Alentejo – one of Portugal’s best kept secrets
Hair down, car windows open and radio on, our journey begins! Driving south we leave behind the hustle and bustle of a big city, its curvy roads and busy man-made landscapes.
It is a hot summer day my hand outside the window plays with the eucalyptus fragrant breeze that is now getting hotter and the skin is already tanned. Outside, the landscape also changes, the tarmac and concrete is now replaced by the dry gold plains, the rolling hillsides with two-toned cork oaks and the traditional whitewashed villages.
Looking up, there they are! The storks with their nests on top of the telephone posts signal the entrance of the land beyond the Tagus, the ‘além Tejo’.
Alentejo occupies a third of Portugal and despite its dimension, it is the country’s least populated and developed area. While rain is expected in the winter months, during the rest of the year it is very dry and burning hot, especially in the summer, one of the hottest places in Europe.
Life here is slow, very slow… in verge of comatose. So much so, that the rest of the country tell jokes about Alentejanos. There is a preconception that people from Alentejo are slow and lazy, that they sleep under a Chaparro miniature oak. Truly, is the kind of place where we can drive in empty roads for hours; the only traffic we come across is when someone stops in the middle of the road for a chinwag with a friend or neighbour. Nevertheless, with very few exceptions, the major towns are mainly reliant in agriculture, livestock and forestry, all very demanding occupations. To this date, the bark from the cork oaks is extracted by hand, leaving the trees with a characteristic two-coloured trunk.
With such high temperatures and arid atmosphere, even the most stressed stock exchange broker would seat under a Chaparro and take a long restful nap during the heat peak hours!
To compensate the region’s water needs, several dams in idyllic locations were constructed adding charisma to an already very charming area. On the Guadiana River was constructed one of the biggest artificial lakes in Europe, the Alqueva Lake. These artificial lakes and lagoons are used for fishing, water sports or just as a place for lying down and relax.
The most exquisite and isolated beaches of Portugal can be found in the Alentejo’s coastline. The unspoiled setting allows a very relaxing day by the sea or an exhilarating surfing experience without the hustle of a crowded beach.
The traditional whitewashed villages, marble towns and majestic medieval cities can be seen along the Alentejo territory. These typical houses, particularly in the country side are one story constructions with small doors and windows, big chimneys, oversized fireplaces and whitewashed facades with blue or yellow painted frames. It is said that the blue colour keeps the mosquitoes away, while the yellow colour scares the bad spirits.
Gastronomically speaking, Alentejo cuisine is not refined but scrumptious nonetheless. It is abundant in high quality wines, bread, cheeses and other traditional delights with meat and seafood in abundance. Black pork and doces conventuais are two of the most appreciated delicacies. The doces conventuais are egg and sugar based sweets or desserts made by nuns in the convents and monasteries, many centuries ago and kept in the regional cuisine tradition.
Alentejo is a diamond in the rough with a lot of soul that has not yet been discovered by many. Personally, it is a place where I can just let my hair down and enjoy the solitude and splendour of a paradisiac secluded location with unspoiled beaches and glorious sunsets.