Portugal’s Secret: The Alentejo Region, Rich In History And Beauty

Jayme Simoes, a consultant and expert on Portugal, has often spent pleasurable time in that country’s southern region of Alentejo. I interviewed him on my travel podcast (see below) and earlier wrote about his take on Lisbon. Here I adapt his thoughts about one of the loveliest, and least discovered regions of the many lovely areas of Portugal.

The region of Alentejo is one of Portugal’s hidden treasures. Moors, Romans, Carthaginians and other great civilizations have been drawn to its natural beauty. It retains a distinct dialect; unique countryside and flora; a slower pace of life; and kind, welcoming people.

Alentejo offers some of the most evocative natural scenery in Europe: cork forests, olive groves, fields of sunflowers and patches of big round top pines, occasionally punctuated by fortified hill towns. This wild and historic region combines grand Roman and Moorish ruins with medieval dwellings, whitewashed villages and baroque cities such as Évora and Portalegre.

Alentejo’s Atlantic coastline stretches from the mouth of the River Sado to Zambujeira do Mar, combining rocky coves and cliffs with some of Europe’s most sandy and undeveloped beaches.

The Southern Alentejo province is rich in Arab influence, based on the 500 years that North Africans ruled. Low white washed houses with tall thick chimneys are common. Évora, the center of the Alentejo, could be called a living museum, including a Roman temple, Gothic cathedral, and ancient ramparts.

Also here is the unique Portuguese style of Manueline, a celebration of navigation and the sea. Évora is a thriving place for life, commerce, palatial hotels and a cuisine as rich as its past.

You could drive for 40 minutes in the Northeastern corner of the Alentejo and see nothing but cork forests and a clear blue sky. Then, the road leads to Portalegre, a bustling little city, full of life and movement.

In this sparsely populated corner of the world, how can such a historic and thriving city exist? And, how is it that with its many shops, eateries, parks, cafes and soaring historic center, complete with castle and cathedral, Portalegre somehow gets left out of some guidebooks? The city has more than enough crafts, wines, scenery, and monuments to fill days of exploring.

Both the wines and cuisine of the Alentejo have been influenced by Greek, Roman and Arab visitors. These cultures brought their traditional cuisines to the Alentejo and today many local dishes are based on Mediterranean ingredients: Bread crumbs, or migas, rich sausages and dark hams are popular.

The Alentejo climate of hot summers and cool winters helps create flavorful grapes that transform into ripe and complex wines. The Alentejo is now a world wine region, and the region’s winemakers have ushered in modern advancements, earning acclaim for full-bodied, fruity reds and light, oaky whites.

Today, traditional Portuguese grape varieties are the rule. Modern winemakers have introduced international varieties too, such as Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon into their local blends. The Alentejo was not always known for white wines, but new tech and grapes have helped bring some great whites to the market.

A rich history, stunning scenery, a mild climate, good food and wine — and good people. This special region of a wildly popular country will not remain undiscovered for much longer.

(To hear Jayme’s further take on all regions of mainland Portugal and the two Portuguese island groups — the Azores and Madeira, go to Episode 51 of my award-winning podcast, Places I Remember with Lea Lane. It’s on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen, or on my website in my bio.)

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