The Alentejo is a mystical place of gliding plains, sudden mountains, and the largest cork forests in the world. The Alentejo’s Cork Country is a lightly populated region with open horizons where the rhythm of life follows the rhythm of regional songs. And this fertile land produces more than half of the world's total cork supply.
An Introduction to Cork Country
During the summer the green stands of cork oaks turn the flowing plains of the Alentejo into a romantic and enchanting place of sun and shadows. Wine estates, olive groves, or a white and blue house on a hill occasionally interrupts these ancient forests, which have produced cork for millennia. After the bark is harvested, the trees light up the day with their red hues, a sign of the only tree that has a renewable bark.
The Portuguese often refer to the Alentejo, with its own dialect, strong Moorish flavor, white washed towns, and unique songs, as its own nation. Most towns seem to float on hilltops above the plains, embraced by a castle. Gothic towers and red tiles rise from the venerable walls. The songs of the Alentejo, with a flavor of coriander and garlic, greet the visitor.
Extending from the southern bank of the great river Tejo to the mountains of the northern Algarve, the Alentejo is bound by the sea to the west, and Spain to the east. Its name means “Beyond the Tejo,” and it occupies more than one fifth of Portugal, with only a small fraction of the national population.
Its endless landscapes are rich in reminders of it past. From prehistory there are countless Dolmens, Mehnirs, and burial mounds. Impressive Roman relics are everywhere, from the still-standing temple at Évora to a mostly intact Roman villa at São Cucufate. While the Alentejo flourished under centuries of Roman rule, it thrived in the 400 years that the Moors held it. They left behind cultural and architectural ties, a Mosque at Mértola, and legends.
By 1249 a young Portuguese nation had incorporated the Alentejo, and strong castles arose to guard the plains. With mild winter weather, abundant soil, and a hospitable landscape, the Alentejo flourished in the Middle Ages and the Age of Discovery. Cork, wine and wheat would become the treasures that this land would offer the world.
Today, the Alentejo remains rural and natural with thousands of miles of cork forest and a variety of wildlife. Its large towns are living museums, still in their ancient walls, with a sense of timelessness that is increasingly difficult to find elsewhere. From the monumental charm of the regional capital of Évora, to the impossibly high castle tower at Beja in the south, history, tradition, and grandeur are everywhere. It is a place where amid a harmony between nature and humanity we can remember so much of what we have forgotten. These lands of cork once bore the likes of Vasco da Gama to explore the world. Today, the world is invited back to discover the Alentejo.
Occupying nearly a third of the mainland, this picturesque region is an hour's drive from Lisbon. It is bound to the north by the river Tejo, and by mountains to the south. Spain and the River Guadiana mark the border to the east, and the open Atlantic is the border to the west. The northeast of Cork Country is famed for its villages along the Castle Route: Nisa, Castelo de Vide, Marvão, Portalegre and Alter do Chão. Further south, the landscape becomes warmer and flatter. Around Évora (one of the most beautiful cities in Europe), one finds the enchanting walled towns of Monsaraz, Vila Viçosa, Estremoz, and Arraiolos (renowned for its handmade tapestries and rugs).
To the south, the rolling plains are even less inhabited, the only shade being provided by olive and cork oak trees. A trip to the museum-towns of Alvito, Beja, Serpa and Mértola will offer many memories.
To the west, the Alentejo’s coastline offers magnificent Atlantic beaches, sea cliffs, and umbrella-like pine trees.
Cork Country has distinct seasons, with a green spring rich in wild flowers. In the early summer, storks build their nests on rooftops in whitewashed villages, and the heat turns the plains to gold. The winter is mild, but the open fields become bright yellow-green, and the shepherds dress in long capes to stay warm.