WHEN most British holidaymakers think of Portugal, they probably think of the Algarve. But there’s a lot more to this wonderful little country than the resorts on the south coast.
Alentejo is the next region north of the Algarve and covers most of the south of the country, sharing a border to the east with Spain.
With rolling Mediterranean countryside dotted with olive groves and cork trees, it’s not hard to see why travel guides have dubbed it “the new Tuscany”.
The beautiful landscape is immediately welcoming, and combined with a relaxed, small town atmosphere and great food, it makes for a very appealing destination.
From perfectly preserved medieval castles to art galleries and aquariums, there’s something for all ages in the heart of Portugal.
Of particular appeal for tourists looking for somewhere different to stay are the region’s many “pousadas” – luxury hotels built in historic buildings.
There are 44 across the country and each one is unique, offering a wide choice of accommodation that is far more interesting than the average run-of-the-mill holiday hotel.
Pousada Flor da Rosa in Crato is a perfect example, formerly a castle, a convent and a palace. Previously a monastery for the Knights of the Order of Malta, the building’s many historic features have been preserved.
But between the parapets and stone walls are all the indulgences you might expect from an excellent hotel, including a swimming pool.
There’s plenty to see in Alentejo’s 12,000-square miles, so hiring a car to take in as many sights as possible is probably the best way to go.
High on your list should be the horse stud farm of Alter Real in Alter do Chão.
Housing the Lusitano horse – a Portuguese breed – it is also a horse riding school dating back to the 18th century.
Visitors can expect to see dozens of these impressive animals up close during a tour of the site.
But Alter Real is not just about horses. It is also home to an impressive aviary for hunting birds.
From the smallest to the mighty golden eagle, you can see a wide range of birds in what is a growing part of the complex.
Food is a pure pleasure in this part of the world. From traditional smoked sausage and cheese to a hearty dogfish soup, there are plenty of regional specialities to keep you going.
Desserts have a definite Arabic flavour, with the ubiquitous honey and almonds revealing the region’s Moorish roots.
If you stop in the town of Portalegre, then the restaurant Tomba Lobos is definitely worth a visit for any self-respecting foodie.
The literal translation – “it overthrows wolves” – won’t help you much, but your taste buds will thank you for indulging them.
Chef José Júlio Vintém offers a modern take on Portuguese cuisine in a setting that is stylish but without pretension.
Like so many in the region, Portalegre itself is a pretty town, filled with narrow, winding streets.
It’s also home to the museum of Alentejo tapestry with examples of the traditional Arroiolos carpets. These are unique recreations of original paintings, in the form of tapestry. The amount of effort that goes into the pieces is extraordinary and a great tribute to Portuguese craftsmanship.
With it’s rustic charm and Latin character, Alentejo is a region that will exercise your camera finger and your shoe leather. And there’s no better sight-seeing destination than the fortified hilltop town of Marvão.
The castle there dates back to the 13th century and there are outstanding views that reach as far as Spain on the horizon.
The town below is pure picture postcard, awash with those familiar Mediterranean white walls and terracotta roofs, gorgeous flowers and charming locals.
People here clearly enjoy life and it’s not hard to see why – beautiful surroundings and sun-kissed skies are a winning combination.
Of course, one of the main reasons so many Brits head to southern Europe is the weather.
At home, the unexpected late-summer heat in September was certainly welcome, but is far from guaranteed.
Alentejo, meanwhile, like much of Portugal, is pretty much guaranteed good weather whenever you decide to pop over for a visit.
You can reach Alentejo in little more than an hour from the capital Lisbon, itself just a few hours from Bristol, with plenty of flights to choose from.
Even in October, temperatures push towards 30 degrees centigrade, so if you’re looking for some pre-winter sunshine, this is definitely an affordable choice.