a bottle of wine and olive oil with us! To me, these are the best souvenirs to take home!
Our next destination is Évora. Visit Portugal writes: Évora, a book of Portuguese art history. I am curious! We will not see much of it today as it is getting late. We drive straight to our overnight address Convento de Espinheiro, which is just outside the city. It is housed in an old monastery that has been converted into a five-star hotel (this trip just keeps getting better and better!). It is dark when we arrive, but what we can see from the outside is absolutely beautiful. We check in, are in awe and very happy with our rooms. We get changed and receive a short tour through the beautifully restored hotel and the accompanying church.
Before we will have dinner, we are expected in the Cisterna Wine Bar (in the cellar). We have another wine tasting, this time it is a super delicious bubbly wine (champagne like) and the bottle is opened the traditional way: with a sword. We have the feeling that this is becoming a theme trip, because the alcohol flows abundantly on this first day (but we do not complain!). Again I have to say I am really pleasantly surprised by the incredible good quality of the Portuguese wines. In addition, the food in Portugal is also delicious; so the food and wine are already reason enough for a holiday in the Alentejo region!
Day 2: from Évora to Beja
The next morning we get up early. We have a wonderful breakfast and check out (unfortunately). This may be a five star hotel and a bit expensive for most of us, but Portugal has many authentic accommodations for all budgets. I however do like to stay in various places during my holiday and treat myself now and then. And I try to stay in authentic places/hotels, something different from what I am used to.
Like the next accommodation we visit. We go to quinta Monte da Serralheira, which is run by a Dutch couple (who own the quinta as well). Quinta means (Portuguese) wine farm and often the name of the (old) owners is put behind the word Quinta. Not all quintas are still wine farms though. This quinta is a very easy going, relaxed place to spend a few nights. The owners are welcoming and friendly and it is special to see how wonderful they run their quinta, not being Portuguese. It is a place where everyone can stay; young and old, families, couples, friends…
After this visit we go to the centre of Évora for a city tour by foot. The minibus drops us of close to Sé Cathedral where we meet Olga Miguel, who is our official guide during this tour. Olga is a lovely lady! Before we start our tour she tells us a little bit about the city. Since 1986 it is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list and it is one of the prettiest cities in the country. From what I can see this city is an open air museum; past and present come together here, but it is mostly its history that gives Évora this special atmosphere. Olga tells us about Sé Cathedral, which has been beautifully restored and is now open to public again. It is the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal. It is a beautiful monument, that showcases the transition from Romanesque to Gothic style, and Renaissance and Baroque additions were introduced later.
We walk to the São Francisco (St Francis) church, only 500 meters from the cathedral. The church is perhaps best known as the home of the mysterious (and spooky) chapel of bones. The original design of the Igreja de São Francisco was the work of architect Martim Lourenço, who designed the structure to stand on the site of a former Romanesque church dating back all the way to 1226. We go inside. Just like in Sé Cathedral there are many styles to be found in the interior, dating from different periods. Lovely Renaissance features, as well as Baroque can be seen. In the church I seesee plenty of extravagant gilding, pretty wood carvings and beautiful hand painted tiles in Portugal’s traditional white and blue ceramic colouring, as well as some lovely frescos by famous Flemish artists.
At the back of the chuch lies the famous Capela des Ossos, the Chapel of the Bones. It literally is a chapel that is completely covered with bones and skulls. It is a bit macaber, but weirdly enough there is no dark and twisty atmosphere. But everywhere you look you see human bones. I wonder how many corpses there are in here and I ask Olga. And I get the full story!
Olga explains that the chapel was the work of a group of Franciscan monks who designed it as a practical solution to the problem of 42 monastic cemeteries taking up too much space in and around the city which was getting bigger and bigger. They simply moved all the remains from each of the sites and relocated them to this single, consecrated chapel within the church, so that the land could be freed up for further use and development. Instead of hiding the bones away, they took a very unusual decision and put them on display, cementing the remains of more than 5000 (!!!) individuals all over the chapel walls and ceiling. It is impressive and actually I think it is a beautiful tribute to all the monks who dedicated themselves to what they believed in.
We have quite a bit of time to look around, I keep taking photographs because the church is so beautiful and the chapel so bizarre. Once we have to leave, I see light coming through one of its windows, creating a palette of colour in the church. Everyone is outside, but I manage to quickly point it out to Filipe and we both take some photographs before leaving the church.
We walk through the historical city centre that looks very cosy and atmospheric. We pass by lovely restaurants, terraces and shops with a large assortment of cork products (from postcards to wedding dresses). Évora is filled with narrow picturesque streets, beautiful buildings and relics from its history. We see the Roman temple, have a look inside the university and and enjoy Olga’s stories, which are filled with interesting information. Évora: you are really amazing, I have to come back some day, spend a few nights and take my time to see more of you. But right now we have to go and move on to our next stop.
We stop for a delicious lunch in Hotel Évora, just outside the centre. We are having such a good time and the weather is great! I guess that is why I call myself One Lucky Traveller. I am at a beautiful destination in great company, lovely weather, we enjoy tasty food and good wine… What more could I possibly want or need?!
After lunch we drive to Monsaraz, we climb our way up with the minibus. We stop at the Cante Alentejano Monument. The people in Alentejo apparently sing like no other in the world, reason why UNESCO has recognised the cante as world heritage. This monument is here to pay tribute to all those beautiful voices!
Monsaraz is one of Portugal’s most picturesque medieval villages, also on the UNESCO World Heritage List and it looks very enchanting. Less than a 1000 people live here, so it is a very close community. Only a few cars are allowed to drive around and we discover this village by foot.
Upon arrival guide Maria Gamado is waiting for us, another sweet lady just like Olga! She first takes us to a wine tasting. There we go again… OMG 😉 Ervideira Wine Shop has delicious wines and I wish (just like at Ravesquira) I could take a box home with me. After the wine tasting we walk through the village and Maria tells interesting stories while we stand in the fort, visit the Misericordia church and walk through the streets with its white houses. Monsaraz is built on a hill and that means the 360 view around us is spectacular. We say goodbye to Maria and move on once more. We leave peaceful and quiet Monsaraz at the end of the afternoon.
Our last stop today is Beja. On our way to Beja, we enjoy an amazing sunset! This means by the time we reach Beja is is evening and dark. Beja is the traditional capital of the Baixo Alentejo. It is an agricultural region in the deep south of this province. The hill on which the city is situated was often contested and occupied. Filipe tells us that Beja came under Muslim rule in the 8th century and was not fully recaptured by the Christians until the 13th century. In the meantime, it was almost completely destroyed by ongoing conflicts.
Upon arrival we quickly stop to take have a look at a luxury Pousada Convento Beja. It is located in the old Convent of São Francisco in the city centre just 700 metres from the castle. The Pousada is the result of a majestic, architectural project that is representative of Portugal’s religious and Gothic architecture. The Pousada and its rooms have all the comfort you could possibly want and what a great location! Before we leave we (of course) have another drink/glass of wine 😉 with some tasty appetizers. Do we have to leave here?
It is only about a half an hour drive to our overnight hotel Vila Galé Clube de Campo. We cannot see much of it, since it is really dark. We check in and immediately get changed for dinner before the restaurant closes; we arrived late. We chat away and go to sleep straight after dinner; it was a day full of impressions. I absolutely enjoyed myself this day.
Day 3: from Beja to Lisbon
This morning again we wake up early! The sun is shining, it is October, but the weather is just amazing. I finally get to see where we are staying. When I wake up, I immediately open the door to the terrace and I see 2 hot air balloons flying by. I remember this from the promotional video we saw upon arrival. How I wish to be in that hot air balloon right now. The view must be spectacular with the sun rising…
We have breakfast together and after this the hotel manager gives us a tour around the property. I can see that there are many facilities for the guests and plenty of activities besides the hot air balloon rides, such as horse riding and cycling. This hotel is perfect for families. There is a lot of cultivation on the estate: we see fruit and olive trees, vineyards; there is a petting zoo, riding school and a winery. Luckily we are not going to taste any that early in the morning, but we do have a quick look. The icon of the petting zoo is the donkey Colombo. He is separated from the other animals, since he has quite an attitude. He makes everyone laugh and I end up taking some pretty portrait photographs.
We leave Beja and head towards the coast: YES! I cannot live without the sea. I may manage for a couple of days, but then I really need to breathe in the salty sea air. I love going for long beach walks, always carrying my camera with me, collecting shells and on bare foot because I need to feel the sand between my toes. So I am really excited right now.
We arrive at Porto Covo, a pleasant and touristic coastal town, located on a beautiful stretch at the Atlantic Coast. The Alentejo region really has it all! We walk through the centre, filled with restaurants, little tourist shops and all buildings are painted in white and blue (my favourite colours). We end up at the beach where I immediately take off my shoes to dip my feet in the Atlantic Ocean. The beach on which I walk is beautiful, the waves are high and I do not manage to keep my feet dry, but I love it! I can see fishermen on the rocks, the sun is shining and the waves make a wonderful noise. I do not want to leave here any more…
But we do have to move on at some point. We go up north and take the coastal road towards our next stop. It is only a 7 kilometre drive to where we will have lunch. The restaurant is called Arte e Sal and is separated from the beach only by the road. We get to eat the most delicious fresh fish and all kinds of tasty side dishes and the wine flows richly again! This is the good life and I realize I will never take moments like this for granted.
During lunch I get an unexpected visit from my colleague’s parents. They are travelling through Portugal with their camper and are in the Alentejo region for a few days. They knew I was on a promotional trip around the same time they were going, but they had no idea about our program. They saw the mini bus parked outside and decided to stop and see if I was in the restaurant. What a coincidence; what a small world! We have a quick chat before they move on.
After the most delicious lunch, I cannot resist walking on the beach for a while and the others join me. The weather is just perfect today and I want to feel the sand under my feet and have the sun shining on my face. I envy my colleagues parents. They are having the time of their life and literally have so much more time to spend here.
After half an hour we get back on the bus and drive on to our last stop, which is Cais Palafítico da Carrasqueira. It is a two hundred year old fishing port, entirely made of wood and a home port for the fishermen from the area. We arrive there while it is low tide, so there is hardly any water and the boats are resting on dry land. We walk over the wooden jetties and admire the beautiful view while the sun is setting. What a beautiful location and what a great ending to this amazing trip!
We drive back to Lisbon where we arrive around 8 pm. We actually do not leave fly back to Amsterdam tonight, but very early in the morning. So we spend the night nearby the airport and have a quick bite in the hotel before we go to sleep; we need to get up at 4 in the morning.
Our trip to the Alentejo was short, but very impressive. We got the most out of these 3 days and had such an amazing time. I will definitely go back to this region. You can actually combine your trip to the Alentejo with a city trip to Lisbon. And if you have more time (and money) on your hands, you can also start from the Algarve and drive through the Alentejo to Lisbon (or the other way around). Whatever you decide to do, just visit Alentejo and take your time!
Travel Blog by Elisabeth, One Lucky Traveller
October 8, 2015