Alentejo, or “Beyond the River” is a Memorable Part of Popular Portugal
By Sonja Stark
In terms of tourism, Alentejo often plays second fiddle to Algarve and Northern Portugal but don’t be fooled. Not only is this region the breadbasket for cork-tree groves and grape production but its cliffside beaches are the most scenic in the country.
Lapping the Atlantic
Tired but thrilled to be across the pond, I flew in on a red-eye from JFK to Lisbon and rented the sporty Citroen C5X. Like a bird, I navigated the open road intuitively having memorized the route in case I lost cell signal.
Hugging the coastline, just past the town of Sines, 85 miles later, I arrived at the first of many restorative destinations.
This was my first time in Portugal and I aimed to discover all the features that shaped the essence of this country. The Alentejo region in Southern Portugal, known for its sun, soil, and surf, provided just that.
Savoring my First Meal
Owner Ines Carlos rushed to the front door to welcome me to Arte & Sal (Art & Salt), a blue and yellow-painted landmark overlooking an expanse of empty golden beach called Praia da Morgavel.
“Come in, come in, we’ve been expecting you!”
“Am I too late for lunch?” I asked. A longer-than-anticipated wait at airport customs was to blame.
It’s the off-season so you’re actually early!” he said.
Portugal is known for its legendary laid-back attitude and hippy, chill dispositions. Mr. Carlos helped build on that European distinction. In the summer, his beachside kitchen is crawling with hungry surfers but today I had my pick of places to sit.
A table under the thatch roof where I could gaze at fearsome waves and listen to the gulls proved sublime. My hosts were eager to reward my arrival with generous plates of freshness from the sea. Being a pescatarian, I was most grateful!
Cooking with Cerveja
Was I not supposed to ask for lemonade? I got a stern look of disapproval. My server brought me a tall frothy glass of Super Bok instead, a Portugal favorite beer, to go with my raw bar items. It was still early morning in my head but nearing happy hour in Portugal.
It went down in a hurry alongside side dishes of black olives and marinated Lupine beans (tremoços in Portuguese). The humble bean looked like giant kernels of corn: tangy and a bit salty.
“It’s good for digestion and very healthy,” said the youthful server. I wasn’t sure if she was referring to the beer or the beans? Just in case, I asked for seconds (of both) relieved to feel my jet lag retreat.
Pica-pau (translation: “woodpecker”) was up next in the food queue. The traditional dish came replete with thick slices of tuna dipped in soy, ginger, lemon, and coriander: a staple ingredient in Southern Portugal. The side of fries left little room for the steaming hot crock pot of fish roe and shrimp. No worries. I extended the hour to finish the feast and save room for tomato ice cream, another delicacy of Alentejo.
Alentejo’s Enchanted Coastline: 1000+ Miles
Feeling reinvigorated, I returned to the wheel to skirt endless coastline views of the Atlantic. Stubby shrubs and a sinuous highway carved out the barren land.
I let the pumping sounds of Portugal the Man vibrate the vehicle. As I pursued route M1109 the windows wide open, I let a new reality sink in. It had been a very (very) long while since I traveled by myself; I felt liberated, almost giddy.
Just then, I yanked the wheel into a sandy pull-off for another endorphin kick. From a lofty perch overlooking the ocean, exaltation and joy washed over me.
Rugged limestone cliffs with secluded coves and quiet beaches tucked in between could be seen for miles. Vast temples of ancient stone weathered by crashing waves stood sentinel against time. It was staggeringly beautiful.
The sight would have made even the most jaded take pause. I couldn’t help but pinch myself.
It was terribly windy but a resident eagle still circled prey with abandon. In the far distance, the industrial spires of Sines could be seen to the north while a fishermen’s village faced south.
As I stood mesmerized by this otherworldly location, I took great care not to get too close to the edge. Loose scree would make exploration here more than a bit risky with a pair of sandals.
With nothing but a loose rope for protection, stone steps corkscrewed down to a private beach just below. Good thing I brought my hiking boots.
As I made my way back to the car, a brightly colored VW bus, circa ’60s era, whisked by on the road adding to the sense of nostalgia. I asked the bohemian, whose curly black hair flew madly in the wind, for a photo.
He and his three small pups were enjoying a romp through a carpet of wildflowers. They had drifted in from Spain for the day because, as he put it: “this spot is prettier than even the Mediterranean.”
Up next on the drive south was the town of Vila Nova de Milfontes. I took my customary stroll through the seaside village beaming from ear to ear. I would be returning the following day for lunch and liked to get my bearings beforehand.
A group of a dozen backpackers with hats and hiking sticks looked exhausted coming off the Rota Vicentina Historical Trail. I waved a thumbs-up to show my support for their journey. Hours later, I would dine with a pair from Germany; a young couple logging 15-20 miles a day.
Rest for the Weary
When I arrived for my first stay at the Herdade do Touril Seaside Estate a group of American ex-pats was doing the same. While they checked in, the friendliest of receptionists, Vânia, invited me to wait poolside with a Galão (cappuccino).
Portugal’s coffee culture is legendary so I sipped it with purpose and patience. Surrounded by exotic flowering vines twisting around walls of whitewashed suites, birds chirping everywhere, oh yeah, I was (definitely) in no rush.
My room was just as idyllic: a cozy air-conditioned room with a double bed, small kitchenette, and furnished terrace. I swung open the French doors for a hint at the ocean landscape on the horizon.
The Germans bunked in the villa next to mine; on holiday for the first time since before the pandemic. Dinner that evening, inside a cozy restaurant with giant glass windows, overlooked the farm.
While waiting for entrees, we chuckled in amusement as goats bounced into the air from off the back end of a tiny donkey.
The next morning, from behind the farmhouse, I (almost) biked to Cabo Sardao, a rocky promontory with a lighthouse, but, alas, I didn’t quite make it. Being the consummate picture-taker, I got too distracted by the misty grandeur of the vistas on the way there.
I also witnessed a unique phenomenon found no place else in the world: the nesting of white storks on the coastal cliffs. My German friends from the night before clued me into the location.
The bird’s habitat affords them protection from predators but at the risk of an unstable and slippery height. These conditions are rough but who wouldn’t want unobstructed sunset views every night?
I returned the e-bike rental to the farmhouse but not before itching a scratch on the tuff of their friendly donkey and feeding fresh greens to the goats. Before embarking, the hotel receptionist insisted on a loaf of their fresh-baked bread with a marmalade of choice.
Table for One, Please
I had three hours of freewheeling fun in my nimble Citroen ahead of me but first, some flavorful oysters at a funky hideaway called Tasca do Celso. Fittingly, the menu abounded with more traditional delights from the sea like shrimp açorda.
Each new dish was accompanied by a taste of regional wines and liqueurs like the Terrenus Alentejo and a DSF Moscatel De Setubal cognac. Even with dessert, I would need to walk off the obligatory tipsiness.
I bid farewell to the beautiful coastline and made my way inland. I drove west up and into the fertile lands of orchards and estates wiggling to groovy beats on the radio.
The commute winded past undulating vineyards and olive plantations and landed me at the foothills of the Guadiana Natural Park.
Girl Power at Ecoland
Visionary entrepreneur, Claudia Alves de Melo, owner of Ecoland, welcomed me to her humble bodega in the heart of a tiny farming community on the outskirts of Mertola. On my way there, I stopped more than once to let sheep and cows cross the road. Old-fashioned traditions balanced with modern hospitalities are what make this part of the Alentejo region so romantic.
Claudia was anxious to show me Mertola by night, a town she grew up in, but first, her culinary talents got me (and her English Setter) salivating for seconds.
As I indulged, she flipped through a photo album with a collection of what her Bed & Breakfast looked like before she salvaged it.
I marveled at how she was able to transform the crumbling relic, empty and abandoned, into an eco traveler’s best-kept secret.
“And, this summer, I’m expanding the outside patio into a full kitchen so families can rent the entire place,” she said.
Mértola By Night
Mértola is a historic museum village, a time capsule marked by centuries of invasions, prominent religions, and trading opportunities. Claudia grew up in this historic river port that dates back to the Neolithic period.
At dusk, the incandescent lights twinkled around the Roman settlement on the banks of the Guadiana River. Stray cats perched like gargoyles on fortifications. Their eyes pierced the darkness, reluctant to let intruders, like me, invade their turf.
Claudia lead me through a maze of cobblestone streets past the main church – previously a mosque built during the Muslim occupation – to the gates of the Medieval Castle.
By day, this protected archaeological site, high on a hill, boasts stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
And surprisingly, visitors are able to wander without a guide. Go ahead, climb the sculpted white towers, touch the ancient gates, or admire the vaulted ceilings in the courtyard.
This historic wonder was a charmer that deserved more time than what I gave it.
E-Biking to Polo do Lobo Waterfall
The next day, Claudia packed us a picnic lunch for our 3-hour bike adventure through the immense plains of the Vale do Guadiana Nature Park. She spared no expense investing in the best mountain bikes: two with long-lasting batteries and comfortable saddles.
We departed from Ecoland and rode toward the northern border of the Park, a place of peaceful habitats and exceptional natural beauty. I kept my camera at the ready for a rare sighting of the elusive Iberian lynx or Iberian eagle. The return of wildlife among cultivating olive groves and dairy pastures has proved a tricky balancing act.
We stopped for espressos in Amendoeria da Serra followed by a visit to the Lynx Interpretation Center. There I learned how conservation efforts since 2016 have helped to bring the top predator back from extinction. The numbers are still low but it looks promising for the world’s most endangered feline.
The glacier river was running strong through Pulo do Lobo Natural Monument when we arrived. The dramatic rushing waters were as loud as a freight train. A swath cut through the narrow gorge gnawing away at the moon-like rock craters.
On a precarious precipice, we cheated death and indulged in sandwiches and stories. As we were leaving, we borrowed a pair of binoculars from some birding Brits and watched two rare and protected Black Storks circle overhead. They had wingspans as long as my outstretched arms.
Claudia was hoping we’d get the chance to see them…she was my good luck charm.
Corked Out at Herdade do Sobroso
My final day of independence was winding down in the company of a jeep safari excursion and vineyard tour. At 1600 hectares (nearly 7 square miles) the Herdade do Sobroso luxury estate and plantation had more than enough space for creatures big and small.
It was mating season so I enjoyed the rare chance to see wild boar (tracks), fallow deer, partridges, and even mouflons (wild sheep with big horns) without disturbing their rituals. My driver Luis’s keen eye spotted the species while ascending the ridgeline.
His 4×4 blasted up the steep hills dotted with lonely cork trees with a vengeance. Amidst the flying dirt and dust, Luis assured me that my fear was all in vain. Still, I gripped the door handle tightly and winced with worry.
At over 2000-feet of elevation gain, the cork-oak forest thrives among spectacular, 360-degree views of agricultural bounty. It never really dawned on me that the humble wine cork was made from a tree. That was revealing. And who knew that Portugal is the largest supplier of it in the world?
The rhythm of life in the Mendro mountain range is at its best in unspoiled spots like this.
Sleeping Soundly on a Grape-Riddled Hillside
Surrounded by vines of gnarly bougainvillea and a prized vineyard, it took no time at all to fall in love with my accommodations at Herdade do Sobroso.
I overnighted in a junior suite in the Stork House with a canopy bed, private front porch, and views of the Alqueva Dam. The key to the room is, apropos, a cowbell.
The resort property was the perfect detox from daily living and I regretted that I had only one night. To keep the memory alive, I carefully wrapped up several bottles of cellar reds (with the memorable duck mascot on the label) for my trip back to Lisbon.
Between the sun-drenched seaside and grape-riddled hillside horizons, the Alentejo region sets the bar impossibly high for tourism elsewhere. When I return (because not returning would be unthinkable) this is where I want to be!