Eat, Drink, Alentejo: Done the Algarve? Try Portugal's foodie paradise
Swap the Algarve for Portugal's lesser-known Alentejo region. Food writer Katy McGuinness tucks in...
Within minutes of picking up a rental car at Lisbon airport, you can be driving over the magnificent Vasco da Gama bridge and heading for inland Alentejo.
It's less well-known than the Algarve, but has fewer crowds, too - perfect for those with an interest in food and wine. The best times to visit are spring and autumn, either side of the scorching summer, and you can cover a lot in a four-day trip.
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Start on the cobbled streets of Évora, a Unesco World Heritage site layered in 2,000 years of history, with architecture influenced by its Moorish past. Don't even think about bringing your car into the centre; instead, park on the outskirts - perhaps at the serviceable Vitoria Stone (vitoriastonehotel.com), which has a rooftop pool and serves a fine breakfast. From there, walk into what locals call Power Hill to look at the Roman temple, the remains of a Moorish castle and the medieval gothic cathedral. Close by, under the town hall, are well-preserved Roman baths discovered in the 1980s during a renovation.
You'll find good, traditional food including rabbit and artichoke salad, grouper soup with potatoes and river mint, and various mijas dishes in the old-school Café Alentejo (restaurantcafealentejo.com). If you prefer a more modern approach, and one that comes with good wine pairings, then the Enoteca Cartuxa wine bar (cartuxa.pt) is worth a visit. The smartest and most expensive restaurant in town is Fialho (restaurantefialho.pt). Plan ahead and you may nab a coveted seat at the Taberna Tipica Quarta Feira (no website, +351266707530), which serves a no-choice menu with wine for around €50pp, all-in. Don't expect allergies or food intolerances to be catered for here.
Next, head to Evoramonte and check into the delightful The Place at Evoramonte (evoramonte.com), run by Vicki and Mitch, a Scot and South African respectively, although Mitch is the one in a kilt. The vibe here is laid-back boho-chic with only four stylish rooms and a lovely café outside on the terrace where you can watch vultures circle as the sun goes down, while eating Mitch's homemade pizza and drinking good local wine. Watch the ABV, though - most Alentejo reds are a hefty 14/15pc, the whites less powerful. The couple are great hosts and can help put together itineraries for groups of walkers or cyclists. The flat plains of Alentejo are well suited to bikes, and there's a tour of nine castles that will appeal to two-wheeled history buffs.
After breakfast, head into the lovely town of Estremoz. On Saturday mornings there's a market where you can buy everything from ceramics and vintage clothes to live peacocks and rabbits. Take the opportunity to stock up on local sheep's cheeses and cured sausages to bring home.
Stop for a meia de leite outside the charming Taberna do Chico on a corner of the main square on a street lined with orange trees, or queue with the locals for farturas - long, sugar-coated churro-type fried doughnuts. If something more substantial is required, try lunch at Alecrim (alecrimestremoz.pt), where you'll find a smart local crowd enjoying plates of excellent presunto - Portugal's version of jamon - and cod croquettes.
Gadanha (merceariagadanha.pt) near the fountain is the place for serious wines and tasty petiscos - and to shop for regional food products.
And then it's back on the rota dos vinhos (wine route), to the former garrison town of Elvas, another Unesco World Heritage site and a destination for those interested in military history, where Pousada de Santa Luzia, the first pousada, or converted historic property, in Portugal, has some nice design features and a pool that's welcome on a hot day, but otherwise feels stuck in a time warp (pousadasofportugal.com).
Adega Mayor (adegamayor.pt) is a fabulous winery designed by one of Portugal's most famous architects, Álvaro Siza, and owned by coffee magnate Rui Nabeiro. The pair are friends, and the first drawings for the magnificent building were made on the back of a napkin after a long - and presumably liquid - lunch. The winery has 200 hectares under cultivation, mainly reds made from regional grapes, and you can book in for a tour and tasting overlooking the beautiful rooftop garden.
Aim to arrive at the beguiling 1600-hectare Herdade do Sobroso winery (herdadedosobroso.pt) in time to spend the afternoon lounging by the pool, if the weather is warm, or beside a roaring wood fire if it isn't. Located in Vidigueira, the property is bordered by the Mendro mountain range to the north, the River Guadiana to the east and to the south by a vast plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Owned by husband and wife Filipe Pinto and Sofia Machado, who moved here from Porto with their young sons, Herdade do Sobroso has charming staff and magazine-worthy interiors and is surrounded by a beautiful landscape populated by wild deer, boar, hares, goats and 62 species of bird.
The predominant red-grape varieties on the estate are aragonez, alicante bouschet, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, touriga nacional, touriga franca, trincadeira, alfrocheiro and petit verdot, while the whites come from antão vaz, arinto, alvarinho, verdelho and perrum varieties; Filipe is the winemaker.
Herdade do Sobroso - and, indeed, Alentejo - is a place from which it is very hard to tear oneself away. If you have the time to linger for a few days, do. Taste the wines, eat the food (the pork cheeks are particularly good), read the books and breathe the country air before packing up the car and hitting the road back to Lisbon.
Take Three: Travel tips
The macabre Chapel of Bones in Évora's Church of San Francisco will appeal to teenagers - and others with a taste for the ghoulish. It's decorated with human bones.
Be a winemaker for a day at João Portugal Ramos (jportugalramos.com), where you can blend grapes to create own wine. The winery will bottle it for you to bring home.
Buy gorgeous hand-loomed rugs and throws at Mizzete in Monsaraz (mizzete.pt). The village is pretty but touristy; the restaurants aren't great - eat lunch elsewhere.
Every restaurant meal in Alentejo starts with bread, olives and pungent local sheep's cheese; send them back if you don't want to incur the (small) cost. Try mijas (breadcrumbs made interesting with herbs and pork fat) and rich egg-based sweets and pastries, a legacy of the region's convent past - the whites were used to starch the nuns' wimples, so only the yolks went to the kitchen.
Katy travelled as a guest of Visit Alentejo and Ryanair (ryanair.com), which flies direct from Dublin to Lisbon. For more to see and do in Alentejo, see visitalentejo.pt/en.