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Portugal> Exploring the Alentejo


A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Exploring the Alentejo

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This itinerary takes you into the heart of the Alentejo, with its fortified towns and romantic, walled medieval villages clinging to the top of strategic hilltops. Because this itinerary follows in reverse the natural route that the Spaniards would have chosen in their days of conquest, you'll be seeing some of the most heavily fortified villages and castles in the country. Throughout much of the Portugal's early history, Spain was a constant threat, making defense spending a high priority for many early monarchs.

Recommended Pacing: We love the Alentejo with its landscape of endless cultivated fields dotted with isolated whitewashed farmhouses. Centuries-old olive trees accent gently rolling hills and shepherds sit in pastures guarding large flocks of sheep-never lonely because their faithful dogs are always close at hand. Along the route you visit some of Portugal's most fascinating fortified towns, and while there, stay in outstanding hotels and pousadas housed in marvelous historic buildings-sightseeing attractions in their own right. Choose to stay a couple of nights in Évora, where you find the premier pousada, or Monsaraz, our favorite quaint village. If you want to make a loop back to Lisbon, this itinerary ties in perfectly with Medieval Monuments. Just follow its routing in reverse.

Leave Lisbon on the A2 towards Espania (Spain) crossing the impressive 25 de Abril suspension bridge soaring 60 meters above the River Tagus. The views from the bridge looking back toward Lisbon are fabulous, but since there is no place to stop, the driver won't have much chance to see them. However, an equally impressive view is yours for the picture-taking from the statue of Cristo-Rei in Almada (first exit just after leaving the bridge). The bishops of Portugal built the statue in 1959 in thanks for Portugal's non-involvement in World War II. The statue itself is not particularly interesting, but the city vista is unforgettable.

The road continues on to Setúbal, a bustling city, and the third largest seaport after Lisbon and Porto. Setúbal is the gateway to the cork-producing region (cork is one of Portugal's biggest exports). The only part of Setúbal that offers a bit of charm is the old town around Bocage Square. (Bocage, one of Portugal's most famous poets, was born in Setúbal in the 18th century.) Stroll along the picturesque winding streets and alleyways, some of which have been converted to pedestrian-only use. A couple of blocks northeast of the square is the Municipal Museum, housed in a 17th-century convent. The 15th-century Igreja de Jesus adjoining it is thought to be the earliest example of that highly Portuguese-style, late-Gothic architecture called Manueline, named for King Manuel I.

Look up from the Bocage Square and you will see on the hill, watching over the city, the 16th-century Pousada de Setúbal-São Filipe. The castle was commissioned by Philip II of Spain (later Philip of Portugal) who employed the Italian military architect Filipo Terzi to design a castle impregnable against attack by the British. (King Philip II was a bit sensitive about the English navy who had defeated his Spanish Armada.) Even if you do not spend the night, climb the stairs inside the castle walls to the pousada and enjoy refreshments on the magnificent outdoor terrace with its stunning views of the sea, the port, and the countryside of the Serra da Cerrábida, a mountain range protecting the mouth of the River Sado. If you spend the night, ask if you can see the underground maze of tunnels. One of these passageways cuts through the hill all the way down to the harbor where escape boats were secreted. This was an emergency escape route in case the castle was invaded.

There is also a pousada tucked into an ancient fortress, perched 250 meters above the town. The Pousada de Palmela-Castelo de Palmela-one of Portugal's finest-occupies a 15th-century convent constructed within the confines of the castle. The stronghold was used by the Romans and the Moors and was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times throughout its history. The fortress was taken from the Moors in the 12th century and was the headquarters of the Portuguese Knights of Saint James in the 13th century. It was abandoned after the earthquake of 1755 and restored in 1979 with the opening of the pousada. Don't miss the views from the ramparts, especially from the 14th-century keep (next to the ruins of the Church of Santa Maria, victim of the 1755 quake). Walking the castle grounds is like a return to the legendary time of chivalry. Just below the castle is Palmela, a picturesque white town crossed by narrow streets winding to quaint little squares. Both the Church of São Pedro and the Church of the Misericordia are worth a visit for their azulejo interior decoration. The 15th-century Church of Santiago, next to the pousada, is another fine example of azulejo adornment, and its upper choir is thought to be the first in Portugal.

Nearby in the rich wine-growing area of Vila Nogueira de Azeitão is the farm estate, Quinta das Torres. This is the home of Portugal's internationally famous Lancers wine, produced under the Jose Maria da Fonseca label. The winery also produces an excellent dry white (Branco Seco B.S.E.) and a fine, full red (Dao Terras Altas). On weekdays from 9 am to 11:30 am and 2 pm to 5 pm, the winery welcomes visitors for tours and winetasting-an experience that shouldn't be missed. The visit includes a small museum housing an interesting collection of wineglasses and 17th- and 18th-century azulejos. If you happen to be in town on the first Sunday of the month, be sure to seek out the colorful local market in Azeitão.

Continue east on the A2, which merges into the A6 heading east towards Spain. Take exit 3 for the short drive to the Moorish-appearing white town of Montemor-o-Novo, birthplace of São João de Deus, founder of the Brothers Hospitallers, whose statue is in the church square. The medieval fortified castle above town, occupying the former site of a Roman fortress, provides good views of the olive-tree-dotted countryside.

Leaving Montemor-o-Novo, take the N4 for the 20-kilometer drive to Arraiolos, a picturesque town climbing to a 14th-century castle overlooking the Alentejo Plain. A beautiful blue-and-white church shares the hilltop. Not for the last time, you'll notice that the otherwise whitewashed houses are colorfully painted halfway up. The town is noted for its woven woolen carpets (tapetes), continuing a craft practiced here since the 16th century. The designs have an almost Oriental quality and are done in a variety of vivid colors. The easiest way to reach the heart of the town is to follow signposts for Pavia and the Pousada de Arraiolos-Nossa Senhora da Assunção. If you want to stay overnight and take your time picking out a perfect carpet in Arraiolos, this pousada is an excellent choice.

From Arraiolos take the N370 south to the walled city of Évora-Portugal's pride. Circle the walls to the left to enter the city at the Templo Romano (signposted). If you are not overnighting here, you can easily walk into town from the car park, beyond the city walls, at Templo Romano.

Whitewashed, stone-framed Évora is called the "Museum City" due to its quantity of historically interesting architecture. It is thought that the Romans had a settlement here in the 1st century AD that was greatly expanded by the Moors from the 8th to the 12th centuries, when Gerald the Fearless captured it for the Christians. During the next three centuries Évora was the preferred residence of the monarchs of Portugal. A Jesuit university was founded here in the mid-16th century, at the height of Évora's glory as the intellectual center of the country. When Phillip II succeeded to the Portuguese throne in 1580, he quickly annexed Évora to Spain and a long period of decline followed, although the first episode in the war of liberation against Spain occurred here in the 1630s. Today the town is a lively market center for the produce from the surrounding Alentejo Plains and a justifiably famous tourist attraction. Many of the major sights are around the pousada and Portugal's best-preserved Roman structure, Templo Romano, is found right outside its door. Across the square is the Art Museum with one of the country's top collections, and the impressive 13th-century Cathedral, one of whose 16th-century towers has an intriguing tiled spire. Both merit a visit. Next to the pousada's entrance is the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, which has some pretty azulejos. Past the church is the Palace of the Dukes of Cadaval, whose north tower formed a section of the old Roman wall.

Another must is a visit to the Praça do Giraldo, a bustling square and center of the town's activity, with medieval arches and a marble Renaissance fountain-the last sight seen by the many Inquisition victims who went to the stake here. From here up to the cathedral and down to the walls is the main shopping district, which sells everything from souvenirs to hardware. At various points you can also get views of the city walls, which are of Roman, Visigothic, and medieval origin.

Take N18 southeast (towards Beja) to the N256, which takes you through the agricultural town of Reguengos de Monsaraz to Monsaraz. Watch for the vantage point along the way where you can see the hilltop towns of Mourão and its sister, Monsaraz, to the north. It's obvious that defense against Spanish invasion was uppermost in the mind of King Dom Diniz when he ordered these two fortified towns constructed in the 14th century. Monsaraz is steeped in authentic medieval atmosphere, but so small that it will take you only a little time (much longer if you love shopping) to explore its tiny streets and admire its views across the plain.

Like Évora, Monsaraz was reclaimed from the Moors by Gerald the Fearless in the 12th century and formed an important part of the defensive scheme of subsequent Portuguese monarchs. The narrow town streets are made for wandering, and the Rua Direita, lined with ancient white houses sporting coats of arms, will transport you back in time. From the town's 13th-century castle ramparts, it's apparent why this spot was chosen for defense-the spectacular views stretch forever across the Alentejo Plain into Spain.

When you are ready to move on, return to N256 and Reguengos and head for Redondo and Vila Viçosa. As you approach Vila Viçosa you find the road lined with mounds of marble, which accounts for both all those marble bathrooms you find in Portugal and the wealth that enabled the town to have such a grand Paço Ducal, the lavish palace of the Dukes of Bragança. When the 8th Duke became king in 1640 he took much of the furniture with him but that in the magnificent long suite remained. King Carlos's rooms are still much as he left them the day before his assassination in 1908. You can also visit Castelo Vila Viçosa where an exhibit explains the history of the hunt. The castle was the Dukes of Bragança's residence before they built their palace.

Driving on to Borba via the N255, as you enter watch for the imposing 18th-century fountain sculpted from the pale-pink, locally manufactured marble. From Borba turn west on N4 and head directly to Estremoz; however, if you are game for more sightseeing, turn right on N4 to Elvas.

Elvas, only 11 kilometers from the Spanish border, was once the major defensive stronghold in the country. The 16th-century Amoreira Aqueduct, built on Roman foundations, is the most dramatic monument in town and, remarkably, is still used to carry water to the city. Equally impressive are the town walls whose elaborate construction, with two walls built in the 13th century and one in the 17th, attest to the continuing importance of the city. Two forts flank the city on the north and the south. The Forte de Nossa Senhora da Graça on the north offers splendid views of the countryside and the Forte de Santa Luzia, on the same side of the town as the pousada of the same name, is alleged to be the best-preserved 17th-century fort in Portugal.

The walled, medieval old city can be entered through the Porta de Olivença. A street of the same name leads directly to the center of town and the Praça de Republica. Just northeast of here are the Church of Nossa Senhora da Consolaçao and the Church of Nossa Senhora da Assunçao, both boasting lovely azulejo interiors.

Elvas is a bigger city and less pure in ambiance than some of the picture-perfect, fortified hilltowns you have been visiting. However, the narrow cobblestoned streets of the old city are lined with enchanting old residences and picturesque cafés and shops (you might want to pick up a box of Elvas's famous plums).

After stopping in Elvas, return to the N4 and head west to Estremoz. This fortified hill village is another of Portugal's jewels. The magic begins at the entrance to the walled town where, as in days of yore, you must pass over a moat to enter. The village is made up of the Pousada de Estremoz-Rainha Santa Isabel, a little open chapel, and a cluster of houses.

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[ icon ] Alcobaça
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[ icon ] Estremoz
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[ icon ] Sintra
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[ icon ] Caldas Da Rainha
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[ icon ] Paradise in Portugal
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