Under the Portuguese sun

Land of legacies ... a former convent in Sao Francisco, now the Pousada de Beja.
Land of legacies ... a former convent in Sao Francisco, now the Pousada de Beja. Photo: AFP

It happened to Tuscany. Kate Armstrong holds her breath and waits for the world to discover the delights of Portugal's Alentejo region.

PEOPLE say the Alentejo is "Tuscany of 30 years ago". This is a compliment for the largest and least-populated region of Portugal, whose traditions, beautiful landscapes, delicious regional cuisine and "slow-lane" lifestyle have for too long gone unrecognised.

Alentejo, covering much of the bottom half of Portugal, has its own charms: whitewashed cottages with bright blue trimmings; golden plains; fields of red, purple and yellow wildflowers; and more hilltop fortresses than at a Lego convention.

Then there are the numerous legacies of the country's former invaders (Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Spaniards): churches with turrets; monasteries and convents; aqueducts and temples; and the proud, festival-loving Portuguese themselves.

I am lounging at a cafe in Praca do Giraldo, the main plaza of Evora, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage-listed city. Its attractions - including a centuries' old university, Roman temple and a former palace - are contained within 14th-century walls, part of which incorporate an impressive Roman aqueduct.

This plaza is the place for people-watching. Hip university students, wired to iPods, bounce past on their way to lectures; elderly men - a brigade of flat caps - honour their daily meeting ritual outside the bank and tourists regroup at the square's centre after wandering the web of narrow lanes and winding streets.

By far the most popular of Evora's attractions is the Capela dos Ossos, an extraordinary 17th-century chapel comprising the skulls and bones of 5000 bodies. Backlit by garish green spotlights, it is as artistic as it is macabre, as beautiful as it is ghoulish.

But it's not the only bizarre sight around. Phallic-shaped and large, chunky stones - menhirs and dolmens - are dotted about the region (though few are signposted).

I drive 15 kilometres west of Evora to the mystical neolithic site of Almendres Cromlech, an oval of large vertical stones. The stones cast elongated shadows, while Alentejo's colours - blues, greens and reds - melt into an indigo sky. I enjoy this magical dusk alone.

As I re-enter Evora through one of the city's historic gateways, I pass an elderly man sitting by his van. He has a knife in his hand and small chunks of cork at his feet. We strike up a conversation. He tells me that for more than 50 years (he's a sprightly 89) he has carved and sold small, intricate cork sculptures - figurines of people, saints, animals. Although featured in museums, cork-sculpting is a dying art, he tells me.

Indeed, I am saddened to hear that a modern art museum might soon replace the Centre of Traditional Art in Evora, which exhibits and promotes the vestiges of Alentejo's crafts - the famous ceramic figurines of Estremoz; the exquisite tapestry rugs of Arraiolos; and the Redondo pottery.

Somehow, I'm not surprised. Municipal governments here will do anything, it seems, to attract the tourist dollar - often at the expense of tradition. But Alentejo was struggling long before the recent revelations of the economic woes of Portugal. Only 500,000 of Portugal's 11 million inhabitants live here; in recent decades, hoards of employable youngsters have left to find work in neighbouring Algarve. Alentejo was the country's agricultural stalwart thanks to its olives and cork; these days, it's Portugal's poorest region.

From Evora I drive to the nearby village of Alvito. This tiny place is crammed with churches and Manueline doorways. Its 15th-century former castle, now a luxury pousada, is one of Portugal's many government-owned, converted accommodations with centuries of history, stone walls and vaulted ceilings.

On the town's periphery, surrounded by olive groves, nestles Horta de Padre, a gorgeous blue and white farmhouse-cum-B&B. The owners also hold workshops to promote and maintain the region's declining traditions. Today, it's a bread-making class. I join in.

Kneading is hard going and our teacher, a local senhora, is patient, if bemused by our clumsiness. "Strength! Strength!" she urges, dissatisfied with our floury blobs. We bake the dough in a traditional outdoor oven; our teacher reaches into its depths and, with a wooden paddle, deftly retrieves our hardened loaves, which she had patted into the shape of elongated pixie hats. We breathe in the yeasty fumes, select our loaves and crunch into the hot crust.

Around Alvito the fields, dappled with wildflowers, soon give way to the region's wheat country or golden fields, known as Planicie Dourada.

At its heart is the principal town of Beja, a pretty town of grand buildings and pleasant plazas. Its claim to fame is a series of passionate love letters written by a nun in the 17th century - plus the town's famous convent sweets. Portuguese nuns and monks produced some of the country's best-known sweets to use up leftover egg yolks (the whites, it is believed, were to starch nuns' habits).

Back to the car trip. I'm enjoying this leisurely pace and am still in the region's centre. From here, it's a question of whether to head north or south. It's getting hot so I choose south (towards a sea breeze). I'm off the mark. As I drive into the mediaeval village of Mertola, perched at stork-nest heights above the Rio Guadiana, the car thermometer hits 47 degrees. And there's not a puff of wind.

The only sound in Mertola is the half-hearted bark from a prostrate dog as I pant up the steep lane to the village's former mosque (now a museum), a legacy of the Moors who once ruled here.

The sun is blinding - the whitewashed walls give little respite. In this heat, life is slow. Besides which, many locals are still digesting the massive luncheon servings of porco a alentejana (pork with mussels) and migas (a bread mash with meat), popular - and ridiculously cheap - regional specialties.

An oasis on the riverbank opposite almost glows green against the rocky eucalypt-strewn surrounds.

It's Convento de Sao Francisco, a restored former convent owned by a Dutch family of artists, the Zwanikkens, who settled here in the '80s. Entry is by appointment only but it's well worth the day's wait.

The owners have painstakingly cultivated a remarkable garden; the oak trees and vines provide a welcome shady canopy. Rosemary and lavender scents permeate the air. A restored Islamic irrigation system meanders through the garden's many levels.

Throughout, quirky statues stand like sentinels, the work of the Zwanikken family and their artist guests. Male peacocks scuttle out from the undergrowth. It is an ornithologist's dream: little bustards, black-bellied sandgrouse and red-rumped swallows are found here. Due to the family's own conservation efforts, lesser kestrels and storks nest on the property.

It's stork-breeding season around Alentejo. Outside Mertola I encounter a world of giant, upside-down witches' brooms - a row of 12 consecutive telegraph poles topped with nests.

Ironically - given that Mertola and its surrounds are part of the Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana, one of two of Alentejo's protected areas - seasonal hunting is permitted. This is a source for much of the local - and highly sought-after - gourmet produce: javali (wild boar) and perdiz (partridge) among them.

I decide to move on; it's time to hit the vineyards. Vinhos do Alentejo, Alentejo's viticultural organisation, produces useful maps. To the north-east, the vineyards skirt around Sao Mamede; the route east to the Guadiana takes in the Alqueva dam (a controversial 250-square-kilometre reservoir built in the late '90s), while the northern journey heads to Reguengos de Monsaraz, Redondo and Estremoz, which is billed as the historic route.

I choose the latter, for no other reason than to visit one of the best-known wineries, Herdade de Esporao, near Regengos de Monsaraz; coincidentally, I discover that the chief winemaker, David Baverstock, is Australian.

The drive there is spectacularly pretty. Clusters of ancient cork trees cover the landscape. The occasional trunk stands out like a beacon: a luminescent cinnamon-coloured ring reveals where the cork has been cut by hand. (Not surprisingly, given Portugal's cork export industry, "screw tops" are dirty words in Portugal.) The undulating fields of the south give way to a patchwork of green-and-brown pinstriped fields.

At Herdade de Esporao, I tour the extraordinary wine cellars; these resemble London's Underground stacked with thousands of bottles. The region's grape names - Trincadeira, Alicante Bouschet, Touriga Nacional, Roupeiro - start to roll off my tongue as comfortably as Esporao's wines.

But there's more here than viticulture: a small art gallery exhibits original paintings (the reserve collection labels are done each year by a high-profile Portuguese artist) and a top-notch restaurant is on the premises. Birding and nature tours are also on offer.

Beyond the vineyards, the region resembles a chessboard - every road, it seems, leads to a fortress town. The prettiest are the tiny walled villages of Monsaraz and Marvao. Buses disgorge day-trippers here; by nightfall, they've long departed, leaving mainly elderly folk who comprise the villages' permanent populations. The tiny winding streets up to the castle at Castelo de Vide contain the former Jewish district from the 15th century - a stunning synagogue survives.

The fortress town of Elvas - renowned for its extraordinary multi-tiered aqueduct - also has Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Elvas, a modern art museum. I have the place to myself. A range of contemporary exhibits drape over staircases and hang from the ceilings and snow-white walls. The traditional blue and white azulejos (tiles) of the converted chapel are a quirky backdrop to the vibrant hues of the massive modern sculptures by Joana Vasconcelos, one of Portugal's most popular contemporary artists.

On my way back to Evora, I stop briefly at the marble-filled towns of Vila Vicosa and nearby Borba; working quarries surround these delightful towns. (The actual marble is said to rival that of Italy's Carrara marble.) Vila Vicosa's castle was home to the Braganca dynasty; its kings ruled Portugal in the pre-republic era.

After a month of "slow-travel" the Alentejan way, I am back in bustling Sydney. At my regular cafe, I eavesdrop on a conversation between two well-heeled women. One is chatting about a blog she plans to write while renovating her "cottage in Alentejo". I panic: could this be the Portuguese version of Italy's country-changing, visitor-alluring, highly influential Under the Tuscan Sun? I hope not. But Alentejo deserves to be on the map. My advice is get there soon - a lot can change in 30 years.

The writer flew to Portugal with the assistance of Lufthansa.

Trip notes

Getting there

Lufthansa flies daily from Sydney to Lisbon (via Frankfurt or Munich). Prices start from $2148 including taxes. 1300 655 727, lufthansa.com.

Staying there

Pousadas de Portugal are government-owned, luxury accommodations in former castles, monasteries and convents around Portugal. +351 218 442 001, pousadas.pt.

Albergaria Calvario, Travessa dos Lagares 3, Evora. Doubles including breakfast cost from €108 ($150) a night. +351 266 745 930, albergariadocalvario.com.

M'Ar de Ar Aqueduto, Rua Candido dos Reis 72, Evora. Rooms cost from €255 a night. +351 266 740 700, mardearhotels.com.

Pousada de Beja Sao Francisco, Largo Dom Nuno Alvares Pereira, Beja. The official rate for doubles is €270 a night but cheaper deals are often on offer. +351 284 313 580, pousadas.pt.

Eating There

Restaurante A Choupana is a traditional experience with stools around a bar and the place to try daily specials such as bacalhau a bras (baked cod). Rua dos Mercadores 16, Evora, +351 266 704 427.

Dom Joaquim serves traditional cuisine with a modern twist. Rua dos Penedos 6, Evora, +351 266 731 105.

Herdade do Esporao offers an all-in-one viticultural experience: great wine, cuisine, art and nature tours. Reguengos de Monsaraz, +351 266 509 280, www.esporao.com.

Adega Tipica 25 Abril cooks up tasty local cuisine. Rua da Moeda 23, Beja.

A Esquina is the place to try javali (wild boar). Rua Dr Afonso Costa 1, Mertola.

See + do

The Bones chapel in Evora is open 9am-12.50pm and 2.30pm-5.40pm daily, admission €2.

The mystical site of the Almendres Cromlech is 15 kilometres west of Evora. Admission is free. To get there, you need your own transport.

Bread-making workshops in Alvito can be arranged through Rota dos Fresco, which also organises nature and culture tours around the region, +351 284 475 413; rotadofresco.com.

Convento de Sao Francisco botanic garden and art gallery in Mertola is open by appointment only, admission €5. +351 286 612 119, conventomertola.com/en.

Alentejo Wine Route office, Praca Joaquim Antonio de Aguiar, Evora, +351 266 746 498, vinhosdoalentejo.pt.

Admission to Castelo de Vide's synagogue (9.30am-12.30pm and 2pm-5.30pm Tuesday-Sunday) and castle is free.

Museu de Arte Contemporanea de Elvas (Contemporary Art Museum of Elvas) for cutting-edge works, closed Mondays, admission €2; +351 268 637 150.

The 16th-century Vila Vicosa Palace costs €6 (children under 10 are free), +351 268 980 659, www.fcbraganca.pt.

More information

visitalentejo.pt

visitportugal.com.

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