Quiet side of Portugal shows its true colours

Alcacer do Sal
Alcacer do Sal
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‘In Portugal, we come to everything late,’ laughs Patrícia.

‘But when we do get there, we think of something different. A new way of doing things.’

She isn’t talking directly about the region I’ve come to explore, the Alentejo, but she could well be.

It’s a sense of ‘everything old is new again’ that you meet everywhere in the region, a vast but sparsely populated slice of Portugal that divides Lisbon and the north with the heaving resorts of the Algarve.

Although still overlooked, the Alentejo is gaining popularity with visitors attracted by its open spaces and stunning scenery.

Patrícia, an archeologist, is part of its revival, giving tours of a Roman fish sauce outpost on the Tróia peninsula.

She tells me that from here, 40,000 amphore of fish sauce were exported across the empire every year.

‘We don’t have the status of a town as there has been no forum found here. But who knows what lies under these dunes?’

Patrícia is keen to point out the area’s diversity as I’m treated to a ‘Roman meal’ at the nearby golf club.

Nobody wants the Alentejo to develop into just another strip of soulless seaside resorts.

‘Here we have history, food, music and art,’ she says.

‘We have sunny beaches but our future has to be about more than that.’

A day later I’m hiking cliffs along the wild Atlantic coast, amazed at the foolhardy fishermen and storks’ nests that are perched on rocks a short drop away from crashing waves.

This is the ‘fisherman’s route’ of the Rota Vicentina long-distance walking trail.

It stretches south all the way to Sagres on Europe’s south-western tip - where in the 15th century Henry the Navigator trained a generation of sailors who went out to discover the world.

Although the hill and seaside paths that make up the route have been known for millennia, the official walking trail has only been open a few years.

I run into hikers who are staying at B&Bs along the way and have organised to have their luggage transported along the route.

José, my guide, tells me each part of the trail has a designated community ‘godfather’, who tends to their patch in partnership with the tourist board.

‘We want to do things a different way here,’ he says.

Inland, the Alentejo is a patchwork of gnarled cork trees and whitewashed towns, little changed since Portugal’s Carnation Revolution spelt the end of dictatorship 40 years ago.

Cork has long been the region’s the cash crop, as the wares of Loja Mundo Montada, general store in sleepy São Luís, go to show.

The shop is run by Pedro and Elizabeth, an energetic couple who represent another side of the Alentejo’s revival - showcasing local arts and crafts, particularly goods made from cork.

Aprons, wallets, bean bags, stools and even slippers made of the stuff abound.

And after a decade of being passed over for synthetics, cork is also making a comeback in wine bottles.

‘People love the ritual of it,’ says Pedro.

‘But can’t cork ruin a good wine?’ I ask, and Pedro explains a that there’s now a process that means ‘bad’ cork can be identified and used elsewhere.

And he should know, as fine wine seems to be served at just about every meal in the Alentejo.

The region produces almost half of Portugal’s wine and is known as the country’s bread basket.

Black pork, red mullet and pine nut tart - spang from seemingly simple recipes - were some of the specialities I tried.

‘Everything starts with garlic, onions and olive oil,’ says Manuel, manager of a castle-cum-hotel in the town of Alcácer do Sal.

The ingredients are simple, but taken together and done very well are unmissable combination - much like the Alentejo itself.

Recommendations -

To learn more about the Rota Vincentina visit rotavicentina.com.

For more information about the Alentejo, visit sunvil.co.uk/discovery/portugal/alentejo.

TAP Portugal flies daily from Heathrow to Lisbon - from there it’s an hour’s drive or about two hours by train.

I stayed at:

Pousada de Afonso II

An austere but elegant hotel inside an old castle in the town of Alcácer do Sal.

Tel:+351 265 613 070

pousadas.pt

Monte do Zambujeiro

Popular with hikers doing the Rota Vicentina, this farmstay near Vila Nova de Milfontes is in a quiet spot and boasts spectacular views of a river in a valley.

Tel:+351 283 386 143

montedozambujeiro.com

Herdade das Barradas da Serra

This working cork farm near Grândola offers familial charm with a dash of country class.

Tel:+351 269 442 320

barradasdaserra.pt

Aqualuz Suite Hotel Apartamentos

A massive, international resort on the Tróia peninsula.

Tel:+351 265 499 000

aqualuz.com

I ate at:

Restaurante Cais da Estação

An outstanding seafood restaurant, set in an old railway building in the city of Sines.

Tel: +351 269 636 271

caisdaestacao.com

A Serenada

The pork cheeks served at this gorgeous farmstay near Grândola were melt-in-your-mouth.

+351 929 067 027

serenada.pt

Restaurante Lounge O Zé

The cuttlefish past at this Comporta eatery is a real treat.

Tel:+351 265 497 220

restauranteoze.com

Note: Restaurante Cais da Estação and Restaurante Lounge O Zé are official ‘Alentejo Festival of Food’ restaurants - which offer set three-course meals with wine designed especially to showcase the region’s culinary highlights.