Alentejo's hidden treasures

by Sarah.Seamarks

For those who want the complete opposite of a package tour to the Algarve, a pousada break in Portugal's undiscovered Alentejo region is perfect

As I look out my window, I see a patchwork of fields and hills that seem to go on forever, dotted occasionally with the odd farm, cork trees and carpets of wild flowers. I listen carefully but only the sound of birdsong and the faint tinkling of a sheep's bell in the distance breaks the blissful silence.
The Pousada de Nossa Senhora de Assunção, close to the village of Arraiolos, is in the heart of the Alentejo region of Portugal. Here, life is still as it used to be many centuries ago, and if you really want to embrace Portuguese culture, there's nowhere better to stay than a pousada. There are 40 of them throughout Portugal, housed in historic buildings such as castles, palaces and former convents.
Convent with mod cons
The Pousada de Nossa Senhora de Assunção is a former 16th-century convent and many years ago my bedroom would have belonged to a nun. What would have been a simple room now features every modern convenience, from a TV to a telephone. As I head down to the cloisters for breakfast, I imagine the nuns living here all those years ago. Their meals would have been far plainer than the lavish affair that greets me when I enter the dining room. The spread includes cereals, cheeses, fresh fruit, pastries and cakes.
After this I would definitely need to take advantage of the hotel's outdoor pool and burn off the calories! As I swim my lengths, I am greeted by countryside views at one end and a round castle perched on a hilltop at the other.
Castle and carpets
After my swim we walk up the hill to the castle in the nearby village of Arraiolos. Built in the 14th century, it is the only round castle in Portugal, although this fact is often overlooked by visitors who come here purely to see the carpet shops the village is famous for. As we walk down the main street of whitewashed houses, we see women sitting out on the pavements in the sunshine weaving their carpets by hand. I am amazed by the dedication and skill it takes to make these beautiful rugs. However, when I go into one of the shops, hoping to pick up a souvenir to go in front of my fireplace, I realise the amount of time and labour that goes into making them comes at quite a price.
Heading down to the village square (or praça), the Portuguese men, wearing their customary flat caps, sit on benches playing cards or catching up with the village gossip. I realise if I'd visited Arraiolos 100 years ago things would still have been much as they are today. However, as much as we like the peace and quiet, we couldn't come to Alentejo without paying a visit to the city of Évora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so our next stop is the Pousada de Lóios.
On to Évora
Évora is a good two-hour drive away, but the roads are peaceful and there are hardly any other vehicles about. Occasionally we pass a small village or vineyard but that is all that breaks up the acres of huge plains. Although this region is vast, it is actually only home to 10 per cent of the Portuguese population. As we pull up outside the converted 15th-century monastery, we're greeted like old friends and the porter rushes out to grab our bags.
The pousadas are renowned for their culinary excellence, each serving a range of dishes made from local produce and a fine selection of regional wines. As I am in Alentejo, I try the local pork. The meat is much darker than I am used to and the waiter explains this is because the pigs here are reared organically and fed acorns and truffles. It shows in the quality of the meat, which tastes far superior to any pork I've eaten before.
Afterwards there's a fine choice of desserts, mostly made from eggs. I am told this is because many of the recipes came from the local convents, as the nuns used to make desserts to sell to supplement their incomes, and ingredients such as eggs and sugar were easy and cheap to get hold of. I try some of the pão de rala (a local egg cake), which is thoroughly delicious.
Local nightlife
After dinner we decide to explore Évora's nightlife. The Pousada de Lóios is a stone's throw from the city's main square. However, despite the fact it is 10pm on a Friday night, it isn't full of rowdy drunks. In fact it's all very quiet. Évora is home to Portugal's second largest university but there's little sign of student life.
As we walk down a side street, we hear the sound of guitars coming from several venues. We open the door to one and at first I think we've walked into someone's front room! It's very small, with just five tables, but we are quickly welcomed in and sorted out with seats and drinks. The sound of true Portuguese fado music (a type of folk music) is beautiful and a far cry from what you will get in many tourist haunts. However, although sang beautifully the lyrics are far from cheerful! "They are singing about a lady who is sad because her lover has been lost at sea," the Portuguese woman sitting next to us quickly translates, with a tear in her eye.
Lovely bones
After a good night's sleep back at the pousada we enjoy a hearty breakfast before embarking on a sightseeing tour. The city is home to an impressive Roman temple and gothic cathedral but one of the most fascinating attractions is the Capela dos Ossos, or the Chapel of the Bones. Built by 16th-century monks, the walls and central pillars are artistically lined with human bones and skulls, held together by cement. Over the door a painted message reads: Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos - our bones that are here await yours! The number of skeletons decorating the chapel has been estimated at 5,000, and legend has it they came from soldiers who died in battle or from plague victims.
After enjoying a drink at a café we head back to the pousada to collect our bags before making the 130-kilometre journey back to Lisbon airport. As we drive along the busy motorway heading into the capital, it seems hard to imagine the peaceful paradise and hidden treasures we'd discovered over the last few days are only a couple of hours away.
Getting there
Monarch fly from the UK to Lisbon airport