Updated: Apr 18, 2022
Exploring the Alentejo Region
Portugal still harbors strong accents of Old World Europe, and the Alentejo region of the country, which borders Spain, is an embodiment of this tradition. I lived in Portugal in the 1990s, still travel there regularly and continue to be impressed with how the country honors its past in a graceful and unassuming way. On a recent visit to Lisbon and its delightful coastal towns, we made an expedition to the enchanting Alentejo to explore its wine culture and charming villages.
Our expedition would begin along the Lisbon coast and traverse the picturesque 25 of April Bridge across the Tagus River (Rio Tejo). This suspension bridge links Lisbon to the Setubal Peninsula to the south and looks like a replica of San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge. The views from the bridge are spectacular with the Christ the King monument (Cristo Rei) serving as a beacon for traffic heading south.
The industrial zones along the highway into the Setubal Peninsula quickly give way to a soothing landscape of cork and olive groves that characterize the arid Alentejo. Portugal is a prolific producer of cork with approximately two-thirds of total cork exports globally. And while its olive oil production does not stack up favorably to Spain, Italy or Greece, I prefer its rich pungent flavors to the other three.
For me the most enchanting of the villages in the Alentejo is Évora. The town is a bustling cultural outpost of the central Alentejo with a lively university life and impressive architectural statements from Roman and medieval times. It also serves as an appropriate base for exploring the central Alentejo as it has an excellent infrastructure of hotels (including the famed Pousadas) and restaurants. It hosts the headquarters of the Alentejo Wine Route where you can try select wines and receive information on planning a day visiting the many wineries of the region. It is a good idea to book the visits ahead of time as not all wineries are geared toward, or staffed for, transient tourism.
As we had previously overnighted in Évora on many occasions, we proceeded to the more intimate town of Vila Viçosa to the northeast in the vicinity of the villages of Estremoz and Elvas. As you approach the town of Vila Viçosa, it becomes clear what drives the economy of the area – marble extraction. In fact, the gargantuan pieces of marble - of which there are many - sit like geological sentries guarding the roads leading into town. To celebrate this heritage, we delighted in staying in a hotel entirely constructed in marble and owned by a local family that made their fortune in marble extraction.
An unexpected highlight of the Alentejo region is that it is home to prehistoric relics that are some of the oldest in Europe. There are numerous megalithic monuments in remote fields around Évora, one of the most important of which is the Almendres Megalithic settlement (or cromlech). This monument represents a collection of approximately 100 monoliths that is 2,000 years older than Stonehenge in Great Britain. This was a unique place to stop on the return to Lisbon to picnic in serenity while surrounded by the ancient monoliths nestled in quiet oak tree forests.
If you want an off-the-beaten-path experience of Portugal, filled with antiquity and excellent food and wine, then the Alentejo is the answer!