Avoid the midsummer madness: think Alentejo
Far from the madding crowds of the Algarve, the Alentejo region of Portugal has a tremendous range of options for travellers looking to recharge their batteries.
Covering one third of Portugal – but with just 6% of the population – the Alentejo is a beautiful and vast region of magnificent plains (montados), cork forests, medieval hilltop towns and unspoilt beaches – perfect for travellers seeking genuine relaxation, and a great place to indulge the senses, too.
Gaze up at the stars of Lake Alqueva – UNESCO’s first designated Starlight Tourism Destination; visit the 19th century copper mines of Mértola and the Roman remains at Miróbriga; savour traditional desserts so delicious they bring out the sweet tooth in almost everyone; sample fine Alentejo wines – the region produces 47% of Portugal’s vino – or simply enjoy the transcendent silence and space of the montado. Not forgetting the coastal stretch of the Costa Alentejana, where there’s a deserted 65km stretch of continuous, soft, talcum-powder white sand – travellers will have no trouble finding a secluded spot to sunbathe – followed by endless cliffs and empty coves, perfect for surfing, paddling, and sheer get-away-from-it-all escapism.
Rosanna Melaragni, Sunvil Discovery Product Manager, says: “The Alentejo is full of surprises. There is so much for travellers to do and see in the region. Whether looking to be pampered in a spa, visit medieval castles and Roman forts, taste authentic Portuguese cuisine, sample regional wines or stretch out on a deserted beach, the Alentejo has a huge amount to offer travellers in search of a relaxing and rewarding summer break.”
Here are just a few highlights of the region:
Lake Alqueva – stargazing from a private houseboat
The 3,000km2 Alqueva Dark Sky reserve is the first region in the world to be granted official ‘Starlight Tourism Destination’ certification by UNESCO and UNWTO. This quiet and peaceful region also harbours the 250km2 Alqueva Lake – the largest man-made lake in Europe. Hire a houseboat (sleeps two to eight), take a 90 minute steering/training course and spend a day, few days or a week gliding on the still waters, visiting ancient villages dotted around the edge of the lake, sampling the region’s gastronomy in authentic restaurants and enjoying nights out on deck. A treasure hunt, which leads children from village to village around the lake, will keep the whole family engaged and provides a great introduction to this part of the Alentejo.
Seven nights’ self-catering in July cost from £1,306 pp (two sharing), including flights (Heathrow) and transfers.
The Herdade da Malhadinha Nova – the bon viveur’s delight
A family-run estate, not far from the medieval city of Beja. Everything the Malhadinha Nova offers is driven by a passion for good living. From its award-winning wine and traditional Alentejo cured meats, to the dishes prepared in the gourmet restaurant and treatments available in the spa, a stay at the Malhadinha satisfies every appetite. Learn to cook traditional Alentejo dishes, pick grapes during harvest season (September) or borrow a bicycle for a ride through the vineyards and local area. Among other activities, horse riding tours along hidden trails in the estate are available and an ultra-light flight above the nearby Alqueva lake can also be arranged (payable locally).
A luxurious seven-night stay in August costs from £1,258 pp (two sharing), including flights (Heathrow), B&B accommodation, car hire, a complimentary tasting dinner, tea dégustation and tour of the winery.
Évora & Estremoz – for world-famous wines
Visit the famous Cartuxa winery in Évora, home of the Pêra Manca – one of the top three wines in Portugal, and Pedro Álvares Cabral’s wine of choice for his transatlantic voyage in 1500, during which he discovered Brazil. The former monastery, now the five-star Convento do Espinheiro, provides the ideal base for a vino-retreat, with its exceptional restaurant located in the sixteenth century wine cellar offering a selection of over 250 wines (80% from the Alentejo). Head north to the Encostaz de Estremoz vineyard and dine in its restaurant, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking rows upon rows of vines. Help out with the autumn harvest which takes place at night, when there is less risk of fermentation in the cooler air.
Seven nights’ B&B in July at the Convento do Espinheiro costs from £863 pp (two sharing), including flights (Heathrow), transfers and a complimentary tour of the convent and wine tasting.
The Rota Vicentina – for the active traveller
Opening in May 2012, the Rota Vicentina is a pair of hiking routes which run along the southern half of the Costa Alentejana. The Fisherman’s Trail (122km) starts at the most southwesterly point in Portugal, the cliffs of Cape St Vincent, and ends at the sleepy fishing village of Porto Covo, 100km south of Lisbon. It follows old paths still trodden by Portuguese fishermen and provides walkers with the best views of a deserted, craggy coastline with rocky coves, golden sands and beautiful sunsets. Veering slightly inland, the Historical Way (222km) covers part of the ‘Way of St James’ pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, finishing at Santiago de Cacém, north of Porto Covo. Passing numerous points of historical interest, the trail provides a variety of terrains suitable for both cycling and hiking. Journey north on foot one day and south by mountain bike the next. Perhaps even go horse riding along a deserted white-sand beach or donkey hiking – where the donkey carries your bags for you – taking with you a packed lunch of local produce.
Stay at the Herdade do Touril at Zambujeira do Mar. Seven nights’ B&B in August cost from £998 pp (two sharing), including flights (Heathrow) and car hire. Bicycle hire is available free of charge. Picnic lunch payable locally.
Mértola – the cultural mosaic of the Alentejo
Perched on a hilltop overlooking the Guadiana Natural Park, the ancient town of Mértola is a beautiful amalgam of Christian and Islamic culture, art and architecture. A walled town with narrow streets and a ruined 13th century castle, Mértola has been home to six ancient and modern civilisations over the centuries. Visit the Museum of Mértola, chronicling the history of this cultural melting pot from the time of the Phoenicians (circa 1000 BC) up to the early 20th century British influence of the Mason & Barry Mining Company. The four-star Hotel Sao Domingos – located in the former mining company headquarters, with its excellent pool, shaded verandah for dining and pretty gardens – offers an ideal base from which to explore the town and national park.
Seven nights’ B&B cost from £723 pp (two sharing), including flights (Heathrow) and car hire. Guided tours of the mining area can be arranged and star-gazing with a professional astronomer from the onsite observatory is available each Saturday.
Marvão – for history and architecture
Situated in the heart of the Serra de São Mamede Natural Park at an altitude of 1,000m, the medieval village of Marvão is crowned by the magnificent Pousada Santa Maria, a converted 13th century castle which enjoys panoramic views across the plains of the Alentejo. Visit the nearby Roman town of Castelo de Vide, best known for its imposing hilltop fortress (built in 1310) and its large medieval Jewish quarter, with Portugal’s oldest synagogue. The town offers a beautiful array of architectural riches, including traditional Alentejan whitewashed houses, mysterious Gothic doorways, pretty cobbled courtyards and a glorious Baroque main square.
Seven nights’ B&B in August cost from £837 pp (two sharing), including flights (Heathrow) and car hire.
Tróia – for a classic summer beach break
Switch the busy beaches of the Algarve for the unspoilt shores of the Costa Alentejana. With 65km of continuous, white-sand beach, travellers can forget about fighting for their spot and instead claim their own acre! Located on the tip of the Tróia peninsula – the northernmost point of the Alentejo’s Atlantic coast, flanked by the ocean and the Sado River Estuary – the Aqualuz is a stylish modern resort which looks out over Blue Flag beaches and turquoise waters. Ideal for families – spend time relaxing on the beaches, lounging by the outdoor swimming pools, playing tennis, exploring the peninsula on mountain bikes, visiting Roman ruins or sampling dolphin-watching trips in the estuary, where there are now three resident dolphin families.
Seven nights’ B&B in July cost from £780 pp (two sharing), including flights (Heathrow) and transfers.
For more information/to book a trip to the Alentejo, visit sunvil.co.uk/alentejo.
For more information on the Alentejo and the Costa Alentejana regions, visit visitalentejo.com and costaalentejana.com.pt.