Portugal: Under the Alentejan Sun
Friendly people, beautiful countryside, and delicious food and wine…. The Alentejo region of southern Portugal has everything that those famous areas in Europe haveexcept the crowds.
Parched and starving, I treated myself to a midday wine tasting--accompanied by a hearty lunch of roast pork and migas, bread fried with even more pork--at the Herdade do Esporão winery in Reguengos de Monsaraz. The Alentejo's crisp white wines and inky reds, such as the coveted Cartuxa Reserva, have long been overshadowed by port from the Douro Valley. Herdade do Esporão, in particular, is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Wine tourism in the area is so popular now that Alentejotrails, in Mourão, offers Jeep tours of the vineyards.
When I crossed into the Lower Alentejo the next day, the gray-green canopy of pine and eucalyptus gave way to open sky and views of the Atlantic. Life in this part of the Alentejo seemed to move even slower than in the northern section: Dogs, and often their owners, lazed in the open doorways of whitewashed houses, enjoying the ocean breezes. Since the 1990s, much of the Lower Alentejo has been incorporated into the Southwest Alentejo and Costa Vicentina Natural Park, and declared off-limits to development, save for a few ports and fishing villages.
Visitors tend to skip the industrial town of Sines, which generates much of the region's electricity, but it has some of the best surfing in the Alentejo. The swells near the Praia São Torpes beach are perfect for beginners, and there's a fantastic seafood restaurant on the sand, Trinca Espinhas. People have been known to gather an hour before lunchtime to be first in line for chef Luis Magalhães's comfort food, such as a fillet of sole served with açorda--bread soup made with olive oil, fish roe, garlic, and cilantro.
South of Sines, the coastal roads narrow, and neither local maps nor GPS systems seemed to include all of the possible routes, so my solution was simply to keep the ocean on my right. Halfway down the coast, I stopped in Vila Nova de Milfontes, a beachfront town with a jumble of streets that surround a tiny harbor. Milfontes has only about 4,000 residents, but it gets busy in the summer with city folk who prefer its low-key simplicity. The seascapes from the 16th-century Castelo de Milfontes are spectacular; the fact that there are just seven rooms means guests have to book way in advance.
About 20 miles further south is Zambujeira do Mar, a fishing village on the southern edge of the Alentejo. By law, hotels within this part of the preserve can only be housed in existing single-story farms. When I arrived at the Herdade do Touril de Baixo, I was greeted by the smell of freshly baked orange cake. The 11-room hotel and cattle ranch has a saltwater pool and a few suites scattered in white-and-blue outbuildings. The Falcao family has been farming this rugged land for generations; tin and wooden animal statues--sheep, chickens, pigs, cows--peek out from every corner of the hotel.
After a dip in the pool, I ordered a glass of wine at the outdoor bar and started chatting with a couple from Los Angeles, John Knight and Michelle Saylor. As we watched the sunset and compared restaurant recommendations, we were unable to name another destination with the Alentejo's rich history, unspoiled nature, and easygoing charm. Every resort town that any of us suggested was quickly qualified with "30 years ago" and "before the crowds discovered it." Then John paused and said, "I've seen a lot of places, but the Alentejo is one where I find myself saying, 'I might stay here.'"
Taking their advice, I made a dinner reservation at Café Central, a restaurant 15 minutes away in Brejão. "It's all about the rice," Michelle said, warning me that their lunch for two had been more like dinner for six. After polishing off a cheese plate and an octopus salad, I also managed to finish a stockpot of herb-infused rice and giant prawns.
I walked off some of my supper with a leisurely stroll along the cove in Zambujeira do Mar, past outdoor cafés packed with people lingering over coffee and liqueur. As the church bells chimed 1 a.m., I paused before walking into the Speram'entrando bar (the name translates as "Come in and wait for me"), which had yet to fill up. Like the best of the Alentejo, its moment was about to arrive.
- Pousada D. João IV Convento das Chagas, Vila Viçosa, 011-351/268-980-742, pousadas.pt, from $220
- Castelo de Milfontes Vila Nova de Milfontes, 011-351/283-998-231, from $200
- Herdade do Touril de Baixo Zambujeira do Mar, 011-351/283-950-080, touril.pt, from $102