It’s 6pm and we are sunning ourselves by the pool. Nothing unusual about that in the middle of summer, but this is October when temperatures across most of Europe plummet.
The glorious autumn weather was just one of the surprises thrown up by a recent visit to the Alentejo region of Portugal – the bit most tourists miss when they drive through on the main road between the Algarve and the capital Lisbon.
But this is a gem not to be missed if you want a a different holiday from the tourist hoardes. It’s home to just 7% of the country’s population, depleted by economic migration for generations.
But that means its not only rural, but quiet, with a slower place of life, deserted roads and value-for-money fine dining, superb wines and classy boutique hotels.
The word Alentejo is derived from Além-Tejo or Beyond the Tagus (river that exits into the Atlantic via Lisbon) and the area covers almost a third of Portugal – from the south bank of the Tagus down to the Algarve, and from the Atlantic coast to the Spanish border in the east.
As you travel south from the capital you pass through the typical Alentejo landscape – rolling hills, empty roads, pretty white villages, fields of half-naked cork-oak trees, with the bark harvested from their trunks, vines, olive groves and small towns that have remained practically unchanged for centuries – perfect for a driving holiday.
The spa resort, L’AND Vineyard, where we are sunning ourselves is just 40 minutes from Lisbon. We drive across the huge Tagus estuary via the Vasco de Gama Bridge which reminds me of the Florida Keys. The hotel is 3kms from the pretty town of Montemor-o-Novo and not far from the region’s capital Évora, 28 kms away.
The hotel blends 21st century design with the wine-growing traditions of the region – bright white buildings designed to connect the interior with the exterior. Large windows flood the rooms with light so that you have great views of the stunning countryside with the vineyards, citrus trees, woodland and a shimmering lake.
The resort has 22 rooms and an array of facilities which account for its five star classification which includes an impressive winery, an organic spa (with turkish bath), indoor and outdoor pools, a tennis court, and a regionally-inspired restaurant with dishes from the Alentejo and the Mediterranean. The chefs use mainly organic produce, grown on the hotel’s farm.
A vist to the Spa, Fitness and Wellness Centre is obligatory! The spa uses the best products from the French vinotherapy beauty house Caudalie. I chose the full body relaxing massage which did what it said and made be feel very de-stressed. One of the best massages ever.
Now early evening it was time for a visit to the winery which is underneath the hotel. Portuguese wines from this region are world-class and the ones we sampled here did not disappoint.
The owners have also invested in a number of initiatives to make the hotel as environmentally friendly as possible. It holds an array of official certifications for sustainable construction, energy consumption, anti-pollution, water, ecology and land use and animal welfare, using solar energy for cooling, heating and micro-power generation. The ecological garden project grows vegetables without the use of chemicals.
Évora and the Convento do Espinheiro
With great reluctance, feeling relaxed after the spa treatments and the vino, we leave this hotel to our next stop, the Convento Do Esphinheiro, one of the most beautiful pousadas in Portugal. En route we stop for dinner at the Restaurante Fialho in Evora.
The restaurant started out as a chop-house, founded by Manuel Fialho in 1948. But it has since grown a reputation as one of the finest restaurants in Portugal. Tonight it is buzzing and crammed to the gills with locals tucking into traditional Alentejo cuisine.
Wines from all over Portugal are served here but there is of course a focus on local produce. Specialities include bacalhua na canoa (codfish), ensopado de borrego (lamb stew), perdiz à Fialho (partridge).
Convento do Espinheiro
This 15th century former Cistercian Convent is one of the most beautiful hotels I have ever stayed in.
It striking white exterior can be seen for miles around and one can imagine that is was literally a Godsend for the travellers who came its way to escape the searing heat which can top 40 degrees in summer and the below-freezing temperatures of winter.
Although luxuriously restored, with 92 rooms, the building still retains most of the features of its religious past including a church. The spectacular cloisters remain open to the elements and serve as al fresco bar in the summer.
Guests have a choice of rooms which range from modern 50s art deco style in an extension of more formal in the old part of the renovated building. Surprisingly its not expensive to stay here with prices for two starting at circa £200.
Five star experience
It has all the facilities you would expect for five star luxury, including a gourmet restaurant serving local specialities such as chestnut soup and wild hare risotto. And the Diana Spa is world-class offering treatments with ESPA products. The signature massage costs €100 for 55 minutes. Try the Algae Wrap rich in detoxifying minerals to speed up metabolism for which also includes a massage for €90 for 55 minutes.
Évora – a UNESCO World Hertigage Site The old town of Évora is a Unesco world heritage site with a 2,000-year-old Templo Romano, one of the finest Roman monuments on the Iberian peninsula.
There’s also a 16th-century aqueduct leading north-west out of the city that can be walked for five miles, and the macabre crypt of the stunning Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), where the walls are neatly lined with the bones and skulls of around 5,000 former Évora residents.
Dom Joaquim Restaurant Evora
Housed in a renovated building, Dom Joaquim offers fine dining in a contemporary setting. Modern artworks line the stone walls, and cane chairs grace clothed tables. While it’s smart and trendy, it offers excellent traditional cuisine.
Chef Joaquim adores his clients as much as they love his skills; he serves up big tastes with great enthusiasm: meats (including game and succulent, fall-off-the-bone oven lamb, pictured above) and seafood dishes, such as perdiz (partridge) and caçao (dogfish). For dessert, we dare you to try the toucinho ransoso dos santos, which literally translates as ‘rancid lard of the saint’.
Wine & Olive oil at Esporao, near the village of Monsaraz
Esporao is one of the largest wineries and olive oil producers in Portugal with 400 acres of vineyards in the Alentejo and others in the northwest Douro region. Producing 10 million liters of wine annually, with roughly 75% of their production falling into the red wine category and nearly 25% white wine. It’s worth while visit for tasting and also for the restaurant.
The Medieval town of Monsaraz
Monsaraz is located 120 kilometres from Quinta do Pomarinho on a hill 342 metres above the right bank of the river Guadiana, which forms the border between Portugal and Spain. It’s very picturesque with typical white houses with red roofs, wrought iron balconies, and elongated chimneys which are often more than 300 years old. That is why entering the village feels as if you are going back in time, making it the perfect place to find some rest and a drink – there are lots of restaurants and bars with spectacular views.
Ecork Hotel Evora
This unique 3* hotel is only 5 minutes from Evora. The outside of the main building is entirely clad in cork which acts as a thermal and acoustic insulator. Again the owners, mindful of the local ecology, use geothermal energy to heat the main building and swimming pools and solar panels to heat the hotel water.
All the accommodation is in the form of suites – there are 56 surrounded by ancient olive and cork trees. It also has a spa and gym.
Hotel Horta da Moura – 4* rural retreat
This is a traditional Alentejo agricultural hotel with great facilities for those who want to be closer to the rural way of life. It’s almost a village in itself with lots of activities on site, including horse riding and tennis. It’s ideal for couples and families as it has traditional rooms (25) with private bathrooms and all modern facilities including wifi access. Set on a hillside, the view of the surrounding countryside is breathtaking, including Lake Alqueva.
And if you really want to get away from it it all set off for Amieira Marina on Lake Alqueva and potter around parts of this huge expanse of water in the middle-of-nowhere on a luxury houseboat.
Lake Alqueva is the largest man-made reservoir in Europe covering a surface area of 250 sq km, 83km from end to end. It was created in 2002 after the Alqueva dam was built on the Guadiana river to irrigate the impoverished and arid Alentejo.
After a lesson on the use of sonar and GPS, not forgetting operating the onboard toilets and water we set off. We are instructed not to deviate from the designated navigation channel because underneath the lake are submerged villages and trees. And we don’t see another living soul for more than three hours.
There are numerous little villages, with lovely places to stop and eat, alongside the lake which straddles the Portuguese/Spanish borders. But we opt for a slow and short motor up to the dam and back – which takes 3 hours and is only a short distance of the whole lake. The distances on this lake must not be underestimated since the motorhomes top speed is extremely sedate and its forbidden to go out after dark.
This lake is teaming with fish – and in the evening you can hear them leaping out of the water and falling back with a very loud plop – I can only imagine that they must be huge but they are too quick for me to catch a glimpse in the twilight.
The marina is a popular destination to while away a few hours at the weekend and there is a cafe and also the excellent Amieira Marina Restaurant overlooking the lake.
The motor cruisers can be hired for the day or longer. They are modern, very well equipped and spotlessly clean and the fridge in ours was stocked with wine and charcuterie.
We opt to spend the night on board. And after a glass or two of wine watching the sun go down we have dinner at the marina restaurant. The sky is full of stars and there is quiet all around – except for the fish, of course.
The capital city should not be missed even if it’s for a quick shopping expedition. In the shops, at least in the historic centre, you are more likely to find traditional handicrafts than designer gear. And even more likely to find cafes and restaurants.
————————————————————————————————- Fact Box
Sunvil Discovery (tel: 020 8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk) offers tailormade itineraries across the Alentejo. Our itinerary costs from £675 pp (two sharing) including return flights (Heathrow) with TAP Portugal (www.flytap.com), one night on a houseboat on the Alqueva Lake and three nights at the Hotel Convento do Espinheiro, and car hire. For further information about the Alentejo, see www.visitalentejo.pt/en/
An alternative itinerary costs £474 pp (two sharing) including return flights (Heathrow) with TAP Portugal (www.flytap.com), four nights at the Hotel Convento do Espinheiro on B&B, and car hire. For further information about the Alentejo, see www.visitalentejo.pt/en/
The houseboats on Alqueva Lake are available from 15 March 2014.
L’AND Vineyards Resort
Herdade das Valadas Estrada Nacional 4 Montemor-o-Novo 7050 Évora Tel: +351 266 242 400 Fax: +351 266 242 401 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Convento do Espinheiro www.conventodoespinheiro.com
€120 pp sharing.
Hotel Rural Horta da Moura Apartado 64 Monsaraz T: (+035) 266 550100
Restaurant Fialho – Evora
Trv. dos Mascarehas 16 T: (+351) 266 703079 www.restaurantefialho.com Closed Mondays
Dom Joaquim – Evora Rua dos Penedos, 6 7000-537 Évora T: 266 731 105 E: email@example.com
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Website: www.esporao.com Address: Herdade do Esporão, Apartado 31, 7200-999 Reguengos de Monsaraz Phone: 351 266 509280 Herdade do Esporão Reguengos de Monsarez Aparado 31 T: +351 266 509280 www.esporao.com
Alentejo Wine Route
For information on the region’s wines www.vinhosdoalentejo.pt
Olga Correia Miguel
T: (+351) 915 015 600