A Journey to the Heartland of Portugal
Epics Head of Portugal Rachel reflects on journeys ventured in one of her favourite regions of Portugal, Alentejo.
What makes Portugal tick? For me, it’s Alentejo.
Before epic, I had no idea that Alentejo, a region that in fact covers over one-third of mainland Portugal, even existed. Fast track to three years later and it’s without a doubt my favourite region. With some of its finest spots being located within a two-hour drive of my current base Lisbon, I spent the latter half of 2020 travelling here to reimmerse myself in the vast plains and understand this humble region on a deeper level.
Alentejo is an area greatly unexplored yet heavily conquered in its past, history is in abundance and lies on the hilltop fortified villages that separate long-lying vast and desert-like empty plains covering most of the land. In summer, with high temperatures the ground is a dry as a bone, however, unlike the occasional cacti you would expect in that of a typical desert, the novelty is replaced with singular cork trees that exemplify one of the biggest trades within the region. Vineyards are endless and provide the nectar to what most Portuguese would describe as their finest selection of wines. Show up at a dinner party with an Alentejo red and you’ve already started the evening on a high, it’s almost impossible for anyone to dislike the rich stewed fruit-jammy-like tastes that Alentejo never disappoints to satisfy.
The locals carry a restful charm and who could blame them as it seems they’ve got it totally right! Grazing off the land with fresh olive mangroves and seasonal produce… not to mention copious amounts of first-rate wine, it’s a lifestyle to envy and certainly one I hope to retire to one day.
Some of my favourite characters hail from Alentejo. Take Jose, the chief cork extraordinaire at Herdade da Maroteira, his knowledge and love for the region are as wide as the smile that is ever-present when speaking of his passion for the cork-pulling trade whilst overlooking vast endless plains from the highest point of the 540ha estate. The farm is one I revisit regularly… to laze in the sun with their friendly watchdogs after a morning of hiking through their world-class vines, or watch the sunset over the Serra D’Ossa mountains- the only friendly reminder that time is in fact not standing still in this peaceful region.
Alentejo is unhurried.
It’s one of my favourite destinations to get lost in… and I can do it over and over again. In fact, I have lost count of the number of times I have stumbled across a tiny hilltop town, each one unique in its design yet incredibly well-preserved. Sometimes you just drive to see what small-town may pop up as you ride, exploring as you go, there is no better destination for this than Alentejo.
In travelling this way, I have discovered destinations completely off-the-beaten-track that have fast become my favoured hidden gems. From the teeny tiny town of Ourem, with three restaurants and a castle that takes up one-third of the hilltop, all the way along to the Spanish border where you’ll find Monsaraz, home to my favourite restaurant where the experience is almost as fine as the food (and the view out to Alqueva Lake isn’t so shabby either). Where Isabel serves up her tasty Alentejo cuisine and doesn’t let you leave until you’ve ended the meal with her favourite dessert chased down with a homemade (and deliciously dangerous) pennyroyal digestif.
Your senses are alive in Alentejo.
At Be Aromatic, Rute lives amongst a field of aromas. From Lemon verbena, peppermint to marjoram (a species of oregano). Wandering lazily through the colorful fields is a fragrant explosion which is not only piquantly stimulating, (especially when Rute speaks of how she incorporates her garden of aromas into regional culinary delights which are possible to sample in her new cookbook Sal Verde) but gives a strong sense of understanding in the history of Alentejo and its many influences.
Food in Alentejo is connected to the countryside. A region where simple pleasures are enjoyed and made use of profusely (as it is one of the poorest regions after all) most dishes are innovated with a base of olive oil, bread and aromatic herbs. Basic in its foundation, yet remarkable in quality. The locals use the land to enhance the unique and delicious flavours of Alentejo.
Inside her factory where the herbs are left to dry, Rute offers me a herbal water infusion, using lemon verbena from her fields. It is crisp and refreshing, a welcome treat from the blazing 30-degree heat outside, even as the sun begins to sink over the horizon.
Drive along the west and you hit the coastline. Imagine endless white sandy beach-breaks paired with frothy crystal blue waves… The colour is immense, incomparable to any others that you will spot along Portugal’s vast stretching coastal line. It’s where you can truly revel in a spirit of adventure, at Praia do Areão it is simply you and the sea. You can surf or swim for hours without seeing a single soul in the late summer season when the temperatures are just a tad too low for the usual beach dwellers.
Alentejo is beautiful in its simplicity, a welcoming allure that challenges the need for clutter where space and time are effortlessly connected. It is a region that has been untouched and nature is its heartbeat… Every moment I spend here is truly cherished.