Unspoilt Alentejo – perfect for the art of doing nothing
Évora, Portugal – Imagine a quiet corner of Europe studded with white-washed hilltop villages each crowned with a castle, gourmet restaurants, five national parks, Jewish history sites, bargain prices, beautiful rivers, a spectacular seaside and very few tourists. That’s Alentejo – Portugal’s scenic, rural heartland that lies between the cosmopolitan capital Lisbon and the golden beaches of the Algarve to the south.
Visiting here last month, I felt I was in a time warp – this is how Tuscany or Provence once must have been before being inundated with holidaymakers. One can cruise along Alentejo’s well-engineered expressways at 150 km/h for 30 minutes without encountering another vehicle. But exit the highways and drive on the back roads to really appreciate this enchanted land.
Alentejo – Portuguese for beyond the Tagus River – is the world’s largest producer of cork. Forests of the trees are everywhere. Their bark is carefully peeled back once every nine years, and the trunks are painted white with a number designating the last harvest. Look carefully and you may spot boar and deer. Stork and crane nests abound, and eagles and vultures soar above the empty countryside’s ravines.
If one compares Alentejo's area of 27,272 square kilometers to Israel’s 20,770 sq km, and population of 537,556 with Israel’s 8.5 million, one realizes how empty Alentejo is. Sheep and goats vastly outnumber people. Alentejo is the ultimate destination for just chilling. As our tour guide Ruben Obadiah - a proud member of Lisbon's Shaaré Tikvah Synagogue – put it, Alentejo is about the fine art of doing nothing.
Check in to the romantic Quinta do Barrieiro inn near the cliff top fortress village of Marvão, and you may never want to leave. Restoring a ruined farmhouse, architect Jose Manuel and his wife artist Maria Leal da Costa have created nine rustic rooms spread across five hectares of rolling hills. Cows ruminate in the sculpture garden showcasing the works of the internationally famous sculptress. Here, between repasts of wonderfully flavorful Portuguese cuisine and dips in the swimming pool, and lulled by the smells of wild lavender, the singing of larks and the brightest stars imaginable, one can ponder Obadiah’s words of wisdom about doing nothing.
For those Israeli tourists who insist on combining nada with site-seeing, I recommend Alentejo’s rich Jewish history. The mountain village of Castelo de Vide, pop. 3,400, beckons with its medieval synagogue now restored as a museum.
Located near the Castilian frontier, in 1492 at the time of the Spanish Expulsion this region was flooded with Jewish refugees. The hapless Jews gladly paid to cross the Roman bridge in Portagem to what they thought was a land of religious freedom. (Portagem means toll.) A plaque by the 2,000-year-old bridge commemorates the exodus. Some 4,000 Jews joined their 800 Sephardi brethren in Castelo de Vide’s Judiaria (Jewish barrio). But their refuge proved transitory. In 1497 the town’s Jewish community was marched down the hill from Rua da Judiaria to Rua da Fonte, the site of the town’s spring and fountain. The waters there served as the baptismal font for their forcible conversion.
It was here in 1986 that Mário Soares, the president of Portugal, apologized for his country’s persecution of its Jews. Today Portugal grants citizenship to the descendants of those Conversos who fled, creating a network of Spanish and Portuguese exiles across the Mediterranean, in the Netherlands, the New World of the Americas, India and of course Israel. Around the corner from the fountain is the street on which the Spinoza family lived before escaping to Amsterdam in the early 17th century.
Castelo de Vide’s impressive synagogue-museum contains a moving memorial to the New Christian victims of the Portuguese Inquisition. The Torah cabinet, sealed behind a false wall after 1497, is now on display again. Most poignant is the deep groove in the granite doorway where the mezuzah was once affixed. The missing parchment symbolizes the ghostly absence of the town’s Jews.
In Évora, Alentejo’s largest city (pop. 57,000) 120 km to the southwest, one can appreciate the history, including the stultifying hand of the Inquisition, that shaped Alentejo. Here in this splendid UNESCO World Heritage site is the Roman temple of Diana, and the Cathedral of Évora. Construction began on the massive Gothic structure in the 12th century after the Moors were driven out by Catholic Crusaders.
After the Marquis of Pombal’s reforms in 1773 and 1774 which abolished autos-da-fé (burning Judaizing heretics at the stake) and culminated in the Portuguese Inquisition being dissolved in 1821, many of the country’s Catholic institutions closed. The former convent facing the Roman temple today has been refurbished as the Pousada Convento de Évora. The luxurious hotel is one of Alentejo’s 13 pousadas. In these former palaces, convents, monasteries and forts, one can uniquely experience history. (See http://www.portugalpousadas.com)
But history here encompasses far more than Christians and Jews, Moors and Romans. Across Alentejo are dozens of sites of chalcolithic menhirs and dolmens – monolithic standing stones that rival Stonehenge. The Meada menhir located 10 km north of Castelo de Vide in the Portalegre district stands a staggering 7.15 meters high. Even more mysterious is the megalithic complex called the Almendres Cromlech, located near Guadalupe. Here one can contemplate a forest of 95 granite monoliths dating back to the 6th millennium BCE and aligned with a magnetic field. And like so many places in Alentejo, you’ll likely be the only visitor.
Tired of the timeless, and sleeping in refurbished palaces? One can go “glamping” along the Rio Seda – the Silk River, combining camping in luxury with river sports and – wait for it – the art of doing nothing. For a feeling of the wet adventure offered by Azenhas da Seda, check out owner Luís Lucas’s website.
If white water rafting past a ruined mill is too much activity, the Alqueva Dam on the Guadiana River has created Europe’s largest reservoir. With a surface area of 250 sq km, and measuring 83 km from end to end, Lake Alqueva, also called Grande Lago, is perfect for house boating. Drop anchor anywhere, and you’re likely to be alone. Charters are available by the day or for longer holidays at http://amieiramarina.com/en/.
Unspoilt and uncrowded Alentejo is a hiker’s paradise. The well-marked Alentejo Feel Nature Route overlooking the Tagus, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula which begins near Madrid and joins the Atlantic Ocean at its estuary by Lisbon. The trail leads past abandoned gold mines and massive tailings but the real treasure is in the wild flowers and vistas. Your bags can be forwarded ahead to your next lodging, or one may follow a circular route back to where you parked your car. See http://www.pomarinho.com/walking-portugal/hiking-trails/
The Rota Vicentina offers cliff-top trails along the rugged Atlantic coast linking fishing villages.
Eating well is an important part of the art of doing nothing. And Alentejo won’t disappoint. Portugal’s iconic dishes include cod and sardines. There are said to be 365 recipes for bacalhau (salted cod) – perhaps the only Portuguese word to enter Hebrew. As appropriate for a poor region, food is never wasted, leading to specialties like açorda (bread casserole) and migas (breadcrumbs and garlic sauté).
Of the many excellent restaurants we ate at, my personal favorite was Tasca do Celso (Celso’s Joint), a casual family-run eatery in the seaside village of Vila Nova de Milfontes. The two-hour multi-course lunch with endless wine and beer, capped with acorn liqueur and mixed nuts, cost €28.
Finally imbibing is an important part of Alentejo’s relaxed lifestyle. The region’s more than 300 vineyards, which produce half of Portugal's wine, welcome tourists. At the João Portugal Ramos winery at Vila Santa, one can try one’s hand at blending different varieties. And for something stronger, there’s ginjinha – a Portuguese favorite made by infusing Morello cherries with aguardente.
Raise your glass and toast Alentejo “Saúde” (cheers).
Gil Zohar was a guest of the Tourism Association of Alentejo and the Tourism Board of Lisbon. The trip was supported by the Portuguese Embassy and Sun D’Or, which offers four weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Lisbon.