Portugal's Alentejo region is poor, uncrowded, wildly beautiful – and now linked by direct flights to Heathrow
The Guardian, Saturday 21 May 2011
In these environment-conscious times the opening of a new airport is not normally cause for celebration. But I think the world will forgive tiny Beja airport for putting up the bunting and letting the band strike up tomorrow to celebrate the inaugural landing of flight BD1234 from Heathrow.
For one thing, we're talking about an Embraer 49-seater, flying just once a week to the airport, a former military airbase that is listed as an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. (The only other flights from here are to Cape Verde, used mainly by migrant workers.) For another, if ever there was a region in need of the economic shot in the arm that a new airport provides, it is the Alentejo – with Beja sitting in its heart – the poorest region of the poorest country in western Europe.
The Alentejo, derived from Além-Tejo or Beyond the Tagus, covers almost a third of Portugal, from the south bank of the Tagus down to the Algarve, and from the Atlantic coast to the Spanish border in the east. But it's home to just 7% of the country's population, economic flight having been a fact of life here for generations.
To the visitor it feels like undiscovered territory, a sleepy landscape of empty roads, pretty white villages, fields of half-naked cork-oak trees (the bark harvested from their trunks), vines, olive groves and small towns that have remained practically unchanged for centuries – and perfect road trip country.
Last weekend, to get a sneak preview of this newly accessible region, we picked up a car from Lisbon airport and headed first for the Alentejo coast, which starts just south of the capital, and is, with the exception of an industrial zone around the town of Sines, one continuous stretch of wild cliffs and virginal beaches.
Not that there was anything virginal about Praia do Tonel, near Zambujeira do Mar, when we got there the only couple in this beautiful golden sandy bay were enjoying some alfresco nookie. The fact that it was a sunny Saturday afternoon yet they seemed as surprised to see us as we them, tells you just how deserted this coastline is.
This isolation also attracts one of the few colonies (or musters) of storks on the Portuguese coast. Getting an eyeful of the domestic life of these huge birds half a stone's throw from the cliff path was even more surprising than seeing a copulating couple, and we spent two hours watching the storks tend their young in their huge basket-like nests as waves crashed against the granite cliffs below them.
The pool at Herdade do Touril.
We had borrowed bicycles from our guesthouse, Herdade do Touril, a chic and tranquil homestead of whitewashed houses scattered over 365 hectares, three miles north of Zambujeira. Our cycle ride around the property's perimeter took in the coastal path and fields bursting with colourful wild flowers. After a few hours' brisk exercise in the warm sun, jumping into Touril's lovely saltwater pool (which has graced the cover of Condé Nast Traveller) at the end of the ride was blissful.
Before heading inland we drove up the coast to Vila Nova de Milfontes, a pretty town on the beach-fringed estuary of the Mira river, for a lunch of barbecued sardines and shellfish at Restaurante A Choupana (Praia do Farol, +351 283 996 643). The combination of Portuguese vinho verde and fresh seafood is my idea of food heaven (particularly in an open-air restaurant bang on the beach with a view of the Atlantic).
It was a wrench to leave, but the rolling plains of the Alentejo are dotted with dozens of picturesque medieval towns. We had time to see just one, so we headed, via a vineyard or two, to the jewel in its crown, the walled city of Évora.
In keeping with the historic splendour of the place, we booked into the Pousada de Évora, a converted 14th-century convent wrapped round a series of shady courtyards. Pousadas de Portugal is a state-run chain of hotels in historic buildings such as monasteries or castles, similar to Spain's paradors.
Like their Spanish counterparts, pousadas offer affordable stays in some of the country's most magnificent old buildings (they offer excellent online deals), many of them in the Alentejo. But, in my experience at least, they also share the paradors' weak spot, in that the restaurant was no match for the majesty of the surroundings.
When we arrived late (but well before closing) for dinner, the head waiter, who had the appearance of Manuel and the manners of Basil Fawlty, couldn't disguise his indignation. So angry he could barely speak, he banged cutlery and plates down on our table. The food was the most mediocre of our trip, and we ate it in silence and without making eye contact in order to avoid an attack of the giggles and the wrath of Manuel.
But this was a small grumble. The pousada, like the town itself, is all about Portugal's history. The old town of Évora is a Unesco world heritage site, and right outside the front door of the pousada stands the 2,000-year-old Templo Romano, one of the finest Roman monuments on the Iberian peninsula. There's also a 16th-century aqueduct leading north-west out of the city that can be walked for five miles, and the macabre crypt of the stunning Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), where the walls are neatly lined with the bones and skulls of around 5,000 former Évora residents.
Nine miles west of the city is the Cromeleque dos Almendres, an oval of almost 100 granite monoliths that makes up one of the largest megalithic monuments in Europe. It's not as spectacular as Stonehenge perhaps, but this fascinating site isn't remotely commercial either. It sits, very peacefully, on a hillside of olive and cork trees, and access is free.
We had our fill of sightseeing in Évora, but it's a city where it's almost as much fun to wander around, get lost and hang out at bars and cafes in the numerous squares.
A weekend didn't feel nearly long enough to slow down to the Alentejo's very seductive pace of life, or to take in enough of this beautiful, quiet corner of Europe. But with the new flights into Beja on Sunday mornings only, staying for a week will be the norm. Three days on those gorgeous beaches and another three or four pottering around the Alentejo's vineyards and white marble villages ... now that sounds just about right.