Evora at dusk — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Portugal's Alentejo region is immense. Occupying nearly one-third of Portugal, this sunbaked province of vast undulating plains is peppered with cork oak and olive trees and whitewashed villages. In summer, swaths of golden wheat blanket its southern reaches and flecks of wild flowers provide a tapestry of color and fragrance.
To the north the Alentejo countryside is more austere in character, a landscape defined by the remote Serra de São Mamede. A rugged escarpment of weather-worn granite facing the border with Spain, the remote hill range is sprinkled with medieval hamlets and the shells of once mighty castles built to protect the frontier.
Rooted to this beautiful and richly diverse region are the neatly combed vineyards embroidering the land like ribbons of emerald corduroy, a reminder that the Alentejo is one of the most fertile and productive wine regions in the country.
Yet despite its tantalizing allure, this is still one of the least visited areas of Portugal.
Evora's central square — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
All about Évora
Just 90 minutes by car from Lisbon and reached by an often-empty motorway, Évora is the perfect introduction for anyone wishing to unlock the Alentejo’s best-kept secrets.
A picture-book town of compelling beauty, Évora’s old quarter is still partially ringed by ancient walls that enclose a collection of architectural and cultural treasures so precious and rare that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1986.
Nestling among the monuments and museums is the M’AR De AR Aqueduto, a five-star boutique bolthole housed within a restored 16th-century palace. As its name suggests, the hotel is situated close to the city’s ancient aqueduct, constructed between 1531 and 1537 – the mar and ar mean sea and air, a poetic nod towards the seemingly endless wilderness of the Alentejo plains. The stylish retreat is a splendid base from which to explore this enchanting destination.
Hotel M'Ar De Ar Aqueduto — Photo courtesy of M'Ar De Ar Aqueduto
In his book Journey to Portugal, Portuguese author José Saramago describes Évora as possessing “more monuments than any other Portuguese city,” a place that “has definitely History’s continual presence on its streets and squares, in every stone or shadow”.
Indeed, saunter through the maze of narrow, cobbled lanes and across fountain-laden squares and you’ll eventually gaze upon such wonders as the landmark Roman temple. Nearby is the impressive 13th-century cathedral. Pause and study the ornate sculpted figures of the Apostles that flank the portal: Évora’s stonemasons must have been balancing on dragonflies to achieve such delicate handiwork.
Evora Roman Temple — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
But it’s the less illustrious Igreja de São Francisco that very often steals the limelight, because hidden away in this otherwise non-descript 15th-century church is the most macabre visitor attraction in Portugal, the Capela dos Ossos.
The gruesome chapel of bones is lined with the remains of 5,000 monks, a disquieting mosaic of bleached, fragmented skeletons. It’s an astonishing tableau made all the more creepy by the hundreds of disembodied skulls that stare blankly across the floor in a collective look of solemn indignation.
Nightlife in Évora revolves around the many excellent restaurants nestling in and around the central Praça do Giraldo. Their menus typify the superb cuisine cooked up in this part of Portugal.
Bone chapel in Evora — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Eating in Évora
Alentejo gastronomy has its roots firmly planted in the countryside. The region is celebrated for its honest, no-nonsense cooking – rich, rustic fare prepared to recipes handed down from generation to generation. Complementing this rural palate is a veritable ocean harvest of fresh fish and seafood landed at ports dotted along its wild and windswept Atlantic Ocean coastline. Degust'ar restaurant in Evora — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
One of the finest eateries in town is Fialho, Travessa Mascarenhas 16, where a specialty is the oven-baked lamb stew. The tiny Tasquinha do Oliveira, Rua Cândido dos Reis 45, is another culinary hotspot. And the kitchen at M’AR De AR’s own Degust’ar restaurant conjures up inspired dishes like octopus tentacle in garlic and olive oil.
The Alentejo is fantastic road-trip territory, which is just as well really because public transport options are somewhat limited.
An hour southeast of Évora is Lake Alqueva. This immense body of water draws boating and watersports enthusiasts from across Portugal, but to really take advantage of Europe’s largest man-made reservoir, hire a houseboat from Amieira marina.
Houseboat on Lake Alqueva — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
A great family activity option, the fully equipped boats can accommodate 2-12 persons and you’re free to pilot the vessel yourself. You can even tie up at designated pontoons along the shore and overnight in glorious silence under skies so clear and bright the area has been described as a celestial pearl for stargazing.
Lake Alqueva and Monsaraz Castle — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Venture further south, through traditional towns like Serpa (renowned for its deliciously creamy sheep’s cheeses) and you’ll eventually reach the fortified riverside town of Mértola. This is one of the Alentejo’s most fascinating destinations, a vila museu, or museum site, where a cluster of Phoenician, Roman, Moorish and Visigoth treasures are imaginatively displayed in several museums. Stay at the Hotel Museu and you’re literally sleeping on 1000 years of history – the reception hall is built over an excavated archaeological site!
Mertola Islamic Museum — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Vineyards, Wines and Tastings
The Alentejo is justly famous for its wines, and enotourism is big business. By following the Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo the visitor is able to tour some of the most celebrated wineries in the country. Most require advance booking, which guarantees you a guided tour of the vineyards, cellars and tastings of selected reds and whites. Occasionally the producers themselves are on hand to elaborate upon the production process and to answer questions. Caruxa winery — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
There are nearly 70 adegas scattered across the region. Some, like Herdade da Malhadinha Nova in Albernôa, offer accommodation, gastronomy and an exciting programme of outdoor activities. Others are part of noble estates. Dona Maria Vinhos, for example, is housed in a beautiful early 18th-century mansion, and the old winery is 150 years old. The cellar features rare and magnificent pink marble lagares.
Winetasting at Cartuxa — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The Rota dos Vinhos do Alentejo is coordinated from a smart showroom in Évora, at Praça Joaquim António de Aguiar 20, where you can taste a number of wines for free. However, just outside the city walls is another historic adega certainly worth exploring, Cartuxa at Quinta de Valbom. The old winery is in fact a former refectory used by Carthusian monks and dates from 1776. A glass or two here can be enjoyed over mellow Gregorian chant.