Road trip through the Alentejo
Spring has arrived in southern Portugal this month. What better way to soak up the sunshine than a road trip through the Alentejo. This region is vast and ranges from the coast just south of Lisbon to the border with Spain. We´ll focus this journey on the the eastern portion known for its wine production, Quintas/Enoturismo, agriculture and historic monuments of Portugal's past.
The drive North from the Algarve is a a quick 2 hours to our base in Evora for the week. Once we left the the A2 tollway the landscape quickly changes to display the abundance of crops that the region is known for. Vast acres of Olive, and Almond trees interspersed between Vineyards, natural forests of Cork Oak and Cattle/Sheep grazing land. We were greeted by some of the first Almond blossoms in a few of the vast orchards along the route, adding a pink hue to the landscape. Newly minted Lambs, Calfs, and Kids (Goats) in the open fields were keeping their parents on their toes as they ran around without concern through the grass and rock outcroppings.
We were amazed to see how many new plantings of Almond, Olive, and Vineyards throughout the region. It appears that the demand for these crops is abundant. It is good to know that even the largest of farms are still mostly locally/family owned. There are a few commercial corporate farm operations moving in though. We learned that California Almond growers have recently moved into the area to take advantage of the low cost of land and available water. The largest reservoir (Alqueva) in Europe was built here in 2002, specifically dedicated to agriculture in order to encourage farming in the region.
Our first stop on the way to Evora was the small Village of Vila de Frades and the Adega (winery) GERAÇÕES DA TALHA. The village is considered the capital of Talha wine making, a process of making wine in large clay pots ( Amphoras'), said to be introduced to Portugal by the Romans. The winery is operated today by Joao and Teresa, a young couple who are carrying on a family tradition in the winery dating back to the early 18th century.
The ruins of a Roman Villa, São Cucufate are nearby, in which archaeological evidence was discovered showing that the famous talha wine was brought by the Romans.
Our home base for this trip is the Convento do Espinheiro Hotel and Spa. Monasteries and Convents are everywhere in this part of Portugal, sadly many were simply destroyed and built over to make way for more modern facilities. The Convento do Espinheiro, fortunately was spared destruction and restored with a new wing added to include modern hotel accommodations, Spa and meeting rooms. There are a few of the old Convent rooms available for overnight stays, but the preserved rooms are small.
In 1458, during the reign of King Afonso V, the church and convent were built and settled by monks of the Order of St. Jerónimo. The Church, Chapel, Cloisters, and grounds are like walking into a time capsule. The main church is incredibly ornate filled with marble on the walls and inlaid mosaics from the abundant marble quarries in the area. The Azuelo tiles and painted frescos are incredibly detailed. It was a true pleasure to walk through and admire these facilities each day. The grounds feature a small chapel that was one of the original structures built and the nearby 1,000 year old olive tree continues to flourish.
Day two we spent exploring the city of Évora, The capital city of the Alentejo, one of the largest cities in the region and home to the University of Evora, the second oldest University in Portugal founded in 1559. The entire walled city is A UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its well-preserved historic center is one of the richest monuments in Portugal including the essential sites of the Roman Temple of Diana, the Lóios Church, the Chapel of Bones, and the Cathedral.
Day three included a drive out to the walled and fortified town of Elvas near the Spanish border, its surrounding fortresses and back to Evora for a winery visit.
To me Elvas is underrated and a must visit when in the region. It is the largest Fortified city in Europe with much to see within its walls, The Castle of Elvas and the maze of Moorish streets that surround it, the Old Cathedral of Elvas and many fascinating museums to name a few. Although the forts surrounding Elvas are a big drawcard to the city, the feature of the city is the 7 km long 16th-century Amoreira Aqueduct, built to enable the fortress to withstand lengthy sieges.
As part of the central defense, Elvas is surrounded by secondary forts and fortlets. The most fascinating are two star-shaped forts – Santa Luzia and the more complex Nossa Senhora da Graça Fort. Its easy to see why they built these monuments where they did, upon the highest points in the area with stunning views for miles of the surrounding territory.
One of the surrounding secondary forts of Elvas is Nossa Senhora da Graça. Built to be impenetrable with three fortified walls and gates, including a moat & drawbridge, iron gates and spears to drop on the enemy should they penetrate any gateway, and of course holes in the ceiling where hot oil could be dropped on any unwanted guests! Inside the Fort there is an underground maze of hallways and rooms designed for easy movement throughout the fortress and included munitions storage, dining halls and kitchens. The very top of the fortress is the Governors mansion, well protected by the surrounding fortress while providing luxury accomodations and amazing views.
Tour and tasting at Cartuxa, a very large producer of wine and Olive oil in the region
Day four included a drive to Vila Viçosa and Monsarez. Vila Viçosa is a mid sized Alentejo town situated close to the Portuguese-Spanish border. In the center of Marble production in Portugal, the quarried stone is used predominantly on buildings, streets and sidewalks. There are quite a few attractions and things to do in Vila Viçosa including its castle but probably the most interesting attraction is the Ducal Palace of Vila Viçosa as this had a major effect on the town’s influence and history.
The graceful, well preserved medieval village of Monsaraz shows signs of having been a fortified settlement during prehistoric times. It has always had strong military and religious influences, located on the top of the hill with views over the river Guadiana, Alqueva one of the largest artificial lakes in Europe, and the border with Spain, made it highly coveted. Gifted to the Knights Templar as gratitude for their defeat of the Moors – their mark still evident in the 12th-century castle.
Day five and on our way home today we stopped in Estremoz and walked through “the Portuguese Stonehenge”, Cromeleque dos Almendres.
Estremoz is also located in the "Marble belt" region of Portugal and known as the White City due to the extensive use of marble. Its Saturday so the famous street market is in full regalia. The market features a section for "antiques" and a large farmers market filled with regional produce, cheeses, meats, handicrafts, and of course live chickens. The small walled castle on the hill features a Pousada hotel built in an old convent a beautiful old church, an imposing marble statue of Queen Isabel, and incredible views of the surrounding countryside
Cromeleque dos Almendres, one of Europe's largest prehistoric monuments and said to be one of the continent’s oldest, 2000 years older than the famous Stonehenge monument in England. Formed about 7,000 years ago with close to 100 stones, most unearthed in the 1960s. Geometrically aligned in relation to the equinox, it’s believed to have been associated with astronomical observation and sacred rituals, especially during the sunrise on the summer solstice. About a dozen monoliths still show carved drawings (snake-like shapes and circles), which have miraculously survived to this day and remain a mystery. A couple of them have human-like figures that possibly represent gods or deities, and are believed to have been used for cult purposes.
A statue in the center of a roundabout in the town of Cuba. Bullfighting is an important part of the culture in these parts but more for the raising of prized bulls as evidenced by the position of the Bullfighter here!