One of the most common mistakes I make when travelling is to look at a map and assume how long it will take to drive from A to B. Often the road is tortuous and winding, other times it passes through countless villages and slows to a crawl as we fight our way through local traffic.
There are none of these concerns when driving through the small towns and villages of the Alentejo. Sparsely populated and with its settlements thinly spread across its seemingly endless plain, a drive across this part of southern Portugal is akin to how driving in England might have been 30 years ago. Places that appear to be far away are quickly reached by a good road network and almost empty roads.
Mile after mile of rolling hills are dotted with cork trees and puctuated only by the occasional sleepy village. Telegraph posts and pylons have become homes for the region’s stork population, and it’s possible to drive for 10km or more and find every single tall man-made landmark topped with a family nest. Look up close in the spring and you’ll see a tiny beak or two leaning over the edge of the nest waiting for their mother’s return. No room for fear of heights for these birds!
We happened to visit in perhaps the only week of the year when it was sunnier and warmer back in the UK than it was in Portugal. Despite this minor obstacle we enjoyed many Alentejo highlights, having based ourselves in Evora:
This was our favourite stop and a place where we could have easily spent a full day. Perched high on a remote hillside close to the Spanish border, this whitewashed village is almost too pretty. Crowned by a well-preserved fortress complete with a very impressive wall, almost any point in Marvao offers stunning views to the surrounding countryside. We made a stop at the Casa do Povo restaurant for a leisurely lunch – thankfully we weren’t too hungry as the queue to get in was lengthy.
Our first stop from Evora, Estremoz is dramatic walled city that rises from the flat plain with a fine castle as its centrepiece. The steep climb to the walled fortress is rewarded with more sweeping views, while the entire city appears to be constructed from marble. It’s a busy market town and has a number of inviting cafes around the central square. A visual treat, but beware if you happen to arrive in the rain as we did -the pavement stones become very slippery!
Deep in the south of the Alentejo region and only 30km from the region’s airport at Beja, we stopped at Serpa for lunch and enjoyed a stroll along the city walls. The pace of life here appears to drop a notch, with the winding narrow lanes looking as if little has happens there to disturb the peace of the town. Saturday is market day as we discovered when trying to park here. The castle is free to enter and the extensive city walls offer many attractive photo opportunities.
More on the food and drink of the Alentejo region in next week’s post. Our new direct flight from London Heathrow to Beja runs every Sunday during the summer months.
by Andy Jarosz