Pastoral Portugal comes alive in the timeless Alentejo outside Lisbon
“Bom dia!”, good morning in Portuguese, was my favorite expression to say in my very limited travelers’ knowledge of this ancient Romance language. Said with a smile, of course, it always elicited a friendly response and occasionally a wave from the locals in the Alentejo, the pastoral region of Portugal I was visiting for a week.
Mornings were my favorite time in the Alentejo, not only for the strong coffee served with warm milk, but mostly because days quickly became blazing hot in this pastoral but arid region outside Lisbon. Mornings were the coolest, quietest and most beautiful part of day, the best time to soak in this region’s unspoiled charms.
I had joined a week-long biking and walking trip with California-based Backroads that focused on the Alentejo’s rich culture and pastoral terrain, pedaling though wide plains and rolling terrain covered with vineyards and groves of cork and olive trees. Over the course of a week, we would ride through numerous small villages where the traditions of daily life provide a rare glimpse of Old World Europe, a simple, rural lifestyle that has largely disappeared from the rest of the continent. We would end our journey in the regal coastal town of Sintra, the one-time summer retreat of Portuguese royalty.
Into the Alentejo
After meeting in the Queluz (a suburb about 8 miles from Lisbon’s city center reachable by taxi or train), we shuttled to Évora, a World Heritage site that’s home to some of Portugal’s finest historic architecture. Joined by a local guide, we embarked on a fascinating two-hour walk through Évora’s narrow, winding streets, gaining insight to a history that dates back to Roman times.
After a gourmet al fresco lunch of regional specialties, we continued our van shuttle to the Pousada de Nossa Senhora da Assunção, a former 16th-century convent that is now a quiet hotel with beautiful grounds and views of the nearby olive orchards. After settling into our rooms, we geared up for a 19-mile warm-up ride through surrounding fields, groves of cork and olive trees and small villages such as Arraiolos, which is famous for its hand-woven rugs. It was a great start to the trip and that evening we gathered for a wine reception and a brief trip orientation before heading to a festive welcome dinner at the pousada.
The following day, we started our first full day of riding aboard our swift and light titanium bikes, heading out in the early morning on a somewhat arduous, 43-mile route over rolling terrain on quiet rural roads lined with cork trees and neatly tended vineyards. We passed through the typical Alentejo villages, such as Azaruja, São Miguel de Machede and Foros do Freixo with their blue-and-white farmhouses typical of the Portuguese countryside.
A brief but steep ascent into the Serra d’Ossa (Bone Mountains), brought us the Hotel Convento de São Paulo, our second night home. Built by monks in 1182, this exquisite hotel located between Estremoz and Redondo features antique furniture, the largest collection of tile work in Portugal (some 54,000 azulejos) and wide views of the surrounding mountain range. Later that evening, we enjoyed a traditional Portuguese barbecue and a catchy fado (Portuguese folk music) performance while sipping local port on a terrace by the hotel pool.
Despite the long night of local entertainment, we set out early the next day on a 33-mile ride, which began with a steep climb from our hotel, through eucalyptus forests and down the other side of the Serra d’Ossa toward the town of Estremoz. This was a great place to browse, shop for unique handicrafts such as Alentejo pottery, marble and ceramic crafts, leather goods and handmade paper (and to practice our bom dias! with the locals.)
The next two nights we were based at the Pousada de D. João IV, a peaceful retreat in Vila Viçosa. A former convent, this hotel featured manicured gardens and luxurious guest rooms; colorful marble seen throughout the interior was quarried from the nearby hills.
Another day of pedaling brought us along the Spanish border and across open plains and farmland. Our destination today was to the old town of Monsaraz, one of Portugal’s most famous fortified hilltop villages, and a lunch stop was at the delightful Casa do Forno, a typical Portuguese restaurant in the heart of this historic village.
Back in Vila Viçosa, we spent the late afternoon strolling through the village’s 13th-century old town and its wealth of historic monuments and buildings, many of which use locally quarried marble as an ornamental element. (Marble has been a mainstay of Vila Viçosa’s economy since Roman times.)
Nearing the end of our journey, we headed to the coast on a long but scenic shuttle to Praia das Maçãs (Apple Beach). After a seaside lunch, we had the choice of going on a coastal hike or returning to your bike and pedaling to Sintra. The hikers headed from beach to beach along a dirt trail that offers dramatic views of windswept bluffs and rugged coastline and ended at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point in continental Europe. The bikers pedaled south through the town of Colares and climbed into the Serra da Sintra mountains, where eucalyptus-shaded roads lead you to the Convento dos Capuchos (an 11th-century monastery for hermit monks), the Castelo dos Mouros (Moorish castle), the Pena Palace (a colorful hilltop palace) and finally to the cool wooded heights of Sintra, a city once described by Lord Byron as the “most pleasing in Europe.”
Now a World Heritage site, Sintra is renowned for its wealth of European Romantic architecture and its many beautiful parks and gardens. We spent our final evening at our splendid hotel, the Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, an elegant palace that dates back to the 18th century and offers views of the surrounding hills and the Atlantic. It was a wonderful finale to our fascinating and unique exploration of Old World Portugal.