A week in a beach resort or a city break in Lisbon or Porto never fail to satisfy excitement-seeking visitors to Portugal. Venture inland, however, and you’ll find a chilled-out world that’s steeped in history and where life is lived in the slow lane. The sparsely-populated Alentejo region is dotted with charming whitewashed towns whose residents welcome strangers like old friends. That said, you can avoid returning home with a broken nose by remembering when approaching a door that “puxe” means “pull”. Alentejo exerts an irresistible pull, and that’s why I can’t wait to go back.
|The Chapel of Bones in Evora looks like something out of a horror movie|
Flash (almost bang, wallop), what a picture
The first time I visited Portugal I accidentally gatecrashed a funeral and began taking pictures of an old man in an open coffin. I’d been photographing the tombs of long-dead bishops in the bowels of Braga Cathedral, so when I climbed some stairs and saw him laid out I thought he was another grandee. He wasn’t – he was somebody’s granddad. I might have got away with a fool’s pardon, only I hadn’t turned off the flash and nearly got lynched.
I’m reminded of that near-death experience when, on my return to Portugal, I wander into a chapel whose walls and pillars are plastered from floor to ceiling with the ornamentally arranged skulls, femurs, tibias and vertebrae of more than 5,000 medieval skeletons.
The 16th century Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) in the 15th century Church of Sao Francisco in Evora is a macabre magnet for tourists visiting this ancient city in the middle of Alentejo. It’s the work of a monk who persuaded the parochial powers-that-be that the 42 local monastic cemeteries were occupying a lot of land that could be put to better use. Having obtained permission to open the graves, he had the chapel built and then called in the decorators and told them to get busy with the bones. His name is not recorded, but he was probably known to his fellow Franciscans as Creepy Felipe.
Job done, he then reminded visitors that none of us is long for this world by having the words “Nos ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos” (“Respect each mouldering bone, this sacred cell awaits thine own”) inscribed above the chapel entrance. As might be expected in a place barnacled with bones, there’s a sign that reads “Cães não permitidos” (“No dogs allowed”).
|Above, the Chapel of Bones. Below, the pousada in Beja|
Sao far, sao good
My mid-October visit to Alentejo is blessed with fine weather – at least 22C every afternoon (40C-plus isn’t unusual in high summer) – and begins with a scenic drive from Lisbon to Beja, where I’ll dine and sleep in the Pousada Sao Francisco. This former convent joined the state-owned but privately-run pousadas chain in 1992, though it dates from 1268.
The convent acquired a chapel dedicated to Saint Louis in 1304. It was the gift of a grateful King Dinis who, the year before, almost met a grisly – better make that grizzly – end when a bear took exception to being hit in the backside by one of his arrows. As the ferocious beast set about making a meal of the monarch, Dinis cried out to the saint, whose intervention allowed him to kill it and live to hunt another day.
The 34-room Sao Francisco is one of nine pousadas in Alentejo and 35 nationwide, each occupying a centuries-old former convent, monastery, palace or castle. They’re great value, as is everything in Portugal, as an after-dinner visit to the late-night Country Bar in town confirms. We’re six, and I buy the first round of four pints of lager, a bottle of cider and a gin and tonic, which in Dublin would cost €35. In Beja I pay €15.
Sao Francisco is the first of five pousadas I’ll visit. If the accommodation, food and staff in the others prove to be anywhere near as good, I’ll be struggling for suitable superlatives.
|Cork trees stripped bare of their bark are to be seen everywhere in Alentejo|
Shuttle missions and shuttlecocks
The road from Beja to Evora passes the former’s redundant airport, which was for many years on NASA’s list of emergency landing places for the space shuttle, thanks to its 3.5km runway. Aspiring astronauts (and their dads) went to bed each night during shuttle missions praying that a minor mishap would bring the orbiter to town, but it wasn’t to be. That’s a pity, because the runway is in the parish of Cuba, which would have made for some memorable headlines.
Wherever you drive in Alentejo, which occupies one-third of Portugal but is home to only 7pc of the population, it won’t be long before you see vast expanses of cork oak forests, the tree trunks from the branches down denuded of bark (it grows back) and rust-coloured, as if tanned by long exposure to the sun. Portugal is the world’s biggest cork producer, accounting for half of the 200,000 tonnes harvested globally each year, and most of the trees are in Alentejo.
Every autumn, tens of thousands of black-footed porco preto pigs from all over Portugal and neighbouring Spain are trucked to these forests to feast and grow fat on the acorns that fall from the trees. These are the pigs from which comes the super-expensive dry-cured presunto ham that’s carved in wafer-thin slices from hind legs that can cost €500 each.
From centuries of experience the Portuguese have become experts in processing cork, to the point where it can be used as the raw material for a multitude of the most unlikely products. Visit a souvenir shop and you’ll see cork postcards (there was a special issue of cork postage stamps a few years ago), cork slippers, cork baseball caps, cork umbrellas and even cork wedding dresses.
In one shop in Evora there’s a mannequin with a magnifying glass in one hand and a curly pipe in the other. On its head is a deerstalker, and covering the body from shoulders to mid-shins is an overcoat-cum-cape, both fashioned from fabric-thin cork – a Sherlock Holmes outfit. It’s hard to decide which is crazier – that someone has spent many hours making this ensemble or that a customer might pay €600 for it, because that’s the price on the label.
On a smaller scale, the best shuttlecock tips are made of cork, and cork plugs are used by Scotsmen to check for leaks in their bagpipes and to muffle them while practising late at night.
|The Pousada dos Loios in Evora, outside and in. Photos: Luis Seco|
You win some, you Loios some
There’s great excitement in Evora’s 36-room Pousada dos Loios, a converted 15th century convent. Somebody in Portugal has won €190 million (and will have to surrender €38 million of it in tax) in the EuroMillions draw, and a young waiter is sent scurrying off to check the staff syndicate’s ticket. It’s not long before he returns. Unfortunately, the record jackpot will be banked 145km away in Castelo Branco. Fortunately, the chef and his colleagues won’t be resigning on the spot and drinking the town dry, so I’ll get some lunch.
Every pousada has a posh but reasonably-priced restaurant that’s open to guests and non-residents. All pride themselves on local specialities, and each chef has his or her own way of preparing and serving the ubiquitous bacalhau – salted and air-dried north Atlantic cod that’s imported mainly from Norway. You’d think that having eaten bacalhau for centuries the Portuguese would be fed up with it by now, but no – they get through more salt cod than any other nation.
It’s said there are 350-odd bacalhau recipes, but cooks will scoff and tell you there are many times more. Future settlers on Mars, where a year lasts 687 days, could tuck in to a different version of bacalhau for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day from one Hogmanay to the next and they still wouldn’t have tried them all. I’ve eaten salt cod several times and enjoyed it, but when it appears on every menu at every meal there comes a point when you start to yearn for double egg and chips.
On a wall close to the Dos Loios reception desk there’s a big hand-crafted carpet that took three years to make and is valued at €50,000, which would explain why it’s not on the floor. It’s impressive, but nowhere near as impressive as the ruins of the Roman temple dating from the second century AD that sits right outside the pousada’s front door.
|The Roman temple right outside the Pousada dos Loios|
That’f eafy for you to fay
I’m tempted to wax lyrical about the temple and its 14 granite columns and Corinthian capitals, but for entertainment value, Cork-born architect James Cavanah Murphy (1760 to 1814) can’t be beaten. In his book, Travels In Portugal In The Years 1789 And 1790, published in London in 1795, Murphy – who had either a speech impediment or a tipsy typesetter – writes:
“This ftructure is faid to be the remains of a temple dedicated to Diana. The bafe is Attic. The entablature is entirely deftroyed. The reft of the work is in a degree of prefervation fcarcely credible for a monument of itf age. The elegance difplayed has led many to conjecture that the architect was Greek, from a fuppofition that Rome had no artifts competent to defign fo polifhed a fabric. It is the moft eftimable ftructure in Portugal, yet I am forry to add that the ftate of neglect redounds little to the difcernment of the people of Evora.”
This is the same fella who wrote of the Chapel of Bones: “The vifitant is ftruck with furprize, mixed with terror. The walls are lined with human fkulls and bones, fet in a hard cement. The obfcurity of the place, and the proftrate pofture of the pious fupplicants, render the whole a fcene truly awful.”
Murphy’s entitled to his opinion of the temple, which served as an abattoir when he visited, but today it’s a Unesco-protected structure and I think it’s abfolutely fplendid.
|The Pousada Jaoa IV in Vila Vicosa, also below|
You have been warrened
With a belly full of bacalhau, I bid farewell to Evora and head for Vila Vicosa and the 39-room Pousada Jaoa IV – the 16th century former Convento Real das Chagas de Cristo, or Royal Convent of Christ’s Wounds – whose restaurant serves the weirdest dessert.
The dish is called Manjar das Chagas, which translates as Chagas Delicacy and sounds innocent enough. Its familiar constituents are almonds, eggs, sugar, cinnamon and stringy pumpkin pulp and it’s presented in little cocktail sausage shapes. Those partaking are never told in advance what the ‘secret’ sixth ingredient is, but vegetarians are discreetly advised to order ice cream. Guesses range from marzipan to pineapple to chocolate to cheese, which all are wildly wide of the mark. The secret ingredient is rabbit.
Vila Vicosa’s hedgerows and nearby hills were overrun with rabbits in the days of King Jaoa, and hunters were forever dropping off a brace or two at the convent on their way home. The nuns of the enclosed order were too polite to refuse donations of fresh meat, but when they were being gifted umpteen bags of bunnies every day, it’s unlikely their response was: “Another six dozen rabbits! Our prayers have been answered!” The only thing they were praying for was an outbreak of myxomatosis.
Rabbits weren’t the only cute little creatures deposited in the compartmented revolving drum set sideways in the wall by the convent’s main door, which ensured the nuns had no contact with the outside world. Sometimes, in the dead of night, an unfortunate unmarried young woman or a mother-of-many who couldn’t afford to feed another mouth would leave a newborn baby in the drum. It’s a sad scenario, but the mums no doubt took some solace from knowing that their little one would be cared for by the sisters.
Today, small children in Vila Vicosa are among the best-behaved in Portugal because, at the first sign of a tantrum, the threat of being left in the drum works wonders.
|The drum depository in the pousada in Vila Vicosa. Below, the marble quarry|
A holey terrifying experience
Saddam Hussein never visited Vila Vicosa. He didn’t have to, because a sizeable chunk of Vila Vicosa went to him in the form of thousands of tons of white, pink, black and green marble that were extracted from the quarry just outside of town.
The late Iraqi despot, whose favourite wine was Portugal’s famous Mateus Rosé, had a penchant for palaces and splurged untold billions of dollars on building 100 of them all over the country he ruled for 24 years. No expense was spared, especially on marble. As far as Saddam’s architects were concerned, the best in the world came from Vila Vicosa, and for several years he was the quarry’s best customer. It’s now Italian-owned, and the Saudis buy more than half of its annual output.
Peering over the edge of the massive, 120-metre-deep hole is at once exciting and terrifying – those giant yellow tipper trucks with tyres twice as tall as the tallest basketball player look like tiny toys as they move around on the bottom. The best way to view them is with a trusty friend gripping the back of your trousers while you lean forward for a look.
|The pousada in Estremoz and, below, the elegant interior. Photos: Luis Seco|
For cheese a jolly good fellow
Estremoz, which is a 20-minute drive from Vila Vicosa, is also famed for its marble – there’s such an abundance locally that it’s used for everything from kerbs, cobbles and paving stones to ornamental fountains and the doorsteps and window sills of modest homes. Even the whitewash that covers most walls is made from powdered marble.
This eye-candy market town, which is home to 14,000 people, is also home to the imposing Pousada de Santa Rheina Isabel, the former palace of King Dinis and Queen Isabel, which sits on a hill skirted by star-shaped ramparts.
Talking of skirts, Isabel was revered for her kindness to the poor, which she kept secret from the king. She was forever giving them food from the palace kitchens, which she concealed within her voluminous skirts that could comfortably accommodate half-a-dozen loaves and a couple of big cheeses.
One day, however, she loaded a bit too much from the larder and buckled at the knees, like an over-ambitious weightlifter. The suspicious Dinis demanded to know what his queen was hiding beneath her dress. When she reluctantly lifted the hem, as if by magic there was nothing but roses, and for that she was later elevated to the sainthood.
The Santa Rheina Isabel is one of the most magnificent pousadas, with four-poster beds and antique furniture in each of the 33 rooms, including a royal suite, and an elegant restaurant whose tables are festooned with fresh flowers and candelabras. Liberace would have been in his element.
|Up the creek with a paddle: kayaking on the River Seda|
Wetsuits are the work of the Devil
The quickest way to slip into a wetsuit without your face – and the air – turning blue is to smear yourself from head to toe with olive oil. In the absence of a gallon of extra virgin and an extra-long shoehorn, a wetsuit is as infuriatingly difficult to get into as (I imagine) a straitjacket is to get out of. This I learn as I prepare for an afternoon of kayaking on the River Seda, en route from Estremoz to the Pousada Flor da Rosa in Crato.
Logically, the zip on a wetsuit should run from the navel to the throat, but most zip up the back, which would have been handy to know before I stepped into the changing room. After 10 minutes of grunting, cursing, hopping around on one leg while bent double and falling over, I emerge to howls of laughter and pointing fingers.
Nevertheless, the pleasing thought of paddling three kilometres along a lazy river in beautiful surroundings acts as an antidote to the cruel ridicule. The sun is high in a cloudless sky, kingfishers skim the water like kamikaze pilots on their first (and last) torpedo run and a pair of playful otters frolic on the sandbanks; and then expedition leader Luis Lucas drops the bombshell that we’re going upstream and, what’s more, we’ll be hauling our kayaks up three waterfalls.
Halfway up the second, it dawns on me where I’ve seen this sort of crazy carry-on before – in the 1986 Oscar-winning movie The Mission. Robert De Niro is mercenary and slaver Rodrigo Mendoza who, as penance for killing his younger half-brother, drags a net containing his heavy armour and sword through the Amazon jungle and up the Iguaza Falls. I know how he must have felt.
Luis runs the Azenhas da Seda adventure centre (www.azenhasdaseda.com), which provides a range of outdoor activities for daredevils of varying levels of physical ability, most of which will leave you soaked to the skin and exhausted but are great fun.
|The historical Pousada Flor da Rosa, my favourite|
Aches and plains
The Pousada Flor da Rosa, which sits on an agricultural plain just outside Crato, is a sight for sore eyes, to go with my sore legs, back, neck and arms and screaming calves after the day’s exertions on the river. Dating from 1340 when it was the Portuguese headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller, who are better known today as the Knights of Malta, Flor da Rosa has been a monastery, fortress and palace and became a top-class hotel in 1995.
The 24-room pousada is a brawny but beautiful building with thick walls of smoked salmon-coloured stone that look as if cannonballs would bounce off them. If those walls could speak, they’d say: “Ssshh. There are people in here being pampered.”
Dinner is a dream come true, and later in the bar I introduce my fellow kayaking casualties to a drink I first came across while hiding from the lynch mob after that unfortunate photo opp with somebody’s late grandpop. Portugal’s tawny port wine is loved the world over (except by gout sufferers), but the Douro Valley also produces a clear version known as white port. Order a generous measure over ice with tonic and a slice of lime and you’ll never drink G&T again.
|Above and below, bedrooms in Pousada Flor da Rosa|
No longer a secret
Like Beja’s redundant airport, Alentejo is off the radar, but it isn’t off limits. Fly to Lisbon or Faro, hire a car and, before you know it, you’ll be motoring ever deeper into not so much a land that time forget as one that nobody has bothered much to promote. That’s changing, with the regional tourism board and the pousadas chain working together to put Alentejo on the map.
If you’re up for a magical history tour that delivers big-time on seductive scenery, affordable accommodation, fabulous food and first-class local wines, plan your itinerary around dinner, bed and breakfast in pousadas (none is more than two hours’ drive from another).
We’ve all experienced that weird feeling on arriving somewhere for the first time that we’ve been there before. After four hugely enjoyable days in Alentejo, I’m left wondering why the hell I haven’t been there before. It’s a new phenomenon called Beja vu.
Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly year-round from Dublin to Lisbon and Faro and seasonally from Cork to Faro. See www.aerlingus.com and www.ryanair.com
Prices vary from one pousada to another, from around €100 to €200-plus for bed and breakfast for two people sharing. Half-board will add about €50 to the B&B rate. For the best prices (there are special rates for over-55s and a 10pc discount for pre-paid early bookings) deal directly with www.pousadas.pt
I’m grateful to Luis Seco (@VisitEvoraEng) for very kindly providing several of the photos above. Luis is based in Evora and is a great tourism ambassador for his home town and for Alentejo. Check out his website, www.visitevora.net/en/