It’s really a unique experience to spend a night in a fairy-tale town like Monsaraz, high on top of a fortified hill, looking into the vast Alentejo plains on one side, and keeping a close eye on Spain on the other side, with the southern view overlooking Lake Alqueva, which is such a refreshing oasis in the middle of the sometimes desert-like Alentejo. However, if action is what you like, don’t come here. This is a quiet place. It’s peaceful, it’s natural, it’s historic. There are only about 40 people who actually live inside the city walls, and then about another 40 who live just outside the walls (but still up on the mountain). We woke up with the sun, got all our stuff together and headed out to walk the town once more before we left. I also wanted to stop back into Gina’s (our host) store to get some of her amazing hand-made ceramics. What had intended to be a short stop of purchasing bowls and returning keys, turned into an hour long hang-out in Gina’s store, while her and her husband, Amilcar were conducting business as well. This seems to always be the case with Gina, as she is a self-proclaimed super talker. She’s a true social buttlerfly, that one. Amilcar doesn’t speak English as well as Gina does, but he apparently like to socialize as well. Turns out, he’s quite a musician, being a base guitar player in a traditional Alentejo band. He got to showing us YouTube videos of his band, and his very proud of his music. So much so, that he gave both Phil and I signed copies of his CD! hahaha Getting to know Gina and Amilcar has truly been a treat, as they are really generous and friendly people. Mafalda, their oldest daughter who we met the day before, and Diana, the younger daughter who I met through scheduling the booking for the accommodations are also very nice, and you can tell this is a close family who works very well together and supports each other, while also really enjoying to share their region and culture with foreigners. This friendly reception paid with the absolutely stunning location, has made Monsaraz one of the most memorable places of the trip so far.
In our little Fiat Panda, Phil and I navigate down the steep, twisting road that leads off the mountain where Monsaraz sits, and back into the lower flat Altentejo landscape. We’re headed to our next destination, Beja, but we’re take the longer route in order to see more of the land around us. Not far after getting back down on flat land, we turn off heading south, in the direction of Mourao, which sits across the other side of Lake Alqueva. Crossing over the lake is a stark contrast to what we’re used to seeing while driving though Alentejo. No longer is it the flat desert-like plains, but now it’s a lake setting, with small rolling hills all around, covered in vegetation. It’s a refreshing break before we enter back into the familiar yellow-coloured surroundings. On the southern side of lake Alqueva, the scenery is dominated more heavily by large groves of olive trees, which tells us that this is a big olive-oil producing region.
I’ve always been told that Alentejo is a very poor region. 30% of the country’s land, with only 7% of it’s population, means very little means of earning a living for the residents here. This is what gives Alentejo cuisine is unique characteristics… having to make something out of nothing. I’ve always been told that it’s poor here, but never REALLY seen it… until we drove through the small town of Póvoa de Sao Miguel. We were really just meaning to pass by the town, on route, turning a little to shift our direction, and continue on to Beja, but we turned on the wrong road in town and inadvertently stumbled up the real poverty of Alentejo. So, this is what people were talking about. Before, I thought ‘poor’ here in Alentejo just meant low-earning farmers who don’t have much, but are still relatively comfortable and doing ok with what they have. In Póvoa de Sao Miguel, I learned what Alentejo poor really means. Our little Panda struggles to get us through the rough, half paved, fully crumbling roads. Little kids (and I mean LITTLE, like 4 or 5 yrs little) make their way down the road approaching us, with no parents in sight. Tattered clothing falling off of them, dirty skin… the scene conjures up images of what it might look like in a South American slum, not something I was expecting here in Portugal. The town, mostly deserted, probably because everyone is inside because it’s so hot. The odd spot on the side of the road, you will see a few old people sitting in a shady area, and looking at us with curiosity as we move past. It’s either curiosity or warning… get out, this is our town. Tourists definitely don’t come here.
Although we’re used to it now, the landscape of Alentejo, while driving through it, never ceases to amaze me. It’s just so unique, I can’t help but love it. We decided to stop for almoço (lunch) in the town of Serpa, known for it’s local cheese. It’s quickly apparent that Serpa is a factory town, but above the factories, sits a historic small city as well. With not much in site (it always seems so empty in these small country towns here), we go to the only place that seems to be open, a small churrasco restaurant. This was actually a unique opportunity for us. In Toronto, all we know about Portuguese food is churrasco… frango com piri-piri. Open flame roasted chicken with hot sauce. There are hundreds of these places in Tdot, but when I first came to Portugal, I saw that this was a rarity, not the norm. In fact, It’s very easy NOT to eat chicken the entire time you’re here. It’s because of this that I became determined to bring Portuguese food to Toronto, as the Portuguese would eat… in Portugal. Not the Canadian version that’s clearly targeted to keep the Canadian demographic happy (chinese chicken balls, anyone?). So, I wasn’t planning on eating roasted chicken here in Portugal, but here we are…. at the only place we can find, and it’s a churrasco place. Only locals are here, and of course, we receive the normal looks of “what are these doing here?” They aren’t necessarily evil looks, just curious, because they aren’t used to seeing foreigners finding their way into the normal local setting. We decided to order the frango assado (fire-roasted chicken), and the arroz de path (duck rice). We had to wait a while, because they made the chicken from scratch… and on an open flame, you have to be patient with chicken. It finally arrives and oh, man, was it worth the wait. It was good. The natural smokey char on the outside of the chicken and super juicy on the inside. There was no piri-piri sauce with this, but it wasn’t needed. The chicken spoke for itself. The rice was great too! Creamy and cooked perfectly. This definitely wasn’t the large volume quick-service style chicken and rice that you often will get from these types of places in Toronto. This place wasn’t fancy, it was pretty much a hole-in-the-wall type of place, but they respected the food, used good ingredients, and let them shine. Eating here was a happy accident.
Our final destination in Alentejo… Beja. Our first stop is to drop our car off at the Hertz office. Google maps leads us to a location in a very industrial part on the outskirts of the city. The only problem? There was nothing there. Well, there were buildings… seemed like an auto dealership area… except that the buildings were empty. The showrooms were abandoned. Phil found a sign on one of the windows that said, “Hertz”, so we’ve reached the right spot, but we learned that they’ve recently moved. Great. Now what? With a stroke of luck that we seem to be having the entire time here, a couple local workers happen to be driving by and we ask them if they know where the Hertz office is. Rather than tell us directions, they instead lead us all the way there. It’s become apparent to us that this friendly and hospitable attitude is a theme here, in this region.
After arriving at our hotel in Beja, we decide to wander a bit, to try to see the some of the city before it gets too late, as we’re afraid of things shutting down, as they seem to do early here in Alentejo. It appears to be much more modern than we’ve seen in the other Alentejo towns we’ve visited, but there is some serious history behind this slightly more modern façade. We stop into the Beja regional museum, which allows us to see much of this history, including artifacts that come from the Moors, the Visigoths, and the Romans. Like a lot of the major towns in Altentejo, Beja is located on a hill, that gave it a dominating position overlooking the wide plains. The area was originally settled by Celtic peoples, and then conquered by Julius Caesar for Rome, who built the predecessor of today’s town, calling it Pax Julia, in 48 BC. After the fall of Rome, the Visigoths took over the town in the 400s, calling it Paca. In 713, The Moorish Umayyad army invaded and took the town, and it changed hands within the Islamic influence a few time, until it became part of the Almohad empire who controlled all of North Africa. Starting from 1162, the town was captured by the Portuguese, and then back again by the Moors…. then finally, in 1234, the Portuguese took full control under King Sancho II.
For dinner, we decided to look for a place that was recommended by Nuno, our guy at Hertz. We ended up walking just slightly out of the city centre into a more residential area, and found Pulo do Lobo. Only frequented by locals, we had a feeling this one would be good. Phil & I both ordered the Terra e Mar… basically a Portuguese surf & turf. The dish came with secreto de porco preto (secreto cut of Alentejano black pig), nicely sized grilled prawns, cut in half lengthwise, and some crisp potato slices, as is served with so many dishes here in Portugal. Such a great meal. The dish was simple, again, allowing high quality ingredients shine, without anything masking them. This was a sure hit, and a great meal to end our journey through Alentejo, as it spoke perfectly to the regional cuisine. An early morning awaits us, as we catch the commuter train to Lisboa, and let Prince Philip loose on the Portugal’s great capital.