Arraiolos to Vila Vicosa
Our latest Iberian sojourn took us to Portugal’s largest province, its “wild east”, the Alentejo, “the land beyond the River Tagus”, just 90 minutes east of Lisbon and just west of Spain’s Extremadura, the land of the Conquistadors. The Alentejo is a vast, primarily rural, utterly tranquil and unspoiled area of rolling farm terrain, covering one third of Portugal’s surface but housing less than one tenth of its population. This land of endless horizons and immense estates, latifundios, is dotted with vineyards, undulating wheat fields, olive groves and cork forests.
The region is populated by goats, horses, sheep and the famed acorn-grazing black pigs, and it boasts highly photogenic, fortified hill towns each with its own defensive fortress or castle atop the hill, built during the Christian Re-conquest. Its handsome villages sport tidy whitewashed homes with wrought iron balconies, often trimmed with yellow (to protect against fevers) or blue (to ward off flies).
Early spring, when the landscape is blanketed with wild flowers, is the best time to visit sun baked Alentejo, which becomes stifling hot in summer.
During our tour, we lodged in several Pousadas de Portugal. Similar to the state-owned Spanish Paradors, this network of landmark buildings converted to elegant inns, owned by the state and now managed by the Pestana hotel group, ranges from manor homes to former monasteries, convents, castles and palaces.
Pousadas Of The Alentejo
We began our journey in Alentejo’s westernmost point, at the Pousada da Nossa Senhora da Assunção, a “new wave” Pousada with 15 rooms in the original 15th century monastery, wrapped around a silent, marble and granite cloister planted with citrus trees, and 17 new guest quarters in a starkly all white, minimalist wing, designed by architect José Paulo dos Santos in the style of the Porto School of Architiecure. The Pousada’s rooms provide 21st century creature comforts, with terrific sit out balconies where guests can admire the town of Arraiolos and its oval-shaped medieval fortifications looming above, with a soundtrack of sheep grazing on the hillside. Utter tranquility. Guests have use of tennis courts, a pool and Lusitanian horses at the stables next door.
Moving to the southern, drier and flatter Alentejo (Baixo), Portugal’s “bread basket”, we enjoyed another tranquil stay at the elegantly restored, 20-room, 15th-century Pousada Castelo de Alvito in the spic and span white village of Alvito, handy to wineries (Herdade do Rocim) and the city of Beja. From our beautifully decorated, spacious deluxe corner room with arched Manueline windows and stone benches built into the thick walls, we watched the resident peacocks strutting about in the gardens below.
We then traveled northeast to Estremoz, to the “museum” of all pousadas, the Pousada da Rainha Santa Isabel, the majestic, former 13th-century castle-palace of King Denis I, built for his wife, Queen Isabel, high atop the town with magnificent views of the vineyards. Here we slept in regal splendor in our “period piece” of a deluxe room with heavy drapes, 17th century antiques and four-poster canopy bed.
From Estremoz it was on to quiet Vila Viçosa, on the Borba plain, the white marble town and ancestral home of the powerful Braganza monarchs. Next to the enormous 16th century Braganza ducal palace sits the Pousada de Dom Joao IV, yet another sparkling white restored Royal convent with a lovely fountain-filled, frescoed cloister, original nuns’oratories, stunning marble staircases and doorways and whose ten, themed “special rooms” are worth the splurge.
Continuing north to the rockier Upper (Alto) Altentejo, we lodged in the imposing 14th-century monastery-caste-palace Pousada Flor da Rosa, a fascinating example of Portuguese Gothic with its defensive battlements and towers intact, once belonging to the Knights of the Order of Malta. Our contemporary quarters, however, were housed, once again, in a new generation wing facing the garden, designed by yet another acclaimed Portuguese architect, Joao Luis Carriho da Graça. The top floor tower suite with its enormous private terrace is highly coveted and provides a dose of medieval mysticism.
We ended our Alentejo explorations at the rustic style Pousada de Santa Maria in marvelous Marvão, the region’s most photographed garrison town, perched atop a dramatic escarpment, within the confines of a superb 12th-century fortress with breathtaking, sweeping 360-degree views over the vast plains. While lacking in grandiose public spaces, as it was sewn together from several cottages, it does provide a cozy and restful setting for hiking in the Serra de São Mamede Nature Park.
In addition to Marvão, visitors should not miss two other highly picturesque fortified hill towns, magical Monsaraz (“Eagles’ Nest”), an extremely scenic border outpost above the gigantic Alqueva Dam, whose medieval castle courtyard functions an unusual makeshift bull ring, and Castelo de Vide the pretty neighbor to Marvão. An immaculate, flower-filled, mineral springs town, it boasts an ancient Jewish quarter with small, restored synagogue believed to date from the 13th-century, the oldest in Portugal.
A Visit to Évora, Capital of the Alentejo
The multi-layered Alentejo “capital” of Évora, a university town and UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its 15th-century Aqueduct, spider web of Moorish style, tiny cobblestone streets and wealth of monuments and Roman remains all contained within medieval walls, makes a perfect single base for exploring the region. Évora’s former 16th-century convent, Pousada dos Lóios, serves as an elegant and atmospheric lodging with a dead center location from which to explore the area. It sits directly across from a 2nd century Roman temple and next door to the Igreja dos Lóios church with a nave covered with exquisite 18th century blue and white tiles, azulejos. Across the street sits the excellent Museum of Évora, on the site of the former Roman forum and behind the museum, the pre-Gothic, fortress-like Cathedral on the site of the former Mosque. This elegant Pousada boasts a cozy living room with fireplace, an inviting interior courtyard with pool, romantic glassed in cloister housing the restaurant, smallish standard rooms (formerly monks’ cells) but sumptuous suites (such as 101) with original frescoes.
Visitors to Évora should not miss the macabre Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of Blones, of the Church of St. Francis, whose walls and columns are lined with bones of some 5,000 skeletons unearthed from city churchyards in the 16th-century to serve as reminder of the fragile human condition. For archaeology buffs, the environs of Evora are blessed with a bounty of megalithic sights, fields hiding menhirs, dolmens and stone circles, including a Portuguese Stonehenge, the Cromeleque dos Almendres, dating from around 2,000 B.C.