With the opening of a new airport at Beja, the peaceful Alentejo region is all set to welcome new visitors. Share with me some reminders of a turbulent past and enjoy the serenity of the present
The Alentejo - literally the land beyond Lisbon's River Tejo - is a place of wide open spaces. Cork and olive trees, wheat and vines: all were introduced by the Romans. Ancient megaliths, menhirs and dolmens dating from 3,000BC dot the countryside. Fiercely hot in the summer, in spring and autumn it's a pleasure to climb the winding streets of its medieval towns and villages, and sample some of its excellent red wines.
This walled city at the heart of the Alentejan plains was founded by the Romans. It soon became a centre of culture, and in 1986 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was privileged to stay at a former ducal palace - the Albergaria Solar de Monfalim where antiquity breathes from every pore. The solid stone stairwell climbs to an exquisite cloistered area overlooking the street.
Set loose to explore, with a map from the hotel reception, I wasn’t long finding the Moorish influence in the fascinating arcades along the Praca do Giraldo. Smart boutiques rub shoulders with traditional stores. Following the city walls with their intriguing houses and workshops I came upon the 16th century aqueduct, Agua de Prata (silver water). I wanted to wander further but first - the dramatic ruins of the 2nd century Roman Temple in Largo Conde Vila Flor. The views here are wide open to the plains, or directly onto the lovely columns and the cathedral with its oddly mismatched towers beyond - Quiosque Jardim Diana in the Largo perfect for drinking it all in.
Before leaving the square look for the elegant Convento dos Loios pousada. The former monastery is now a hotel but it's the adjoining chapel, Sao Joao Evangelista, you really should see. Hiding behind a curtained door, a couple of euros gives you access to surreal beauty with floor to ceiling azulejos (traditional wall tiles). By comparison the cathedral seems rather dark and dour, but the university buildings with their story-telling cloisters are an inspiration to study. By night Evora takes on a magical quality. The temple and cathedral are spectacularly floodlit and the whole area radiates light. We ended the day with a port in our tiny hotel bar, brim full of memories of the past.
Woken early by the church bells we headed next to the border town of Elvas, with some of the best preserved fortifications in Europe. A Moorish stronghold for 500 years, it was later used by Wellington as a base to besiege Badajoz across the River Guadiana in Spain.
Approaching the town you cannot miss the staggering height of Aqueduto da Amoreira. With 843 arches and up to five tiers it still delivers water across the valley to the fountain in Largo da Misericordia. A steady climb up through the town brings you to the castle and the impressive ramparts with their endless views. In Largo do Pelourinho the battered white walls of Nossa Senora dos Aflitos disguise a church whose interior is small but achingly lovely. Marble columns and azulejos reach high into the cupola. Behind the church and through an Arab archway the ornate pelourinho (pillory) is a reminder of less happy times. Elvas is also known for its delicious preserved plums - the original sugar plums after which the Nutcracker Fairy was named.
Returning along the N4 I was curious to see one of the marble towns. Never have I never seen such huge stacks of marble in its raw state as in the surrounding quarries. I was lured to Vila Vicosa by the Ducal Palace that was the favourite and last residence of the Dukes of Braganca, rulers of Portugal for 270 years. The main façade of the palace is completely covered with local marble and fronts an enormous marble-tiled square. Centre stage sits the 8th Duke, King Joao IV, on horseback. On becoming king in 1640 he was reluctant to leave his country estate to take up the throne in Lisbon. I could see why - I too was charmed by Vila Vicosa and its "white gold".
The Convento das Chagas sits discreetly in the corner of the palace square. Quietly lovely with unexpected niches and decorative murals, this former convent is another perfectly placed pousada. It’s a short walk from here to the castle where the Bragancas lived until their palace was complete. Extraordinary that these castle walls once contained the whole of the town. The Porta do No with its carved knot symbol of the Bragancas was the original entrance gate. The cemetery is especially beautiful, crammed full of marble tombs and carved religious statuary.
Although I had heard of the beauty of this place I was still wholly unprepared for this tiny hilltop fortress. Just two narrow cobbled streets, secure behind its walls, Monsaraz feels like it sits at the top of the world. Climbing up to the castle and keep, the views are glorious out over the River Guadiana and the vast waters created by the Alqueva Dam. In such a tiny community still there is space for two lovely churches. In September the spectacle of the bullfight comes to the courtyard below the keep and the sky explodes with fireworks. That day the rain swept in and we retreated to tiny Café de Cisterna for warm turkey pies and a Madeira-style cake fragrant with almonds. Beside the café we could see into the depths of the cistern which was once the villagers’ sole water supply. The weather had changed and curtailed our trip across the lake on the bridge to Mourao. Still I knew that I would return to explore more of the Alentejo - boating on the lake maybe, or to visit a vineyard at Reguengos de Monsaraz.
Where to stay
The hotels I have chosen each give a different flavour of Portugal. The Albergaria Solar de Monfalim made me feel I had stepped back in time. (Largo da Misericordia 1, Evora). A double room cost us just 60E including a decent breakfast.
Pousada de Vila Vicosa (Convento das Chagas) had a timeless elegance and a superb location in the main square (Terreiro do Paco). Doubles from 150E.
Estalagem de Monsaraz had views I could look at forever (Largo de Sao Bartholomeu 5). Doubles from 90E
Where to eat
Eating is relatively low cost in this part of Portugal, especially snacks and pastries in the local cafés. My husband was overjoyed to pay 3 euros for wine, coffee, cake and a samosa (bizarre, I know) in VIPS on Rua 5 Outubre in Evora.
Alentejans seem to eat hugely. I was full after the starters at Dom Joaquim (Rua dos Penedos 6, Evora; 266 731 105) but cannot resist the cheese in garlic and herbs. If you want to push the boat out and sample the plum speciality at the same time, try the first ever pousada to open in Portugal, Pousada de Santa Luzia (Avenida de Badajoz, Elvas; 268 637 470).
Flights to Beja are finally up and running from May 2011. There have been numerous delays but after spending 33million it had to happen sometime. In the meantime the journey from Lisbon to Evora takes about two hours by car, from Faro about three. It's worth it. Evora to Elvas is 87km. No need to use the motorway and pay the toll, the N18/N4 won't take you any longer the roads are so quiet. It's just half an hour to Vila Vicosa and a further 65km to Monsaraz. It is possible to get around by bus from Evora but time-consuming as you often have to change buses.