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The problem with the Alentejo: Why you are missing it…

So many people plan their trip to Portugal as Lisbon to the Algarve. Now these are great places to be, but would you plan a trip from, say, Genoa to Rome without stopping in Tuscany?  Well, there is this part of Portugal that is unique, romantic and a destination all its own in between.  Meet the Alentejo where there are no big cities with tall skyscrapers, large avenues, and luxurious shops - instead, the Alentejo is composed of smaller towns with low, whitewashed houses and narrow streets, where the traditional handcraft and cuisine are the attraction. 


In just a couple of days in the Alentejo and you’ll understand two major reasons it gets overlooked, besides being too Portuguese - the first one is how infectious its slow pace of life is, and the second is how it is almost impossible to leave such an incredibly contrastingly beautiful place. The truth is that Alentejo is a compact region that offers an intense travel experience. 

image from abrilviagemeturismo.files.wordpress.com

Village of Monsaraz


Intrepid visitors who take the time to explore the Alentejo will discover traditional cultures, a stunning coastline, and the most peaceful scenarios they can imagine. The feeling starts when driving along the empty roads, surrounded by the extensive groves of cork oaks, olive fields, and vineyards. On the western coastline, surfing in all the secret empty beaches or visiting the ones impossible to hide its beauty will also transmit you the calmness of Alentejo. In the east, there are ancient fortified towns waiting to be explored.


Unlike most areas of Portugal, the Alentejo is mostly flat. And this is helpful because there’s no better way of getting to know the region but with a bicycle. There’s a list of cycling trails you can do from North to South, East to West with beautiful stopovers in towns with their own characteristics, or in montes with cows, goats, and pigs just showing off their free range lifestyle. Of course, a car can be also very useful for you to get the most out of it and explore off the beaten track. Public transport is generally good between all of the major towns - like Évora, Beja, Portalegre, Abrantes or Tomar - and Lisbon and there is limited bus services to the surrounding countryside.


The coastline is magical - we’re talking about 110km of the wildest, most breathtaking, and paradisiacal beaches you can imagine. Zambujeira do Mar and Vila Nova de Milfontes are the villages with the most popular ones, and it's Atlantic waters that will chill your bones are part of the experience. Although, if you want to visit the beach with the warmest water in the whole Alentejo, São Torpes beach - in Sines - is the one due to the thermoelectric plant nearby, helping these waters reach 30ºC during Summer. 

image from blogs.sl.pt

São Torpes Beach


However, carrying a dive in the chilly waters shouldn’t be a problem when traveling around the Alentejo, since the interior of the region can get very hot - but gorgeous. For example, the historic university city of Evora is an UNESCO World Heritage Centre because it has altered little in more than 500 years, charmed with national monuments inside the ancient Moorish city walls. Cities like Estremoz or Monsaraz will also make you travel in time and make you know more about the history of Portugal. It’s funny to see how the Alentejo is a region with a well-defined culture but every village has its peculiar stories, culinary traditions, and customs that set one apart from the others.

image from res.cloudinary.com

View over the UNESCO World Heritage City of Évora


If food is your weak spot, prepare yourself to get upper-sized pants for the end of your trip. You will eat without knowing how to stop yourself because everything in the Alentejo is delicious. Next to the beach, it won’t be hard to find a restaurant serving the freshest seafood – from bass to bream, lobster, prawns, crabs, goose barnacles, clams... There’s just so much to choose from! And meat dishes are very popular as well - the traditional Alentejo cuisine is based on the essential pork, lamb and bread. And, of course, never forget the Alentejo wine. Simply amazing.


No doubt that in the Alentejo there’s a lot to do. From sports - like surfing or horseback riding - to wine tasting, there’s a whole culture to get to know and experience.


It’s true, the problem with the Alentejo is that it is still sort of stuck in the past, nothing happens too fast. But that’s also the whole point of being there: to slow down and to enjoy life.


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Mark Benham

Portugal, a wonderful country which I have been lucky enough to travel through extensively, from top to bottom, over many months, while photographing for Two Hundred Days. Alentejo is a less visited gem, unique with its open, mostly flat, plains stretching for miles and miles, with an abundance of olive trees in between. Roads seems to go on forever, until you arrive at a quiet town, in the middle of, what seems, nowhere. Sunsets are spectacular. Visiting Alentejo is a true adventure, all of its own.

https://www.blurb.co.uk/b/6443202-two-hundred-days-a-portrait-of-portugal, a version of which has been published in four languages and can be purchased here

Book review https://juliedawnfox.com/two-hundred-days-a-photographic-journey-through-portugal/

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