Portugal Chapter One: Walking, Tasting and Winding Back the Clock in the Alentejo

14 Oct

The secret of eternal youth lies in a single, two-syllable word. Travel. 

Get off your butt, get out of your comfort zone, and find your way – preferably on foot – into a new place and culture. I guarantee you will drop ten years. Travel forces reversion to childhood, a return to a time when your world was a wide-eyed wondrous place.

 

I took my own advice over five years ago and have no plan to stop traveling any time soon. In this, my sixty-first year (my darling husband Stuart is 65), I’ve sailed the Caribbean, skiied in France, Italy and Austria, returned twice to Spain to dance flamenco and hiked the Picos de Europa and Les Ecrins in the French Alps.

 

If you can’t pick up and leave right now at least make plans to escape the daily grind soon. In the meantime travel vicariously with us.

For the past two weeks we’ve been in Portugal exploring its capital city, countryside and coastal paths. A brief taste of Portugal on two previous visits (once in the Algarve in the late 70s and then 15 years ago motorcycling touring) only scratched the surface.

 

For ease I’ll group our wanderings into Chapter One: Alentejo Region and Chapter Two: Lisbon and the Algarve. I was driver and Stuart navigator (with help from Doris the sat nav in our rental Clio). We booked accommodation a day or two in advance but had no trouble finding good value, charming apartments, share houses and guest houses on booking.com and airbnb. 

COUNTRY ALENTEJO


Inland Alentejo in early October is a mostly flat, dry and dusty world of traditional agriculture encompassing olives, vineyards, cork trees, cattle, sheep, pigs and horses. Sounds uninviting. On the contrary we loved it. Yes, there were some long spells of fairly tedious driving, but the UNESCO World Heritage town of Evora is delightful, as is the wine country to the east, including the fortified hilltop village of Monsaraz overlooking Europe’s largest manmade lake. We even went 5th millenium BC megalith and menhir hunting along unsealed roads. We found standing stones in their hundreds.

Evora 


Monsaraz


We stayed in Monte Do Serrado De Baixo, a traditional farmhouse converted into four en suite guest rooms with a communal lounge, shady garden and swimming pool. Days were dry and sunny with temps in the mid-twenties, not quite hot enough for me to take the plunge. Ideal though for walking and cycling. This is Stu surveying the (now defunct) Agua De Prata mid-16th century acquaduct that runs 19 k from a water source to supply Evora – and right along the boundary of our accommodation.


The family-run business specialises in cycling tours. We met a delightful couple from Scotland who were doing exactly that which made for entertaining evenings recounting our days’ actvities. Ours consisted of wine tasting, strolling and eating.


Scenes from Monte Do Serrado De Baixo

Two wineries we visited, Herdade Do Esporao and Monte Da Ravasqueira, were chalk and cheese. Esporao is one of the oldest, best established of the high end regional wineries, while Ravesquiera was converted from a horse stud farm to a winery by the offspring upon the death of the founding patriarch just twelve years ago.Monte Da Ravasqueira

Amusingly our 4pm winery tour booking (you can’t just rock up to a cellar door like you can in Australia, oh no…) was confused with another couple (two female Swedish friends).

 

Pedro the young guide was roused from his siesta by a waitress cleaning up after what looked like a mammoth, long Friday lunch. When he’d rubbed the sleep from his eyes Pedro announced that the other couple on the English language tour had cancelled, but no matter, he would treat us to a personal tour of the carriage museum before the winery tour. OK….. Interesting, but 19th century carriages were not high on our priorities. Fifteen minutes into his spiel a woman walked in looking for Pedro. She appeared to be one half of the couple who, it transpired had not cancelled. Pedro had assumed we had cancelled because Stuart had not instructed our guest house manager to reconfirm with the winery. Cultural lesson learned. Confirm and reconfirm.

 

The women from Stockholm were horse and carriage enthusiasts staying in the area for a week of dressage training. We began the carriage tour once again.

In fact the entire tour was fascinating and the wines we tasted very good. I was especially impressed with Pedro’s demonstration of how they use satellite imaging to determine when and what grapes to pick for the different qualities of wine. For such a young company Ravasqueira are doing admirably. 

Esporao was also interesting, but staff have a super laidback approach to marketing and customer service. Or maybe, once again it’s just the Portuguese way.

We would have liked to have eaten in their acclaimed restaurant but it was booked out when we enquired the day before. We looked into the restaurant however after we finished in the tasting bar and although it was only 2pm (early for a Portuguese lunch) there were several empty tables inside and all the verandah tables vacant. Perhaps a couple of coachloads were expected however at no point did anyone encourage us to taste wine or order a tapas or even to buy anything.

We had more luck with restaurants in Evora (we ate in town twice and the guesthouse prepared a simple meal for six of us on our final evening). We walked into what turned out to be the best restaurant, Fialho, as it was the first one we saw and it looked inviting. The waiter who greeted us looked surprised when we said we didn’t have a reservation. He consulted the man with the book who said, ‘You are very fortunate, someone just cancelled’. My request for a vegan plate as a main course, after vegetable soup, presented no problem and we ate and drank well.

Similarly at O Trovador on a night out with Lizee and Archie, our charming waiter conveyed my request to the sole female chef in their tiny kitchen and I was given a delicious platter of vegies (after the ubiquitous vegetable soup!).

 COASTAL ALENTEJO

 

By contrast coastal Alentejo is windswept and interesting, whitewashed houses with flashes of yellow, blue, orange and pink sit on steep sandstone cliffs interspersed by yellow sand beaches. We found endless choices of tiny cafe terraces to park ourselves with a coffee or beer watching the world go by.



Our plan was to sample a section of the famous Rota Vicentina coastal walk called “The Fishermans’ Way”. 


I found a modern house with a sea view and magical sunsets from its rooftop terrace in the tiny town of Zambujeira Do Mar. The Rota Vicentina passed ten metres from our door allowing us to walk the Fisherman’s Way north and south and return to the same bed for four nights. Ours is the little red car and the third townhouse.


The trail is well marked and not difficult physically. Eighty per cent is sandy, almost dune-like at times, however there are some high cliff sections where vertigo sufferers (like me) need to gird their loins and get on with it or, hopefully, find an alternate inland path. The reward is gorgeous vistas, some cool beach bars and perfect picnic spots, plus a swim if you fancy it.The trail is popular with Germans, North Americans and Brits of all ages but it never felt busy. We noticed quite a few young women with large backpacks walking solo. It appears to be a safe option for them and each village has a hostel.

Obrigada for stopping by friends, chapter two will be along an a couple of days.

3 Responses to “Portugal Chapter One: Walking, Tasting and Winding Back the Clock in the Alentejo”

  1. higonrg@cs.com October 13, 2016 at 10:19 pm #

    hello Sharon — loved seeing the megaliths in Portugal when we were there. (there’s some in Spain too). congrats on making it! cheers, -ig

    • Sharon Tickle October 14, 2016 at 7:16 am #

      Thanks, will look them up. I was so ignorant, my only experience of menhirs came from Asterix and Obelix! st

  2. Heather October 14, 2016 at 10:44 am #

    Weather looks great Sharon. It has finally changed here now to typical Scottish weather. Not stopping us though. Where are you off to now?

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