The Portuguese often refer to the Alentejo Region in the southern third of the country, as its own nation because it retains its own dialect, has a strong Moorish flavor, boasts a unique musical tradition, and has towns full of white-washed buildings not seen much elsewhere. An hour’s drive from Lisbon, this region accounts for one third of the mainland--extending from the southern bank of the Tejo River to the mountains of the Algarve region just to the south. Despite its expanse, the Alentejo’s population is sparse. The region enjoys mild winter weather and its abundant, fertile soil has made it the agricultural heart of Portugal. It’s known in some circles as “the bread basket of Portugal.” One-story farmsteads dot the hillsides, while its cork forests have supplied cork to the world for centuries. Its main cities are Évora, Portalegre, Beja, and Sines.
Just south of Castelo de Vide seems the impossibly high and fortified village of Marvão. Inside its impressive castle, Marvão offers wonderful views.
At first examination the castle of Marvão appears to be floating in the sky. At 865 meters above sea level, its intimidating height dominates the surrounding countryside for kilometers.
Popular history tells us that Marvan, a Moorish king of Coimbra ordered the mountaintop to be fortified and settled in the 8th century. There must have been an earlier fort on the high peak, but it is lost to history. By the 1160s, D. Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, had taken the town, and by the 13th century the castle, a mere 8 km from Spain, had become the key to Cork Country.
D. Dinis I completely rebuilt the town walls and vast castle. And, after Portugal regained its independence from Spain in 1640, the castle was transformed into a gun fort. Then, for more than 20 years the Spanish attempted to take the town, but met with constant failure. By 1664 they had given up, and Portugal was free. The Spanish would try and fail time and time again for two centuries to enter Marvão’s walls. In 1808 even a mighty French army failed to conquer the heights of Marvão in the Napoleonic Wars. It last saw fighting in Portugal’s 1830s Civil War.
What remains for exploration today is nothing short of amazing: The soaring village, still in its walls, and the rambling castle, so often victorious over anyone foolhardy enough to try to humble it. The views from the ramparts are vast and endless, with every major mountain range in southern and central Portugal visible on a clear day. The walls wrap one line on another, mixing the medieval and the post-medieval. Gothic portals mix with 17th century gun posts, and the 13th century keep still presides over the charming town. If Portugal owes the independence to any single place it is to the village of Marvão and the soldiers who made it impregnable.
Évora Monte (IP2/EN18) - From the yellow plains to the south, Évora Monte appears like a giant cake in the distance. The massive castle keep looks even bigger, with four giant round towers bulging out. The hilltop that makes up the village of Évora Monte has seen human habitation since 8,000 B.C. In 1160 A.D., the Portuguese knight, Geraldo Geraldes, called Geraldo the Fearless, took the town from the Moors. The young Portuguese nation set out to build an impressive line of defensive walls to protect Évora Monte against falling back to the Moors, or the Castilians. The castle was heavily reconstructed in the 1530s, after an earthquake caused significant damage. What emerged was a palace-like castle, with great halls, decorative Manueline stone knots, and fanciful towers. The people of the small town would rise up against the occupying French army in 1808 to throw them out of their town.
The small town became a part of history again in 1834 when the Portuguese Civil War came to an end in a small house within the town’s walls. D. Miguel ended his attempt to usurp the throne and surrendered to his brother, D. Pedro IV. Today, the proud castle and its 900 neighbors living in ancient houses are a lesson in Portuguese history.
Castelo de Vide:
This ancient market town is known for its ruined castle and Jewish quarter (15th century synagogue). Sights include the charming village fountain, the chapel of São Salvador do Mundo (Visigothic) and the twin Paços do Concelho (medieval and 18th century).
- Visit the mostly intact Roman villa at Roman villa of São Cucufate
- Appreciate the Moor influence at the Mosque at Mertola
- View the impossibly high castle tower at Beja
- Experience towns that are virtually museums, such as Alvito, Beja, and Serpa
- Stay in a “pousada”, a home once owned by royalty and now open to tourists
Follow the wine route to the estates and vineyards in in Igrejinha, Arraiolos, Roquevale, Monte Branco, Redondo and Herdade do Esporão
- Discover the route to olive oil along designated growing regions in Moura, the inner Alentejo and northern Alentejo
- Stroll through the medieval towns contained within the Parque Natural da Serra de Sao Mamede
To the northeast from cork country is the “Castle Route” with fortified villages such as Nisa, Castelo de Vide, Marvão, Portalegre and Alter do Chão. To the south, the landscape is flat and warm, scattered with sunflower and golden wheat fields, wine estates and olive groves. In the center is the city of Evora, a World Heritage city and a good spot from which to begin exploring. Evora also contains ruins from prehistoric peoples. Pottery and tapestry rugs are the local handicrafts. To the northeast, the towns of Estremoz and Vila Viçosa are "marble towns"which supplied marble to buildings throughout Portugal. Everywhere the landscape bears traces from cultures which once tried to conquer ancient Portugal--the Moors, the Romans, and the Cathaginians. On the western coast of the Alentejo, the beaches are unspoiled and rugged.
SPOTLIGHT ON LOCAL FOOD AND DRINK
- gaspacho (cold summer soup) with garlic or oregano
- breads such as pão basto and pão de rala
- sericaia, an authentic Alentejo dessert in which eggs, milk, sugar and cinnamon
- succulent and juicy Elvas plums