MARVAO, Portugal– Before entering this fortified hilltop town, you must set your watch back to the 13th century. Then I collapsed both side view mirrors on my rental car and edged through the arched city gate, under the 10-foot thick wall, with inches to spare.
I parked and walked on narrow cobblestone streets, past mellifluous, splashing fountains, toward the castle, which was started by the Muslim Moors in the eighth century and completed some 500 years later by the Christians. It’s early evening, but the castle stones were still warm from the heat of the day.
From the castle walls, my eyes circumnavigated the scene and then settled eastward. The view almost knocked the wind out of me. In the valley below, eagles soared above rectilinear farm fields marked by slanting shafts of light and shadow. I half expected to hear the pa-paaa of trumpets announcing the approach of invaders from Spain, some 10 miles away.
I looked up from this remarkable scene with a sudden realization. I was alone. In nearly any other place in western Europe, the castle would be crawling with tourists stumbling into each others’ selfies.
But this is Alentejo, one of Europe’s least touristed areas, a far-flung, beautiful swathe of geography that takes in one third of all of Portugal but holds only 7 percent of its residents. It is a land of silver-green olive groves, gnarled cork trees, trim vineyards, wildflower meadows, Roman ruins, and Medieval-walled towns where centuries-old castles aren’t a possibility, but an inevitability.
Every town also has at least one café where old men in tweed jackets over wife-knitted sweaters sit carefully polishing their idleness. Black-shawled widows carry loaves of fresh bread, using canes to maneuver along cobblestones. Houses are whitewashed to repel the heat and trimmed in mustard yellow, which the early Moors believed would ward off evil.
In the countryside, leather-faced farmers sit atop bullock-drawn carts with wooden wheels that creak as though they hurt, dark-haired Gypsies camp by the rivers, and storks with skinny legs perch on huge nests atop telephone poles.
If you’re tired of fighting crowds at the world’s roped-off tourist shrines, Alentejo--pronounced “ah-lane-TAY-zhoo”--is for you. Here the wheels of time seemed to be standing still.
For two weeks, I drove on lightly-trafficked two-lane highways, spending each night at a pousada–a small inn (no more than 30 rooms) set in a medieval building. I stayed in three castles, three convents, one monastery and one house.
Over the centuries, many of these buildings became decrepit with misuse and abuse, but in 1942 the Portuguese government decided to rescue them by transforming them in to state-run inns that respected the architecture and offered authentic regional cuisine. The pousadas, were sold to the Pestana hotel group in 2003. There are 35 pousadas in Portugal, including 13 in Alentejo.
The village of Crato is so small that entering and leaving it amount to the same thing, but just outside is the Pousada Flor da Rosa, which was at different periods was a castle, and convent and a palace. Its 24 rooms have private terraces built into the battlement walls.
Vila Vicosa is a bigger town in the heart of Portugal’s marble country, and it glistens with the local stone–doorsteps, street benches, curbs, street lamps. But it all pales before the 16th Century Ducal Palace and its 300-foot marble facade fronted by a huge square of marble cobbles. This was the country retreat of the Braganca royal family.
Were this palace in France or Austria it would be overrun with tourists, but I joined a guided tour with only five other people. The guide spoke only Portuguese, but I didn’t need an interpreter to appreciate the vaulted ceilings, the gigantic Persian rugs, Aubusson tapestries, azulejo tiles and 16th century frescoes.
Very near the palace is the Pousada de D Joao IV, 16th century convent that has a gothic feel because the cells, retreats and oratories have been retained. Indeed, the cells have become the guest rooms. In one of the main doors I discovered a revolving carousel, which the desk clerk said allowed mothers to place their unwanted babies into the nuns’ care.
The Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel began life as a 13th century palace built by King Diniz for his Queen, Isabel. It was destroyed by fire when its armory exploded in the 17th century, but then promptly rebuilt. A dozen kings and queens have slept here, and it has been a stage for battle, love, intrigue and treason.
Today it has luxurious rooms, a friendly staff, a fine restaurant and a terrace where I sipped espresso and looked down into the town of Estremoz. The market was in full swing and church bells debated the precise instant of noon.
At Montemor-o-Novo, I climbed a hill to the ruins of the castle, and with the help of a visitors sign I was able to identify the clock tower, gate, convent, church, palace and jail. I thought I was alone and was startled when a women stepped out of the ancient guardhouse and began hanging wash on a line. Overhead, the contrails of a Lisbon-bound jet chalked up the blue sky.
A defining feature of the Alentejo countryside is whole forests of cork trees, most of them several centuries old. Cork farming is not for the impatient. A cork tree cannot be stripped of its bark until it’s 25 years old, and then this harvest can occur only once every nine years. The work is accomplished by specialists known as extractors, and when they’re finished the denuded trees are left red-colored and dated to await their next stripping when the bark grows back. Beneath the trees, black pigs fatten up on the fallen acorns, giving Alentejo pork a unique taste.
Portugal produces about 60 percent of the world’s cork, nearly all of which is used in wine bottles, much of it nearby at Alentejo’s 400 vineyards, many of which date back to Roman times. Most of the local wines are available in cafes and the pousada restaurants, which feature simple dishes with recipes perfected over the centuries.
The two staples are black pork and cod, both of which come in many different forms. Lamb and duck were frequent menu visitors. Every meal starts with a couvert, which is a serving of wheat bread, olive oil for dipping, olives and often sheep’s milk cheese. Starters include a hearty gazpacho and sopa a Alentejana, garlic soup with a poached egg.
The only real evidence of tourism was in Evora, the provincial capital and Alentejo’s largest town with a population of about 60,000. Like all the towns, Evora’s oldest section is on a hilltop and visible for miles away. The arches of its 16th century aqueduct rise dramatically behind the Roman wall. Evora was founded in 61 BCE and over the millenia has been peopled by Romans, Moors, and Visigoths.. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986. It is a blend of towers and gates and architecture from many periods. Fountains celebrate every intersection and bougainvillea blossoms on white walls.The most visited site is the Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones, which contains the bones of some 5,000 people disinterred by a Franciscan monk in the 16th century. The ornamentally arranged skulls, ribs, femur and tibia are intended to remind the living of the inevitability of death.
There’s a lot more to see in Evora, but I’m feeling uneasy. There are too many people, too many traffic lights, too much traffic, too much honking, too much nervous neon, too many things going. And I’m tired of looking for parking spaces. I find the main highway and head out of town.
About 10 miles from Evora, I turn onto a gravel road that takes me to the tiny village of Guadeloupe, where I follow a dirt track that is signposted “Almendres Menhir.” After a half hour of dusty, bumpy driving through a cork forest I park and follow the signs along a rutted path. There’s a clearing and then I’m looking at some 20 menhirs–granite monoliths dating back to the 6th Century BCE.
Many of these smooth, lichened stones dot Alentejo, but this agglomeration is the largest. Some of them are eight feet tall and have carved drawings. But most are smaller. They are arranged in concentric circles. Menhirs are believed to be part of a Neolithic fertility rite, and scholars see them as proof the ancient inhabitants had knowledge of architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and geology.
There is no sound save for the sigh of the wind. I feel like I’m all alone at Stonehenge.
Alentejo Tourism Agency--www.visitalentejo.pt
Pousadas of Portugal--www.pousadasportugal.com
Guidebook–Alentejo by Alex Robinson
William Ecenbarger is an award-winning journalist whose magazine and
newspaper articles appear in markets throughout the world. He is also the author
of three books: Kids for Cash (2012), which recounts one of the worst judicial
scandals in American History; Glory by the Wayside (2008), a photo-essay book
released this year about the old churches of Hawaii, and Walkin’ the Line, (2000) a
travel-history narrative about the Mason-Dixon Line. As a travel writer, he has
produced more than 300 articles for newspaper and magazine outlets in the U.S.,
Australia and Canada. He has won 17 writing awards from the Society of American
Travel Writers, which named him "Lowell Thomas Travel Writer of the Year" in
1996. He lives in Hershey, PA.