At a dinner party last fall, I was seated across from a hotshot investment banker from Lisbon. Given all the fluctuations in the market, I decided to stick to more upbeat topics and asked him if he'd heard of Zambujeira do Mar, a beach town in the Alentejo region of Portugal.
"I was just there with my girlfriend's family," he answered, hiking up his sleeve to flash his enviable tan. "But how in the world do you know about it?"
It was on my radar because I was about to go there, and I'd done my research. For centuries, the Alentejo has been known as a place where delicious things--wine, honey, ham, cheese, herbs, olive oil--come from, rather than as a place that people go to visit. Spread across more than 12,000 square miles of southern Portugal, stretching from the São Mamede Mountains to a chain of secluded Atlantic coves, the Alentejo seems to be populated with little more than grapevines, cork oaks, and herds of acorn-fed black pigs. Towns are small and few. Even the region's name conveys a slightly cast-off status; Alentejo is derived from alem Tejo, or "beyond the Tejo," as the Tagus River is called in Portuguese.
But the region is slowly being rediscovered by the Portuguese and foreign travelers alike--whether it's to savor the velvety red wines of the Upper Alentejo (to the north) or to sunbathe on the beaches of the Lower Alentejo (to the south).
I drove down from Lisbon, planning to first explore the medieval towns of the Upper Alentejo. From its founding by the Romans in 80 B.C. to the long line of Portuguese kings that followed, the tiny walled city of Évora has a big history. Today it's the principal town of the Upper Alentejo, but Évora also did a stint as the country's capital between the 15th and 16th centuries, which left it with a legacy of ornate palaces, cathedrals, and monasteries. Crammed along the Largo do Conde Vila Flor square are some of the city's most prized sights, including the ruins of the Temple of Diana and the 12th-century Sé Catedral de Évora. Nearby is the São Francisco Church, where the chapel was constructed out of monks' bones.
But Évora isn't all relics, particularly in the commercial center of Praça de Giraldo, where mosaic-tiled sidewalks line such aptly named streets as Rua dos Mercadores. In the 16th century, the country's second-oldest university was established there, and to this day, students lend enough joie de vivre to keep things lively every night. At one of the more intimate taverns, Tasquinha d'Oliveira, Manuel and Carolina d'Oliveira follow the local custom of serving diners an array of tapas-like petiscos before the main course. I was only halfway through the stewed partridge, baby lamb chops, and scrambled eggs with cod when I wondered if I'd even make it to the entrée.
Of all the sleepy villages in the northeast corner of the Alentejo, Vila Viçosa is by far the most stunning. The town was a favorite hunting retreat of King João IV, who reclaimed the Portuguese throne from the Spanish in 1640. It's his larger-than-life statue that guards the square in front of the Ducal Palace and Pousada D. João IV, a former royal convent where the cells have been converted into guest rooms. The fourth duke of Bragança built the convent so he'd have a place to put spinster daughters who couldn't find noble husbands--or so the story goes.
The artisans of the Upper Alentejo produce a remarkable range of crafts--fine weavings, ceramics, just about anything fashioned from cork--and each town seems to have a specialty. On my way back to Évora, I stopped in Arraiolos because I'd heard that Lisboans have been known to travel across Portugal just to buy the town's rugs. With a simple cross-stitch, the weavers create refined designs that often incorporate baroque leaf patterns; custom-made carpets can cost upward of $300 per square meter. In Sempre Noiva, a couple checked out the newest pieces. "We bought our first rug in Arraiolos when we got married 15 years ago, and my wife is still collecting them," said the husband.
In the village of Monsaraz, known for its thick woolen blankets and tapestries, the first thing I noticed was all of the ReMax signs. The remote hilltop town is apparently the place for Lisboans to snap up second homes. A softly whirring spinning wheel drew me into Mizette, a small shop stocked with hand-painted wooden toys and stacks of blankets. Wowed by many of the bold stripes and geometric patterns, I made the mistake of asking the owner if the blankets were imported. She quickly set me straight. "We like color here in Monsaraz," she said while spinning a fat skein of bright orange wool. "The shepherds in this part of the Alentejo have been wearing these patterns for centuries."
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.
Across the Alentejo
Most towns in the Alentejo are less than three hours from Lisbon by car. Take A12 south over the Vasco da Gama Bridge and follow the signs to A2 if you're heading south to Sines, or A6 to Évora. Regional maps are available in the tourism offices of virtually every town in the Alentejo. In February, a compact car with manual transmission costs less than $300 per week with basic insurance; an automatic is $575 per week (888/223-5555, autoeurope.com).