Holly Carpenter in Alentejo: Peace and adventure in Portugal's 'bread basket'
"We're in the middle of nowhere, but only two-and-a-half hours from everywhere," our guide says
At the end of the rocky driveway to Monte da Estrela, a sign on the hotel's oak front door reads: "Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations".
It was put up to charm people out of complaining about the bumpy drive. Not that one could possibly moan about anything when you're in the midst of such beauty. Surrounded by sun-soaked olive and orange groves, vines and wheat fields, as well as the ubiquitous cork oak trees, Monte da Estrela is an absolute paradise
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Manuel, our guide, jokes of its remote location in the east of the country near the Spanish border: "We're in the middle of nowhere, but only two-and-a-half hours from everywhere - Lisbon, Seville, Faro (in the Algarve) and more!"
It's certainly worth the journey from anywhere. This boutique hotel is the most idyllic romantic getaway, perfect for honeymoons.
"Make yourselves at home. Join our family. Take off your shoes." With those words, young Pedro Farrancha welcomed our group to this stunning family-run country house and spa. Our spacious rooms each had their own private terrace overlooking the gardens. It was just 20 paces from my room to the outside pool.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner featured freshly baked breads and cakes, along with copious fruit and veg from the colourful, lovingly tended gardens. Pedro, a sustainable soil science PhD student, helps out with the wine-making and horticulture at the luxury resort opened three years ago by his parents Manuel and Brites, both surgeons.
They spent more than a decade transforming "a wild place" to a heavenly homestead enlivened by goats, chickens, toads, turtles, fish and 24-hour birdsong.
Brites has a wonderful eye for interior. My favourite part of the house was the large square fire pit surrounded by luxurious jewel-toned rugs, candles and cushions.
Our group had already spent a day in enchanting Evora, capital of the Alentejo region, after flying direct from Dublin to Lisbon with TAP Air. Evora, a UNESCO world heritage site, dates back 2,000 years to Celtic times. It fell under Roman domination and retains ruins including the highly impressive Temple of Diana, while the Cathedral of Santa Maria, Church of Sao Francisco and Chapel of Bones are all worth a visit too.
Evora reached its golden age in the 15th Century when it became the residence for Portugal's monarchs - and we were served up a meal fit for a king that night at the Dom Joaquim restaurant. I sampled prawn pil-pil for starters and tried some migas, a regional mashed bread dish, then a platter of desserts which were so fresh and mind-blowingly tasty. We washed down the feast with a number of Alentejan wines, my favourite a full-bodied Vinhas Velhas red blended from Trincadeira, Aragonez and Alicante Bouschet grapes.
After dinner we enjoyed a leisurely city stroll, stopping to admire brightly painted blue and red post-boxes and the quaint artisan stores, including one with floor- to-ceiling shelves of tinned fish.
We learned that 60pc of the world's cork oak is grown in Alentejo and the people employed in the industry are highly resourceful, with the shops selling cork aprons, cork cowboy boots and cork umbrellas.
The Vitória Stone hotel where we stayed in Evora boasts ingenious cork features as well as magnificent traditional rustic stonework. The reception area looks almost like an ice cave with its bright-white glistening stone features. And the breakfast spread lived up to the surroundings.
Next up we hit the road for the 50-kilometre spin to Amieira. Alentejo Break guide Francisco Guerreiro took us hiking around the Alqueva dam, one of Europe's biggest man-made lake systems at 250 square kilometres. Although we had quite an overcast day, the views were still beautiful and we stopped to enjoy a packed lunch and share our apples with some local horses.
Following decades of discussions and false starts, construction of the dam finally got underway in the 1990s and it was completed in 2002, securing the region's water supply and providing a source of hydro-electric power. In 2008, the world's largest solar farm - the size of 150 football pitches - was built just outside nearby Moura as part of Portugal's ambitious and innovative energy plan.
Nowhere in Europe experiences more sunshine, and all of the station's 2,250 panels tilt to track the rays through 240 degrees per day.
While we walked, Francisco told us about all the local flora and fauna, including swifts, falcons, grey herons, owls, otters and bees.
As well as hiking, cycling and hot-air balloon tours, his company offers cruiser trips on the lake, plus an array of water sports, including kayaking, wakeboarding and paddle-boarding.
We'd hoped to do Alentejo Break's night-canoeing and star-gazing combination tour, with a picnic supper on one of Alqueva's islands, but our trip unfortunately failed to coincide with any of the region's 260-plus cloudless nights per year.
Still, we rejoined Francisco and his wife Margarida Gama for a really fun SUP (stand-up paddle-boarding) lesson the following day. I had been expressing my concerns for the whole car journey, as I'm not a strong swimmer and I have a fear of falling underwater. I surprised myself by being the last one standing on my paddle-board. I put that down to my fear of water rather than any graceful skill.
All of the benefits and opportunities offered by the Alqueva dam couldn't have come without a cost, and we learned how the gigantic engineering project impacted upon the relocated residents of Aldeia da Luz.
Their village was below the proposed waterline of the planned reservoir, so it had to be bulldozed and flooded for the greater good. After consultation with villagers, the authorities agreed to rebuild the village a couple of kilometres away on higher ground, with people housed beside the same neighbours on the new site and everything just like before as much as possible, including a replica church.
The fascinating story of the displaced community is sensitively told at Luz Museum, where a range of artistic interpretations, as well as photo and video exhibits, reactivate memories and meanings for the notion of placement embodied by the village.
It was easy to see why it was crowned 'Best Museum in Portugal' in 2005, two years after it opened. I could have stayed longer watching the footage and learning of the heartbreak of this community while also understanding how much the area needed the dam.
Portugal's capital Lisbon was named Best City or Short Break Destination at Ireland's Travel Media Awards 2019, while the Algarve to the south is also hugely popular with Irish holidaymakers.
However, the Alentejo - the country's 'bread basket' - offers so much more in terms of history, culture and natural beauty, as well as incredible food and great wines.
Everything moves at a slower pace there, perhaps because of the mild, generally warm and temperate climate. The place feels authentic, with local artisans going about their crafts the old-fashioned way. I love how the locals, keen to share the area's magic and charm, take great pride in making time for all those lucky enough to visit.
On our last Alentejan evening, Francisco and Margarida kindly showed us around their home town of Moura, where they fell in love as youngsters. The romantic surroundings included the 11th-Century Moura Castle, which has a rich history, and the verdant Jardim Doutor Santiago (Dr Santiago's Garden), perched atop the ancient city walls, which we strolled through.
Before leaving, we stopped at the Fonte das Tres Bicas (Fountain of the Three Spouts) to where, legend has it, you're guaranteed to return if you take a sup.
We enthusiastically filled our water bottles from the refreshing Fonte, but I already knew I'd be back to Alentejo, hopefully to enjoy some night-canoeing and star-gazing on a clear night.
* For more information go to Visit Portugal www.visitportugal.com and Alentejo www.visitalentejo.pt
* TAP Air Portugal operates twice-daily Dublin to Lisbon flights. Prices start at €96 return including all taxes.
* For further information, try www.flytap.com or (01) 656 9162
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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