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All Alone In Alentejo
Alentejo, Portugal

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh discovers Portugal’s sparse southern region, where marble has been mined for centuries and visitors are few.

Our week in Portugal’s Alentejo region took us to two rarely-visited destinations - inland to Vila Viçosa, and south to the Costa Vicentina natural park. We hardly saw another tourist all week.

In summer, temperatures in the Alentejo reach 40 degrees, and winters can be perishing, but our springtime visit was perfect. From Lisbon airport, my husband and I drove east across Alto Alentejo, through groves of twisted olives, and between boulder-strewn pastures grazed by sheep and tawny cows.

Almond orchards shimmered with pink blossom. Roads were lined with gnarled cork oaks, their stripped trunks in shades of red and black.

Cork is a major export, and we were crossing the world’s largest stretch of montado - cork woodland and pasture. Trim vineyards surrounded single-storey whitewashed farmhouses, many made of mud and clay, with tiny windows to protect against the summer heat, and hefty chimneys against winter chill. Storks guarded their untidy nests on the top of telegraph poles.

As we approached Vila Viçosa, we noticed hillsides littered with jumbled heaps of stippled marble - huge pale chunks, slabs, chips and white dust.

Vila Viçosa is a small, glittering city in which everything is made of marble - the magnificent Duke’s Palace has a blindingly bright marble façade 110 metres long, overlooking a gleaming square of marble cobbles, but even modest streets have sparkling marble-chip pavements.

Locals rest on marble benches outside houses with marble doorsteps, lintels and windowsills. Walls are painted with marble-chip whitewash. My guidebooks disagree on the meaning of ‘Viçosa’ - one translates it as ‘shade’- surely an inappropriate description of this dazzling town. The other, which I prefer, defines it as an archaic term for grace and beauty.

Trains haven’t stopped at Vila Viçosa for 20 years, and the station house is now a museum of marble. We startled the curator - we were her only visitors for days. Although we explained with embarrassment that we spoke scarcely any Portuguese, she insisted on giving us a personal tour involving a lot of long words and an interesting (but alas incomprehensible) video.

We managed to grasp that marble has been cut from a 25-mile swathe of land between Vila Viçosa and Estremoz since Roman times, but it is not about to run out. Bore-holes show that the marble is at least 400 meters deep. Most prized is pure white or pure pink marble, but local marble is also streaked, tiger-striped, speckled or yellowish.

In Vila Viçosa’s long, sloping main square, we found the marble pavements strewn with wind-fallen oranges. After some coffee and delicious custard tarts at Pastelaria Azul, we climbed to the imposing hilltop castle. The 13th-century walls surround a maze of ancient cobbled streets, a carved pillory where criminals were shackled, and a lovely church with 15th-century azujelo tiles, hand-painted in traditional blue and white. Inside the castle we found displays of local archaeology - dating from Paleolithic times - and of hunting.

Unlike many Brits, I love stuffed animals, and here were some nice moth-eaten examples of local prey - wolves, bears, foxes, genet, Iberian lynx and wild boar.

The castle was home to the Braganzas until 1501 when the fourth Duke began to build his magnificent marble palace - one of Portugal’s largest and grandest, and an enduring symbol of Vila Viçosa’s Golden Age. After pausing at the tiny Pastelaria Pão Doce to try some more cakes (pasteis de toucinho, made with pork fat), we felt ready to tackle the Paço Ducal. Many treasures were removed to Lisbon when the 8th Duke became King Joao IV in 1640, but the palace still contains splendid 17th-century frescoes, Flemish tapestries, huge 16th-century Persian carpets, carved furniture and royal portraits. In the great hall, portraits of 17 Braganza dukes gaze from the ceiling. I spotted a small painting which the British gave to Catherine of Braganza on her return to Portugal after the death of her husband, Charles II.

After trailing through dozens of sombre state rooms, we were relieved to enter the intimate quarters of King Carlos and Queen Amelia. Dom Carlos was a keen naturalist, and his paintings, books and uniforms give the heavily draped rooms a personal feel. The king slept here on the night before his assassination by Republicans in Lisbon in 1908.
His son, Portugal’s last king, Dom Manuel II, was exiled to England, but bequeathed the Vila Viçosa palace to the nation, including his important collection of 16th-century Portuguese books.

Leaving Vila Viçosa, we spent a few hours in the well-preserved (but more touristy) medieval town of Evora, wandering narrow cobbled streets of houses with iron balconies, and peering through archways into tiled patios. The cathedral dates from the 12th century, and has the oldest organ in Europe. We climbed up to the undulating stone roof, and looked over battlements at 16th-century gargoyles. After coffee and pasteis de nata - cakes traditionally baked by nuns - we visited the 15th-century family chapel of the Dukes of Cadaval, its interior entirely covered with lovely blue and white tiles. Nearby, stand fourteen Roman columns with Corinthian tops made of local marble almost 2000 years ago.

Then we drove south-west to Baixo Alentejo and the Costa Vicentina, named after St Vincent, the patron saint of Lisbon. Protected since 1995, this spectacular coastline offers a huge variety of habitats, with coastal wetlands and lagoons, salt marshes, small coves, high cliffs, promontories, dunes of fine sand, woodland, meadows and scrub. People have lived here since Paleolithic times, but today’s population is very small. We were alone on every beach and cliff-top.

Occasionally we came upon a dilapidated information board, but on each the pictures and writing had rotted away. After days of sightseeing inland, it was relaxing to stroll, uninformed, through gorse and heather, letting the breeze blow away cares, as waves crashed on to the rocks hundreds of feet below. In the evening, we watched the sun set into the Atlantic Ocean in a blaze of garish colour.

The Alentejo may be Portugal’s poorest and least populated region, but the traditional cuisine is wonderful. In Vila Viçosa, our favourite dish was açorda - a mouthwatering bread soup with garlic, coriander, olive oil and a floating poached egg. Here we drank local Alabastro, smooth red and fruity white, and full-bodied red wines from the neighbouring marble-town of Borba.

On the Costa Vicentina, we alternated between two excellent fishermen’s taverns by a jetty a few miles north of Zambujeira do Mar, where the daily catch is auctioned. In each we were the only customers apart from the odd local courting couple. In O Sacas, a black-garbed grandmother sang traditional a capella folksongs to a fretful baby as other members of the extended family sat by the fire. Next door, at A Barca Tranquitanas, the extended family was smaller, but the food was equally good. A nostalgic selection of songs from the 1970s drowned the ubiquitous TV. We ate açorda de marisco (bread soup with fish), huge quantities of caldeirada (fish stew), salt cod, and pork with wine and clams, all washed down with Redondo red and Vidigueira white wines.

And several times a day, wherever we were, we joined locals in a tiny café to guzzle more of those delicious convent cakes.

Wonderfully empty roads make for leisurely driving. Hire a car at Lisbon airport.

Avoid the heat of summer inland. Spring and autumn are best.

Follow the Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo (Alentejo wine route) and taste local wines at the vineyards.

Listen out for Alentejo traditional unaccompanied folk-singing. The song ‘Grândola, Vila Morena’ celebrates brotherhood in the Alentejo town of Grândola. It became a revolutionary anthem in 1974, with the start of democratic rule in Portugal.

Portalegre is the capital city of Alto Alentejo, 60 km north of Vila Viçosa. Worth visiting for its famous tapestries which reproduce contemporary paintings.

Monsaraz, 40 km south of Vila Viçosa, is a small, unspoilt fortified village perched on the border with Spain.

Arraiolos is an ancient village on the N4, on the route from Lisbon airport to Vila Viçosa, 20 km north of Evora. Famous since the 12th century for its handwoven carpets (tapetes). Locals recreate traditional motifs of animals, birds and flowers, azulejo designs, as well as unique modern patterns.

Look for unusual pottery: Alentejo potters like to employ new motifs and shapes - lamp-bases or fruit bowls as well as traditional serving plates, salt tubs or olive dishes.

Cork oak: the Alentejo is the world’s most important cork producer. Trees mature for at least 25 years before the bark is cut, and then careful stripping takes place every 9 years. Look for the date of the last bark-cutting, daubed on each trunk. A tree may supply cork for 200 years. Sadly, today the cork industry is threatened.

Cork products, including some unexpected items, such as handbags
Cured meats
Local cheese, including queijo serpa (sheep’s cheese) Alentejo wines
Local pottery
Arraiolos carpets.

Don’t forget to take a Portuguese dictionary and phrasebook, or a translation app for your phone. You won’t find many English speakers in these remote areas.

Avoid walking into doors by remembering that puxe (which looks and sounds like ‘push’) means ‘pull’.

If you want nightlife and crowds, avoid the Costa Vincentina. This rugged coast is not for you.

Avoid disappointment in Vila Viçosa’s tiny restaurants by reserving a table in advance.

First published by the Telegraph

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