Tuesday 19 March 2019

Alentejo: Skip the Algarve for Portugal's gardens of the gods

You may not have heard of the Alentejo region, but its wine routes are a wonderful way to see rural Portugal

Early morning mist rises off the olive groves at Herdade dos Grous
Early morning mist rises off the olive groves at Herdade dos Grous
The Soares family who run the exquisite Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
Eleanor takes five in Alentejo

Eleanor Goggin

It would be fair to say that when people tell you they are going to Portugal on their holidays you assume they are going for golf or sun and sand or maybe a city break to Lisbon.

The unspoilt Alentejo region is not one that immediately springs to mind. Untouched and rustic, it's a completely different experience. The fact that it's home to many wineries adds to its appeal.

Alentejo literally means beyond the Tagus river and it occupies nearly one third of the country. Grain was the industry of past times but nowadays it's wineries and olive farms. All the more reason to visit.

Driving through the countryside surrounded by vines, olive trees, black pigs, robust sheep and buffalo is wonderful.

Cork trees also abound in this area. The bark is cut back every nine years as is evident by the year of harvest written in white on each tree. I found myself watching the numbers with an unhealthy obsession.

A great way to visit the area is to travel from vineyard to vineyard. The wine route is dappled with herdades or estates where you can enjoy all the benefits of a hotel. They are mostly family run small hotels on a working vineyard, often with a farm or an olive plantation attached as well. Tranquillity and wine come together to provide an ideal chill out experience.

The Soares family who run the exquisite Herdade da Malhadinha Nova
The Soares family who run the exquisite Herdade da Malhadinha Nova

Our first herdade was Herdade do Sobroso. Bought in 2000 by Sofia and Filipe Machado, it's very much a home from home. I had met the couple on a previous visit but sadly on this occasion they were away. They had left us in the wonderful care of Julio who talked us through the wines and made sure we were fully sated with a selection of pies, chorizo and cod followed by Cozido de Grao - a traditional casserole of pork, lamb, chicken, pork crackling, chorizo and vegetables.

Desserts in Alentejo are normally very sweet. Back in the 15th Century egg whites were used to starch nuns' habits and as a result there was a surfeit of egg yolks. The resourceful nuns duly devised recipes to use them up.

Another winery, Monte da Ravasqueria is well worth the trip - not only for its wonderful wine and wine jellies to bring home, but also to see the impressive collection of carriages housed there.

Bought in 1943 by the de Mello family, the estate originally concentrated on poultry, cattle and horses.

After the Portugese Revolution in 1974, the family went into exile and the herdade was occupied by workers, in an exercise known as the Land Reform. The family was able to return in 1980, and turned to making wine in 2000.

Evora is the capital of Alentejo. It's a charming city surrounded by intact walls. A must-visit is the Capela dos Ossos or the Chapel of Bones. Located next to the Church of St Francis, the sign at the entrance reads: "We bones that are here await yours." I'm not quite ready yet, I said to myself.

Back in the 17th Century, the monks thought that instead of burying bones it would be better to put them on display - thus highlighting the transience of material things - and they built the chapel to house them. It's quite a gruesome sight.

Loios Church next to the Temple of Diana is home to a fabulous display of azulejos - the tiles that are a mainstay of the area's interior design. Again, one of the hatches on either side of the main aisle contains the bones of hundreds of monks. They're big into their bones around here.

We based ourselves at the very sweet and central M'Ar de Ar Muralhas Hotel, a short stroll from the central Praca do Giraldo through cobbled streets and whitewashed houses. And, of course, some quirky little shops where I managed to help the Portuguese economy.

Mr Pickwick restaurant is in the centre of the city - and not satisfied with drinking copious amounts, I chose pork with red wine and honey. Divine. Ricardo was a charming host.

Wine tastings and tours are available at all the wineries, and Joana at Casa Relvas was more than willing to share her enthusiasm with us. I had visited this winery two years ago - and she took one look at me and said: "I know your face, were you here two years ago?"

Should I worry at people committing my face to memory?

Six million bottles of wine are produced here every year. The family Jack Russell, Ernesto, was nearly as much of a hit as the wines... but not quite.

Monsaraz is a tiny medieval walled village with wonderful views looking down to the Guadiana river and the Alqueva Dam. The cobbled streets take you up past pristine houses and quirky little shops to the castle, from where the views are amazing. Redondo is another sleepy little town in the area. Of course we had to visit the wine museum. Opened in 2001, it houses a permanent collection of equipment used in days of yore to make wine. Viniculture seemed like an awful lot of work back then.

We popped into a local cafe for a light snack, and you wouldn't believe the prices - €1.80 for a delicious bowl of soup and €2 for a huge porksteak bap, all of which will add up to a very reasonable trip.

Herdade dos Grous was our choice for lunch, where carrot cream baked in the oven with pine nuts, honey and spices, followed by veal medallion with pear mustard was delicious.

Our last, but certainly not least, port of call was Herdade da Malhadinha Nova where tranquillity prevailed. My rustic suite with blue painted furniture looked out on trees where crowds of sparrows flitted from tree to tree. The Soares family are proprietors, and their young children have designed the labels for the wine bottles. The restaurant with its Michelin Star chef was sublime.

A journey along the wine route is a wonderful way to see rural Portugal with some wonderful culture, food and lots of wine swirling, sniffing and sampling thrown in.

And I can assure you their wine is not to be sniffed at.

Getting there

Eleanor takes five in Alentejo

The Alentejo region of Portugal is located between Lisbon and the Algarve and is easily accessible from both Lisbon and Faro airports, to which there are daily flights from Dublin.

Eleanor travelled with Ryanair (from Dublin to Faro) at the invitation of Visit Alentejo and Visit Portugal. See ryanair.com and visitalentejo.pt.

For more information on Portugal visit visitportugal.com

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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