Portugal has long been a favourite destination for British travellers. We love the food, we love the sunshine and we love the beaches. We also love the thrifty travel deals. But if you’re feeling a tad ‘been there, done that’ about Lisbon or the Algarve, we have a relatively undiscovered spot to recommend to you: the Alentejo region. Often referred to as ‘Europe’s best-kept secret,’ this spectacular area in the south-west is blessed with jaw-droppingly gorgeous coastline, gloriously expresive landscapes and is positively dripping in historical goodies just waiting for you to explore them. It’s also the most depopulated region in the country – making it the best place to go in Portugal if you’re craving a bit of isolation and serenity. So hang onto your sun hats history buffs, and get ready for the short break of a lifetime!
Évora, the region’s capital
With a rich history dating back over two millennia, Évora has recently been ranked as the second-most ‘liveable’ city in Portugal and is a lovely place to visit for a few days. Stroll around the well-preserved old town, noting the medieval walls. Wander through Giraldo Square. There are several sites to visit – the glorious Cathedral of Evora is one of the most important gothic monuments in the entire country. Saint Francis Church, with its mixed Gothic-Manueline styles, is well worth seeing for it’s beautiful Baroque chapels, one of which, Capela dos Ossos, is totally covered in human bones! If you like palaces, you’re spoilt for choice. Check out the former residence of Vasco da Gama. This palace is stunning – make sure to see the Renaissance murals. There’s also the Palace of the Dukes of Cadaval, parts of which date back to a castle that was burnt down in 1384, and the Palace of the Counts of Basto with it’s vibrant combination of architectural styles. Then there’s the Roman Temple, dating back to the 1st century! It’s thought that it was dedicated to the Cult of Emperor Augustus. The city’s most famous landmark and one of a kind in the country. Stay at the Pousada Vale do Gaio, who have rooms from £89.
Santarém, the city of churches
Thought to have been founded by the Romans in the 2nd century, and later became an important Arab cultural centre. King Fernando the 1st loved the city so much he requested to be buried there, and now lies in the convent of St. Francis. The city centre is just gorgeous. Those with an interest in gothic churches take note: there are more in Santarem than anywhere else in Portugal. Visit the site of the Old Castle of Santarem, or thePorto do Sol, and take in the wonderful view offered from the gardens. The city’s ancient defensive tower (theTorre das Cabaças) is well worth seeing, as is the Church of Saint John of Alporão. Find the Fonte da Figueira, a wonderful 14th century fountain. Then, it’s just a question of how many churches you can visit before they all blur into one! Treat yourself and stay in Hotel Lusitano, ideal for a romantic break. Maybe reward yourself with a massage? Your legs are bound to be aching after visiting all those churches…
Romance in Beja
Beja has existed since Celtic times. Julius Caesar renamed the city Pax Julia after he made peace with the Visigoths in 48 BCE. Throughout its long history the town has seen more war than peace, but happily today it enjoys a serene existence high on a hillside. Your overall impression of the town will be inevitably shaped by its imposing 13th century castle. You can climb the 197 steps to see the view from the top of the keep. Just next door to the castle you’ll find one of the only remaining pre-Romanesque churches in Portugal. Today it houses a collection of Visigothic art. You could easily lose a few hours touring the Museu da Rainha D. Leonor with its baroque chapel and significant collection of Spanish, Flemish and Portuguese paintings. Romantics will love to learn that Beja is famous in Portuguese and French literary circles because of the discovery of love letters written by a 17th century nun, Mariana Alcoforado, to the object of her affections, the French officer Noël Bouton, Marquis de Chamilly who later became Marshall of France. Visit the window through which she first spied him walking in the garden. Stay at the lovely Hotel Rural Clube de Campo Villa Galé, a great option for families.
Take a break
If all that history gets too much for you, we suggest you take a break from everything and head to Porto Côvo, a real retreat from the world. After a day or two spent in this tiny fishing village, you’ll feel totally rejuvenated. Self-catering accommodation is very popular here, with some great cottages and holiday apartments on offer. If you want a hotel, stay in the eco-friendly Porto Côvo Hotel Apartamento. Spend your days exploring the pristine beaches nestled between tiny coves. And from here you’re ideally placed to visit Vila Nova de Milfontes, a lovely little city with a wonderful view over the river. Hop on a boat and take a day trip to Pessegueiro Island. Hike through the Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede, a gorgeous nature park that also houses some lovely medieval villages. One of the nicest things to do along this coastline is join a horse-riding tour.Equestrian Escapes offer 3-night itineraries. You’ll need to be at least an intermediate rider, as you’ll be riding 4-6 hours a day on Lusitanos and Lusitano/Portuguese crosses. Follow trails alongside gorgeous beaches and wind-swept coastal tracks. Unforgettable.
Don’t forget to eat
Food in Portugal is pretty spectacular. The Alentejo region produces its own cheese, wine, smoked hams and sausages. Sample them all, why don’t you?! Don’t come home until you’ve eaten at least one pastéis de nata(custard tart), some bolo do caco (amazingly delicious garlic bread), bacalhau (dried salt cod) and broas (a kind of sweet potato cake).
When to go
The region receives most of its rain between late autumn and early spring. If you can’t take extreme heat, avoid visiting mid-summer. The climate is very dry and temperatures reach up to 40 degrees Celsius.