Even with less tourists around this year, the crowds in the city and on the beaches might have got you longing for fewer people and wider lands. It might be that you are one to fidget when vacationing too leisurely for too long. It might be that you are looking for a story of Portugal that has more than agreeable weather and nice beaches. Of course, the memories richer than ordinary take a little more effort to make. In the Alentejo, the path to richer memories might be a hot one, it might even bring a sweat to your brow – and you might love it.
Portugal’s hottest region has a summer sun above it that sears character into your DNA and makes you a more dramatic person. Out at the frontier and below the Tejo, the mountain fortress at Marvão looks east and stares deep into Spain. Turn towards the sunset and you are looking over Portugal to the horizon and nearly halfway to Lisbon. Not to mention the castle town is worth a look itself, with cafés, restaurants, and bars that sit you with flying views of the Earth below and the rising moon coming up over Spain if you stay, as you should, until sunset.
At some point driving inland, the Alentejo begins to give an aura of its age. Take a pick of Alto Alentejo towns, Castelo de Vide, Portalegre, Vila Viçosa or so many others to see what other medieval castles are out there discouraging invasions. Walk between the tight white buildings shading the streets in the same summer heat that every generation coming up in the Alentejo has been shaped by.
Though it is what there is between the towns that ought to interest you more in the Alentejo. A long hilly landscape of yellow fields with twisting cork trees dropping down pools of shade and, off in the fields, the centuries-old houses alone out against the sun. Or where a winemaker practices, there are vineyards visible from the tops of the hills that spread on for the next three hilltops. From the public road, some palm tree lined access road breaks the vine cover and leads to the winemaker’s paradisiacal house on one of the hilltops.
Agrotourism is the kind of tourism that makes the Alentejo worth it. Why distantly admire the nobility of the country life, when you can live the country life? Everybody gets that desire to get out of the city filled with strangers and cigarette smoke, but how many ever do it? Waking up on the land in the morning and enjoying the lack of car noises, car emissions, concrete, and light pollution brings an internal quiescence to a person.
Wake up in a rented place all to yourself if that is how you like it, or in the home of a farmer if you’d like something more familiar. Down on flatter land, there are vineyards open to take visitors as simply paying guests, but also there are places open for providing free room and board if you like the idea of lending a hand in the daily work.
In the São Mamede mountains rising behind Portalegre, you can find places offering all varieties of agrotourism. Up in the mountains protected somewhat from the big open heat down below, the area is a hotspot for organic and small-scale farms. Places growing part or most of what they eat every day and doing it all really organic, achieving a flavour that you can’t buy at the store.
One thing to know about farmers is that they really get to know the people living around them (you have really no good choice but to be friends with the people who depend on the same water as you). Often you might find that the wine served at the table comes from the vineyard of the neighbour who comes over for dinner three nights a week. The potatoes come from another friend’s garden and the fish was caught by a brother or an uncle that very afternoon. You get the feeling you are a character in some old novel of a country story, because you are in a country story.
For finding small scale organic operations, the website www.wwoof.org is where you’d want to go. Wwoof is also where you want to go if you were interested in taking part in the work and staying for free. To open up your search some more, you could go to www.herancasdoalentejo.net or www.escapadarural.pt which offer more luxurious stays for rent.
By William Colaço
William Colaço is a Portuguese-American-Canadian freelance journalist and graduating student in History, Political Science, and Foreign Languages from Université Grenoble Alpes and Florida State University. He is currently based in Cascais.