Quality self catering in the Serra da Sao Mamede, Alto Alentejo, Portugal.

Alentejo, Portugal. One third of the land, one twentieth of the people.

Poppies and olive trees in Alentejo, Portugal

Heifer thinks she is hiding. Alentejo, Portugal

Cork oak forest landscape, Alentejo, Portugal

The slow country. The tourism brochures say "Alentejo, where time is time". The phrase has meaning in Portuguese but loses impact in translation. "Alentejo, where even time takes its time" is probably better. Alentejo is the slow country. Walk too fast and the locals implore "Calma, Calma".

Alentejo, where traffic jams come from drivers chatting to pedestrians. A queue forms but hey, who is in a hurry in Alentejo?

In busy Lisbon we stand waiting for the lift to descend, passing occasional glances and polite smiles at the well dressed cosmopolitan lady, on the brink of exchanging pleasantries. As the lift doors creak open painfully slowly the lady sums it up dismissively uttering one word "Alentejano". The people of Alentejo are the butt of many a joke in Portugal but there is an admiration and respect for the simplicity and calm of the region. Alentejo is the retreat that provides the antidote to modern life.

Alentejo Population

Take a look at a road map of Portugal. To the north and west of the river Tejo (Tagus) the roads are wiggly lines between a large numbers of places. Beyond the Tejo - Alentejo - to the south you see straight roads, few roads and hardy any places. A tremendous contrast. Space to breath.

The Alentejo population is low and declining - especially to the east of Alentejo. Portuguese migrate from the villages to the towns and from the towns to cities beyond Alentejo. Virtually the only migration into Alentejo is from Northern Europeans looking to escape their overcrowded countries, either permanently or for sunny holiday retreats.

The Portuguese migration yields a continual supply of houses and wrecks for Northern Europeans to renovate. This change hardly scratches the surface of the character of the place. Not too much, not too soon, for we are in the slow country.

History has contributed to the contrast between Alentejo and the regions to the north and west. The river Tejo provided a natural border between the population ruled by the Moors in the Algarve and Alentejo and the Christians to the north of the river. To this day roman catholic christianity is more devout to the north. There are churches in the south but given the wide open spaces and small population, for most it is more than a stroll to the nearest church.

Alentejo Cuisine

In the nineteenth century and the dictatorship years of the twentieth the Alentejo was owned by a handful of rich and powerful families who farmed the rolling plains giving the Alentejo the reputation as the bread basket of Portugal. In the nineteenth century such was the enthusiasm for wheat that even some steep sided hills like those at Quinta Azenha do Ramalho were built into terraces to grow it. The Ribeira de Arronches flowing through Vale Lourenco at one time supported twenty-seven water mills or Azenhas for grinding wheat brought from the surrounding area.

The imbalance of wealth created poverty and the need to make use of everything that comes to hand. The Alentejano country-folk making the best use of what is available is the foundation of a rich cuisine and Alentejo dishes provide favourites for all. It is curious that what we regard as a rich cuisine is born of abject poverty.

Pigs are an efficient domestic omnivore that can consume vegetable waste, forage for acorns and produce meat. In the countryside there is no part of a pig that is not consumed with relish. No part. Pork is Portugal's favourite meat. Porco Preto (black pork) comes from a breed of black pig which is tastier than most. When these pigs are acorn fed in the Montados countryside the oleic acid from the acorns accumulates in the meat and is said to provide the same protection against heart attack as olive oil. Tasty meat that's good for you!

A clockwise tour of Alentejo

Although Portugal is a small country, Alentejo being a large part, contains contrasts within its borders. To dismiss it as endless rolling plains of wheat and cork is over-simplifying.

If you took a clockwise tour beginning at twelve o'clock you would begin at the rocky forested banks of the Tejo. Next an arid zone with strange plutons on granite which blistered up into softer rock now eroded away.

At two o'clock the ancient tectonic folds of the mountains of the Parque Natural da Serra de Sao Mamede with the engaging hilltop village of Castelo de Vide and the amazing village of Marvao with its invincible castle loftily defending Portugal at the Spanish border. Nearby the former tapestry centre Portalegre with handsome nineteenth century Portuguese architecture produces cork and DOC quality wines.

Estremoz and Borba to the south are sources of marble, wine and brightly decorated ceramics - as is Rendondo and the hill-top Monsaraz. Elvas was an important fortress during the peninsular wars vying with Badajoz on the Spanish side of the Guadiana river which provides the border for most of its course south. Along its banks Mertola's Moorish influences are interesting too.

Along Alentejo's southern border with the Algarve are the hills of Serra da Caldeira and the mountain of Monchique. Rolling hills of cork peppered with headily scented cystus scrub.

Aljezur is near to the Atlantic coast but kept at bay by the Portuguese maritime pine woods of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano (south west) which in many parts protects the coast from development and runs from the Algarve northward until Sines. Along the way the undeveloped Zambujeira du Mar and Milfontes provide low key seaside enjoyment for the Portuguese and a few expats in the know. There is some stunningly beautiful coastline to be walked here but don't tell anyone.

Inland a bit from this point Odemira boasts the perfect climate, a picturesque windmill and inexplicably an over-supply of shoe shops.

Inland towards the centre of our clock face we pass through the picturesque and characterful Castro Verde and further still to Beja which is being promoted as a new desirable investment location for foreigners who think the Algarve is a bit too busy. The new A5 road from the Algarve to Lisbon has made Beja accessible via Castro Verde which escapes such promotion yet Beja is fairly featureless and hot in summer.

Go north through the respected Vidigueira wine region and the culturally rich World Heritage Evora, with its Roman Temple of Diana, Cathedral, Chapel of Bones, picturesque square and Alentejano restaurants give the discerning much to ponder.

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