Exploring Portugal’s heart and soul

“Watch the gutter,” my wife warned as we exited the Avis depot in Central Lisbon. Heavy roadwork had exposed deep sharp kerbs… but too late, the front bumper touched the concrete. Minor damage, but it reinforced one golden rule: make sure you’ve taken out Super Cover insurance with zero excess.*

It was not a propitious start to a road trip that took us to and through the Alentejo region south-east of Lisbon, right to the Spanish border and back.

But after navigating the busy city streets thanks to the car’s TomTom GPS – another essential – we headed across Europe’s longest bridge, the 17-kilometre Vasco da Gama crossing the Tagus (longest river on the Iberian Peninsula). The sun dappled the river’s broad expanse and we began to relax and enjoy Alentejo, Portugal’s largest province – surprisingly overlooked by tourists, who head mainly for the Algarve in the south or the Douro/Porto region in the north.

Alentejo is different – almost like parts of Australia, with agriculture and viticulture prominent, but featuring olive and cork trees and gnarly ancient vines. There are storks with babies in their nests on poles everywhere and, of course, constant reminders of Portugal’s rich history – with castles and forts peering down as we drove along near-deserted highways. No traffic problems or fast-and-furious Italian drivers here, which means driving on the ‘wrong side of the road’ is not as daunting an experience as you might expect.

There’s another major difference, and that’s the reason to visit. Portugal has a growing network of pousadas – hotels and resorts created from the bones of historic buildings such as palaces, castles, convents and monasteries.

These pousadas are the real joy of travelling and overnighting in small villages and regional centres around the country. In Alentejo alone, there are now nine from a total of 33 nationally and they represent the best luxury hospitality Portugal has to offer. We managed to find reasons to visit or stay in six of them during our 10 days exploring the region.

First stop was Flor de Rosa, a small village near Crato in the north of the province. We checked in at the imposing Pousada Mosteiro de Crato, a “castellated monastery” dating back to the 14th century and expanded in subsequent centuries. Over time, it developed three different architectural styles: a castle, a monastery and a palace. Today, it shows what can be done to transform a crumbling ruin into a luxury hotel with creative modern architecture and engineering, while retaining much of the original exterior – including the church tower and beautiful ceilings in the cloister. There’s a large resort-style pool for those hot summer days (sometimes over 40 degrees), a fine restaurant and rooms with every modern convenience.

We had to tear ourselves away from this tranquil place to travel on to Arronches for lunch at the Santo Antonio Hotel, where genial host Jorge introduced us to typical regional dishes such as pig ear salad, chicken giblets in oil and herbs and black pig chorizo. It’s a very ‘porky’ area, and not for vegetarians.

Another day we visited one of Portugal’s tourism gems, the city of Elvas. It’s a World Heritage site dating from the 10th century, later serving as a frontier garrison town with extensive fortifications and a 16th/17th century aqueduct stretching for seven kilometres. It’s an incredible sight when driving into the city for a walking tour, giving a good excuse to enjoy a delicious lunch of Portugal’s famous bacalhau dourada (cod fish mixed with potato and egg) in the restaurant where it was invented, the Santa Luzia Hotel.

Next it was on to Vila Vicosa, a pretty town with nice bars and restaurants but more importantly, the palatial Paco Ducal (Ducal Palace) of the Braganza family who ruled Portugal from 1640 until the proclamation of the Republic in 1910. The palace and museum is a treasure trove of history, and conveniently next door is the Pousada Convento de Vila Vicosa – a beautifully restored convent with luxury accommodation and a fine dining room. The large rooms and poetic transcriptions around the hotel were hard to say goodbye to, but another experience awaited just a short distance away.

This was the Pousada Castelo de Estremoz, a towering castle-like palace overlooking the busy market town of Estremoz. We were lucky to arrive on market day (Saturday) in time to watch the passing parade of farmers, housewives and typical groups of men who gather for their weekly social. Secret men’s business, indeed.

This pousada is a classic example of what can be done to transform a 13th-century castle and palace into a carefully planned and workable hotel with all mod cons. It’s adorned with paintings and antiques, and the fine restaurant spills out onto a pretty courtyard for al fresco dining and a hearty breakfast.

Possibly the most authentic Alentejo fare we found was at a small bistro-type place in the centre of Estremoz called Mercearia Gadanha, with fresh grilled sardines in season, and local delicacies like goat cheese and pear salad. Delicious! And inexpensive too, by Australian standards.

The following day we found ourselves at the Pousada Convento de Arraiolos – another transformed convent from the 16th century, with arguably the finest restaurant of all the hotels visited on this trip. This was five-star dining and it’s worth looking up their menu to see what creative Alentejo cuisine looks like.

Next on the touring agenda was the famous city of Evora, with its Roman baths and other ruins still intact – and even now, more treasures being excavated.

Our final stay took us to Alcacer do Sal, a town where rice is grown in the river flats and salt is still mined near the Atlantic coast of Alentejo – yes, the region has beaches as well. The impressive Pousada Castelo de Alcacer reigns supremely over the town, and here we spent two nights enjoying the luxury of the hotel as well as the waterfront cafes and bars – and trying another version of bacalhau which we found irresistible, together with the fresh local wines.

In all, we covered nearly 1,000 kilometres on freeways and minor country roads without any problems before returning across the Vasco da Gama bridge to Lisbon. Of all the European countries we visited, Portugal and the Alentejo region in particular have every ingredient for a fascinating road trip with wonderful pousadas to stay in, great food and wine in abundance and dramatic scenery to photograph.


*If you so much as scrape a bumper bar, there’s a minimum fee of €200 to pay; so the ‘Super Cover with nil excess’ is a wise choice.

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