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Alentejo, Revisited

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Susete and I decided to  temporarily move to Portugal’s capital city for many reasons. The culture, the lifestyle, the views, the vibrancy, the nearby ocean…. Lisbon definitely has my heart, but Alentejo has my soul.

Lisbon’s changed over the past few years. For good and for bad, tourism has increased exponentially, bringing a much needed boost to the economy, but also drastically changing the experience. I feel like I talk about it all the time now, because it’s such an overwhelmingly apparent fact of life now here in the big city. Many things I previously loved about Lisbon, that drew me here, have now changed, and to a certain extent, it’s just not the same anymore. Take a road trip into the Portuguese country-side though, and it’s just as great as I remember. The soul of Portuguese culture, history, and cuisine still thrives in all its authentic glory. I’m almost hesitant to write about it even, in fear that eventually the same thing will happen there that is now happening in Lisbon. I want to promote the beauty of Alentejo, but I don’t want it to become TOO popular. You see, one of the absolute best things about Alentejo is that it’s still very real. It’s still a local’s place, not a tourist theme park. I hope that never changes. Fingers crossed.

The Alentejo province of Portugal lies to the south an east of Lisboa, across the Tejo river (“alen-tejo” means “after the river”), and makes up about 1/3 of the country. Some travel experts have hailed the region as a sort of new Tuscany, but that’s not really a fair comparison, as Alentejo certainly has its own unique Portuguese identity. I get it, the rolling hills, the olive trees, the vineyards, beautiful landscapes… Tuscany has those things too, but let’s get this right…. Alentejo is not Tuscany.

Alentejo Landscape

The Alentejo countryside has some of the most magnificent landscape I’ve ever seen. Yes, there are wide open fields, and yes, there are rolling hills that are green in the spring and bright yellow in the fall. The fields are dominated by an interweaving of olive groves, vineyards, and vast oak forests. The oaks are what really give Alentejo its unique Portuguese character. The two dominant varieties are Holm oaks, which the famed black Iberian pigs use to feed off the belotas (acorns), and the Cork oaks, which allow Portugal to produce about 85% of the world’s cork supply. There are stretches of road where you feel like your driving right through the middle of a cork forest, with the trees literally forming a tunnel over the road. Cork, olives, grape vines, and large wheat fields. This is by far the overwhelmingly dominant sight that you’ll see in Alentejo, and I absolutely love it.

Alentejo Skies

The skies…. the skies go on forever. In Alentejo, the sky is vast. It’s like a giant bright blue overhead ocean. Sometimes the clouds form in little cotton balls, and sometimes they have long curves creating a great sense of perspective. Sunsets are second to none. Bright yellow, to orange, to pink, purple…. it’s like a fantasy land…. and then… the blackness of night. The Alqueva lake area, is an official DarkSky region, providing some of the best stargazing in the world. However, I’ve yet to master the proper technique of astrophotography, so unfortunately I don’t have any good photos to show you, but you can easily search those…. it’s amazing.

Alentejo Towns

Scattered around the vast Alentejo countryside, are some of the most quintessential Portuguese towns, where life slows down, and old world Portugal can still be felt. Alentejo is a farming region, and like any farming regions around the world, they still hold on to tradition and appreciate their history. The towns that lie on lower ground, are farming towns. Quintas (farms/gardens) grow olive trees, vineyards, and trees for cork. There is also a lot of country produce like potatoes, onions, and various citrus fruits. Then, there’s the “specialty towns”, that are known for producing very specific products – Arraiolos for tapetes (hand-woven carpets), Estremoz, Vila Viçosa and Borba for marble (these towns are covered in marble like it’s nothing, and driving through the quarries is a great sight), and Corval for olarias (producing hand-painted ceramics).

Scattered across the vast Alentejo landscapes are the hill towns. In the middle of a wide open space will sit a single hill, way up there, but not quite tall enough to be called a mountain. On top of that hill will be an old medieval walled town, built in the shape that the land gives them to work with, and always dominated by a castle. These hill towns served as fortress border towns to protect Portugal from the Spanish over the many centuries that these two countries have been frenemies for. My favourite of these being Monsaraz, probably one of the cutest little towns you’ve ever seen. At one end, an old ruined castle that you explore freely, now with a sometimes used bullring in the middle of it (how do they get a bull way up there?!), at the other end outside the walls, an old church that is just left in its ruined state as it’s a protected heritage site. Within the city walls there are whitewashed houses, now home to various little artisan shops (friends of mine run my FAVOURITE ceramic store), a few restaurants, and an excellent local family-run wineshop (who have their vineyard in the fields down below). Outside the walls there are some more whitewashed houses with burnt orange tiled rooftops, mostly used for tourist rentals, and there’s a single restaurant out there serving up amazingly authentic Alentejo cuisine.

Alentejo Cuisine

I’m a chef, so of course I focus on food wherever I go. In fact, I’m pretty sure most of you reading this site expect that by now. Let me tell you, Alentejo cuisine is one of my favourite cuisines in the world. I love and cook all foods from all places, but I tend to have very Eurocentric taste in food, and Alentejo food is right up there for me with cuisines from Provence in France, and the food of the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. It’s simple country food that that really reflects the spirit of the region. The most famous product from this region is the pork. The Iberian black pigs (porco preto) is the best pork in the world. North Americans know about the massively expensive and luxurious Jamon Iberico de Bellota from Spain, but most people don’t know that many of the pigs used in this famous cured Spanish ham actually come from Portugal, and this country actually does have their own version called Presunto. In Portugal, the porco preto is commonly used fresh as well, and let me tell you, simply charcoal-grilled and sprinkled with coarse salt and lemon, it’s just as good as eating the best beef steak you’ve ever had.

Other Alentejo specialties include ovos mexidos com espargos (scrambled eggs with asparagus, which are in season right now!), migas (leftover bread mixed with olive oil and meat drippings, with different accompaniments), and the iconic Carne de Porco á Alentejana, one of my favourite Portuguese dishes made with pork and clams. Of course, all dishes are served alongside a glass of great Alentejo wine!

Alentejo Wines

The northern Douro region is the most well-known wine region of Portugal (for good reason!), but Alentejo is definitely the unsung hero of the Portuguese wine scene. Actually, every single region of Portugal is a wine region, but Alentejo is really making a strong case for being one of the best. This region is hot, has LOTS of sun, and has a great permaculture that contributes to the bold flavours of the wine. Due to the hot climate, wines from Alentejo tend to be more on the big and bold side of things, but they do range from light-medium body to full-body, and have pretty refined tannins. The wine capital of the region is Reguengos de Monsaraz, as there are some real heavy hitters around that town, such as Herdade do Esporão, and Carmim, but great wines can be found all over the province. Portugal has about 250 grape varieties that are unique to this country, as well as some grapes from other regions that have adapted well to the Portuguese soils.

Wines from the region are generally divided up into 3 main categories
DOC Tinto Alentejo: Full-bodied reds made from Aragonês (Tempranillo), Trincadeira, Castelão, Alfrocheiro and Alicante Bouschet.
DOC Branco Alentejo: Light-bodied and Full-bodied white wines made with Arinto, Antão Vaz, Roupeiro and Fernão Pires.
Alentejano (IGP/Vinho Regional): Full-bodied red and white wines from a larger encompassing region that may include non-indigenous grape varieties.

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Alentejo People

As I mentioned above, Alentejo is a relatively traditional place. Old-school values reign supreme overall, although there are also some pretty modern and innovative people pulling the region into the future. The people are part of the traditional Alentejo landscape that I spoke about. Old men with canes sitting on a bench or doorstep, wearing the traditional espinhada (herringbone) pattern flat cap, very reminiscent of the Celtic flat caps of Ireland and Britain. Old ladies wearing long flowing cotton skirts and apron-like smocks over top, hobbling down the road carrying a bag of groceries. People at a small roadside café, sitting outside sipping a bica (espresso), gossiping about the latest event around town – probably a sheep ran astray.

With old country values, the people of Alentejo are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever come across. At times, when passing through a middle-of-nowhere town, you may feel the eyes on you, but once you get speaking to the locals you not only become a friend to them, you become family. People in this region open their doors and their hearts to anyone willing to reciprocate. This isn’t a place where you rumble through, see a sight, fight the lineups, take a selfie and move on… in Alentejo you stop, wander, sit to eat, have a coffee, chat with the locals, make new friends, and slow down time. These are people who have to work hard for every single thing, but aren’t afraid to share what they do have, making you feel welcome and not want to leave.

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Alentejo History

Without going to deep into it (as this post is long enough already!), the Alentejo region of Portugal is full of history, dating back thousands of years.

More commonly known, are the many castles and fortifications, especially along the border with Spain. These stem from the beginnings of the Portuguese nation (around the 12th and 13th centuries). However, there’s much more than just medieval history here. You can find many ruins and artifacts from the Islamic Moors who ruled before the modern Portuguese, the Christian Visigoths who ruled before them, back to the Romans, the Celtic tribes, and neolithic Iberian people who have left the Alentejo countryside dotted with many ancient stone sites that are truly inspiring to visit, as they are found by driving down dirt roads through farmers fields, and have no barricades…. they can be explored freely and often have not one other single soul in sight.

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Alentejo is often left out in the tourist mags and websites, probably for the better, in my opinion, but it’s truly one of the best places to experience authentic old world Portugal. Driving through this countryside is beautiful, relaxing, and revitalizing. It’s a place that captures you heart and touches your soul. The scenery is outstanding, the history is intriguing, the cuisine is amazingly appetizing, but with all these great things that Alentejo has to offer, it’s the spirit of the people that will have you longing for the time until you can go back.

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