The Alentejo, Portugal’s largest province, has a distinctive character and beauty unlike anywhere else in the country. The vast plains of the Baixo (Lower) Alentejo in the south are sparsely freckled with cork oaks and olive trees, providing the only shade for flocks of sheep and herds of black pigs. But to the north, in the Alto (Upper) Alentejo, along the border with Spain, the countryside is much more appealing.
Campo Maior and other towns in this region sit contentedly in a landscape of rolling hills adorned with cork and holly oak forests, olive groves and grapevines. In the northeast, close to the regional capital of Portalegre, the terrain rises to 1,000m in the beautiful Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede, Portugal’s highest land south of the River Tejo.
The cooler and more humid climate in the mountains encourages the growth of a rich and varied vegetation, where oak, maritime pine and sweet chestnut predominate. The associated diverse wildlife includes rare birds such as the griffon vulture, kite, eagle owl and Bonelli eagle.
Campo Maior is a bustling town on the Spanish border with a pleasant park at its centre. The Portuguese and Spanish know it as the birthplace in 1424 of Santa Beatriz da Silva, the founder of the monastic Order of the Immaculate Conception. She is a Roman Catholic saint, and has a commemoration statue in the park, next to a handsome bandstand.
Campo Maior is also home to the Delta Coffee Factory. The company has 3,000 employees and is the largest coffee manufacturer in Portugal. The factory has an amazing ‘Coffee Museum’ called the ‘Centro de Ciência do Café’. It has superb hands-on displays on everything associated with coffee – history, cultivation, manufacture and consumption.
Worldwide, 1.4 billion cups of coffee are drunk every day and, perhaps surprisingly, Finland has the highest consumption per head of population.
Nearby Vila Viçosa is the finest of the Alentejo’s ‘white marble’ towns. On a sunny day in Vila Viçosa, you need to wear sunglasses! There are marbled streets and marble mansions; marble adorned churches and a medieval walled castle – sadly only built of stone. However, the town is best known for its splendid marble Paço Ducal, the palatial home of the Bragança Dynasty, whose kings ruled Portugal until the republic was founded in 1910.
The palace interior is actually quite dull except for the rather ghostly personal apartments. Here, in these private quarters, we enjoyed admiring the various family knick-knacks that still occupy the same places as when the King and Queen departed for Lisbon one morning in 1908. The royal couple was assassinated in Portugal’s capital that afternoon.
The town’s central feature is the large Praça da República, which is lined with orange trees, and a perfect place to drink coffee whilst watching the Alentejo world stroll gently by. The old castle sits at the top end gazing benignly down the white marble boulevards to the Baroque-style St. Bartholomew’s church at the bottom. Vila Viçosa is a very satisfying town that still manages to exude a royal presence!
Portalegre is 60km to the north nestling in the lush green foothills of the Serra de São Mamede. The town isn’t listed in the Alentejo’s top 10 attractions but has plenty to entertain the curious visitor. The Rossio roundabout sits at its heart, with the old town rising up to the castle on one side and a tree-lined park on the other.
The most spectacular feature of this eye-catching green space is the Iberian Peninsula’s largest Plane Tree. Planted in 1838, it has grown into an absolute whopper. It is 30m high, with a 35m wide canopy and a gigantic trunk that would be an extreme challenge for the tree-hugging fraternity!
Thanks to a lucrative period of textile manufacturing in the 16th century, tapestries made Portalegre famous and one factory still remains, where looms are still operated by hand. Tucked away amongst the narrow streets of the old town is the Tapestry Museum, which displays some of this factory’s brilliant creations, woven using thousands of different thread colours. These dazzling works of art were lovingly made from designs produced by Portugal’s finest 20th century artists, such as Joana Vasconcelos.
Castelo de Vide is a delightful spa town built below an elongated medieval castle that stands on a hill in the north of the Natural Park. This appealing place has a significant historic, architectural and cultural legacy. In the middle of the town are two expansive squares, the larger of which contains an imposing statue of King Dom Pedro V and the enormous Church of Santa Maria da Diversa, which dominates the whole lower town.
The tangled maze of narrow streets, which leads up to the castle, is part of the old Judiaria (Jewish Quarter). The town’s charming old fountain (Fonte da Vila) is close by and the main tourist attraction. It has a pyramid roof supported by six marble columns. The mineral waters that spill from its four spouts have quenched the thirst of the local population for centuries.
We drove south from the town through the Natural Park’s delightful countryside, which is sprinkled with picturesque granite boulders reminiscent of the Serra da Estrela. Then we ascended steeply up to Marvão, which is a spectacular mountain top eyrie at an elevation of 860m. Enclosed within its walls are pleasant white houses and narrow cobbled streets all of which lead unerringly up to the medieval castle at one end of the town.
From anywhere in this lovely township, you can gaze out over a panorama of the wild peaks of the Serra de São Mamede. Before leaving ancient mini-metropolis, we enjoyed an early dinner on the terrace of O Castelo Café whilst being serenaded by the establishment’s favourite employee, a tuneful multi-lingual parrot!
No exploration of this part of the Alentejo is complete without visiting the Roman ‘Cidade de Ammaia’, just below Marvão. Built in the first century AD, it was a significant city with a forum, baths and temples. Ammaia suffered badly after the demise of the Roman Empire in Iberia between the third and fifth centuries. By the time of the ninth century Moorish invasion, the remaining residents had fled to the high hills of Marvão, which were easier to defend.
Ammaia had flourished from the area’s fertile soils and their agriculture included olives, wine, wheat and chestnuts. Many of the original terraces and watercourses are still in use. A small on-site museum displays the most interesting findings from the archaeological digs of the last 30 years – engraved lintels and tablets; jewellery, coins and well preserved glassware. Outside, there are paths across the fields from which you can view the ruins of the old city.
The Upper Alentejo is a most satisfying place to explore, with its beautiful landscapes, historic towns and quiet ambience. We feel sure that Ammaia’s citizens must have felt the same way. They had plentiful food, a good water supply, a comfortable climate and, of course, the opportunity to ferment and enjoy imbibing some fine Alentejo wine!
By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal 15 years ago and live near Guia. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and seek out new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening and photography.