A Taste of Portugal – The Alentejo:
I have a soft spot for Portugal. Especially for those parts of Portugal I’ve visited recently, where I’ve found a wealth of history, great food and a people for whom hospitality seems to be second nature. The Alentejo – directly south of the Tejo river, is somewhere I’ve been to before, though only remember distantly. And I didn’t know it was called the Alentejo at that time. Many years ago I spent a magical few days driving around the area staying in turrets of castles, palaces and monasteries. On that occasion we started our trip in Lisbon but just spent one night there before heading south on a somewhat haphazard ramble through the region. On this trip I was truly delighted to revisit some of the wonderful places I’d seen before. But of course there was much, much more!
Our first stop was at Hotel Vila Park for an overnight stay and a whole selection of local dishes. We were heading for the Alentejo coastline and needed to be up very early the next morning for a 6 am departure for Sines fishmarket. As I’ve found throughout Portugal, there’s an innate level of hospitality everywhere you go. Dish after dish of fish appeared. From ‘the best octopus I’ve ever tasted’ as one of my companions remarked to a stunning fish stew served in a traditional Cataplana that allows you to steam the fish in a sauce and bring it to the table without losing any of the aroma.
Up at an ungodly hour the next morning, it was hard to manage more than a bit of bread and a lot of coffee from the Hotel’s breakfast buffet. We set off in the half light for Sines, a small seaside town on the Alentejo coast and home to one of Portugal’s largest fish-markets. As we were to discover throughout our trip, fish plays an important part in Portuguese diet, with much of it caught locally, by day-boats, which return sometimes twice a day to off-load their cargo for auction and distribution to second level wholesales suppliers of restaurants, retail markets and shops.
There is something intrinsically romantic about watching the sun rise. Even if you are in a busy fish market, surrounded by gulls, fishermen and crates of fish.
Sines was the birthplace of Vasco da Gama and we wanted to vist the castle and it’s museum. But, our early start necessitated a second breakfast in a local cafe. My muffin like rice cake was very welcome, as was a large cup of milky coffee.
We found a lot more to explore in Sines, the birthplace of Vasco da Gama. And, I was fascinated to learn a little more about this great explorer and his contribution to the development of Western Europe.
After exploring the town, learning a bit about some of the legends and traditions and wandering around the castle, before heading off along the heritage coastline to Arte e Sale, a charming beach-side restaurant that specialises in locally caught fish, for lunch.
Perhaps you may have noticed a recurring theme. Portugal has the highest per capita fish consumption in Europe and one of the highest in the world. And, although I’d been to the Alentejo region before, I hadn’t seen the beautiful heritage coastline with sandy beaches and well maintained pathways for walkers or appreciated how the people of Portugal are tied to the sea.
I also wasn’t aware of the rich viticulture of the region, but a visit to Adega da Cartuxa provided an excellent introduction to the wines of Alentejo. We were treated to more wine tasting at Convento do Espinheiro, the beautifully restored Monastery that provided us with hospitality for the remainder of the trip. Just outside Evora, I wondered initially how I’d managed to miss it on my last visit to the region, but learnt later that it was only recently restored.
The hotel was magnificent inside and out – and we were indulged with a wonderful supper and some very luxurious spa treatments. More later though, because as you might expect there are stories to tell.
Of course we explored Evora itself – the historic University City which is the capital of the region. I had vivid memories of this place, both of the city centre
and of the bizarre chapel of bones
Then on to Arraiolos where we learnt a little about their famous rug-making industry and were lucky enough to visit the newly opened museum
There’s plenty more to share. For now I’d like to thank the Portuguese Tourist Board and the regional tourist board of Alentejo for their hospitality. I have avoided the cliche of yet another ‘Passion for Portugal’ features, but, in no way does that mean my passion for this wonderful country is any less.
- TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932 www.flytap.com) flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon
- For more information on Alentejo, Portugal visit: www.visitalentejo.pt
- For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com