Portugal might be famous for its beaches, golf courses and an over-abundance of sardines, but head inland and it’s altogether a different outlook.
Here, you’ll find open plains, wooded hills, vineyards and farms. This rural heart of the country, known as the Alentejo, was off the map for decades, thanks to its inaccessibility and lack of hotels and services.
Now, things are changing. The first flights from UK tour operator Sunvil to newly- opened Beja airport started on May 22.
Over the past ten years, there has been a growth in holiday home rentals in the region and the first boutique hotels are opening.
‘It’s a wonderful place, with lovely people and beautiful natural surroundings,’ says Frank McClintock, who moved to the Alentejo from Dorset in 1987. ‘But it’s not always an easy place to live,’ he adds. ‘You have to be prepared to work at it and, though the weather is good most of the time, you can have unbearably hot summers and wet winters.’
McClintock, 52, spent several years renovating a ruined, lakeside farm into an attractive small hotel, Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, which he now runs with wife Daniela, 39. He’s seen an increase in tourists and homebuyers as access has improved and says property prices have also risen significantly.
‘For about £100,000, you can buy something small but nice or in need of some maintenance, with land and maybe a pool. But the deep countryside isn’t the best place for anyone looking to retire.
‘It’s laid back and peaceful, but too far from any facilities or services [for older people], so you’d be better off nearer a town,’ says McClintock.
One alternative is residential resorts, such as L’AND Vineyards, a new development near the historic city of Evora, an hour from Lisbon, and one of the few managed projects in this region. Properties are selling well to both second-home and investment buyers, as well as those planning for retirement.
‘The Alentejo is being called the new Tuscany,’ says Marlene Sanches Tavares, sales director for the resort. ‘As a wine and food- producing region it is now famous, but we’re also under an hour from the coast and the capital.’
It’s clear L’AND isn’t your typical Portuguese resort, there’s no golf course and homes are designed in a contemporary style.
‘The architecture will be different from traditional Portuguese homes, but it’s designed to follow the shape of the landscape and blend in,’ says Sanches Tavares.
Properties range from two-bedroom townhouses with access to a communal pool to six-bedroom villas with large private gardens and private pools.
They are priced from £160,000 to £700,000 and surround a large lake, overlooking the resort’s 14 hectares of vineyards.
Each home comes with its own vines. Owners can either make wine themselves or onsite oenologists will produce it for them. They’ll also have use of the facilities at the boutique hotel, restaurant and spa. If owners are looking for extra income, they can join a rental programme, with gross returns of about four per cent per annum.
For a bargain, you may have to look deeper into the countryside where, according to Ricardo Rodrigues, owner of local agency Pinhal Rural, it’s possible to buy property in need of modernisation for under £100,000.
‘You can find ruins from as little as £25,000,’ he says. ‘Or there are village houses from about £35,000 that need updating.’
For budgets in excess of £250,000 he claims you can ‘get something in good condition with better proximity to a main town, two to four bedrooms on a large plot with a pool’.
Mr Rodrigues adds that many locals are worrying that the property market will stall over the next few years if Portugal’s difficult financial circumstances aren’t solved.
‘But that tends to affect the areas locals want to live and work in, rather than holiday destinations,’ he says.
‘And there are still plenty of buyers looking for a home offering a relaxed lifestyle in a beautiful location.’
By LAURA LATHAM