Alentejo is often referred to as the “breadbasket region” of Portugal. This is owed to the rich and fertile soil, the rolling plains and the abundant countryside. While the region is widely appreciated for its production of cork, grains and olives the mediterranean landscape provides a favorable growing environment for vineyards and is fast becoming a recognized wine region.
From the Tagus River down to Algarve and east to the border of Spain spans a region of amazing rural beauty, untouched rolling hills and charming towns with friendly people. This region is called Alentejo, which literally translates to “beyond the Tagus River” in Portuguese.
Life in Alentejo moves at a slower pace than it does to the north. In fact they say “life proceeds at the pace of the wind” in this “heartland” of Portugal. The rugged landscape and warming sun come together as Mother Nature encourages visitors to slow down and enjoy the day.
People of the region are friendly and proud of their rich heritage. One only needs to gaze upon the vast landscape and note the ancient and prolific olive groves and cork oak to realize two of the many gifts for which this region is known.
The lovely villages that dot the countryside look like a Hollywood movie set but rest assured they are as authentic as it gets. Medieval towns along the route to Spain boast fortified walls that date back centuries. Everywhere you look in the region of Alentejo a new experience awaits you.
The Fertile Breadbasket
Thanks to Portugal’s heightened environmental awareness this region also prioritizes sustainability in all that is grown in Alentejo. From the prolific cork forests and olive groves to the vineyards and grain grown on the hillsides and flatlands of Alentejo those who work the land and harvest these gifts do so with respect for the environment.
Olives and Their Liquid Gold
The region of Alentejo is home to 85% of Portugal’s olive groves and provides 77% of the country’s olive oil. The fruit forward liquid gold has zero bitterness and a vibrant palate. Connoisseurs around the globe covet the Alentejo olive oil for its bright flavor and the different varieties of olives that go into oil production. Most Alentejano can show you the differences in flavor depending on the local varietals, a truly fascinating experience.
The Wines of Alentejo
Portugal is a diverse wine producing country. The northern region gives us the light, zippy and fresh palate of the Vinho Verde. Alentejo wines are predominantly red and have a rich and concentrated flavor. This is owed to the regional hot summers and cool winters.
These luscious reds are typically produced from the Aragonez grape used for Tempranillo, the Castelão, which provides a full-body to its reds, and Trincadeira, used in the production of port. There is also a blend of the three grapes that produces a delicious rich and jammy red.
While red is the most prolific wine of the region there is a popular white, Antao Vaz. Often described as tropical fruit forward with notes of honey and citrus. The region is unique in the wines it has to offer, each of them delicious.
A Major Producer of Cork
The Alentejo region is widely known for its cork production. In fact, the mystical and quite lovely cork forests provide more than half of the world’s cork supply. These ancient and noble forests have stood for millennia and are quite stunning, especially after the bark is harvested. The trees stand red hued while they renew their bark for another harvest. Sustainability and beauty amid the landscape of The Alentejo.
Cheese, Glorious Cheese!
The warmth of the sun touches the plains of the Alentejo and makes for some very happy and contented sheep. Along with the regional wines and olive oil the Alentejo has some pretty spectacular cheeses.
There are many remarkable local varieties of cheese although there are only three which carry the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). This means these cheeses are produced in specific areas, under traditional methods and strict European guidelines to maintain their classification as traditional slow-food products.
The three cheeses with PDO designation are named for the towns in which they are produced, Nisa, Évora and Serpa. There are many reasons to visit these towns but their cheeses remain chief among them.
Queijo de Nisa DOP is a semi-hard yellow-white cheese made from sheep’s milk. The robust flavor develops after a minimum of 45 days aging. Nisa has a sweet creamy flavor with a whisper of walnut. It's made from the milk of Saloio sheep. More than 22 Nisan farms produce the local cheese.
The cheese from Évora, or Queijo de Évora DOP, is made from the milk of Merino sheep. Semi-hard and unpasteurized, this cheese is produced from November to mid-April. The cheese of Évora is aged for two months which produces a thick, light yellow and delicate flavor which is salty, fruity and slightly bitter with hints of thistle and fruity notes. The flavor becomes crisper the longer the cheese is aged.
Queijo de Serpa DOP is made in a similar fashion; from Merino sheep and aged two months. The difference in flavor is owed to the town’s location. It is nearer to the Spanish border which provides a unique flavor. Part spicy, sweet and tart with just a hint of Portuguese paprika. Serpa’s cheese is said to be stronger than the others.
Evora-A Must See
In 17775 much of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake while the town of Évora remained virtually untouched. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is beautiful. Just seeing the white-washed houses adorned with traditional Portuguese ceramic azulejos you can imagine time hasn’t touched Évora at all. With her convents, palaces and many historical sites Évora is where history thrives.
Such impressive historical points of interest as The Fountain of Portas de Moura which was built in 1556 is a remarkable example of the type of architecture of the day. Equally as impressive is the Royal Palace of Évora, originally a 13th century convent,The Roman Temple of Évora, an homage to the goddess Diana and dating back to the 1st century AD and the Prata Aqueduct which is often referred to as the Iberian Peninsula’s greatest 16th century building project.
The largest cathedral in Portugal is the Cathedral of Évora. Inside the massive church you’ll find the main chapel, Baroque in design and a smaller chapel in the Manueline style. There are states of the apostles along with a fully functional pipe organ that dates back to the Renaissance.
For those who appreciate a bit of the macabre, located in the Church of Saint Francis is a chapel built in the late 16th century by Franciscan monks. The chapel is called Capela dos Ossos. This translates to the Chapel of Bones. The walls of the chapel were created from over five thousand skulls and entire skeletons are visible in the wall.
Experience Alentejo and Experience The Real Portugal
The Alentejo is as natural as it gets in most areas.There are thousands of miles of cork forest in the Alentejo region, which add to its timeless beauty. The small villages, whether coastal or tucked into the foothills are unique and endearing. Alentejo's larger towns are living museums set inside fortressed walls as if to preserve that which is beyond the ancient garrison for future generations.