Except for a brief trip to Lisbon several years ago I’ve never visited Portugal, although I’d heard only good things about the country (mainly from Portuguese friends and colleagues). A couple of weeks travelling around the ancient hinterland of Portugal’s Alentejo region, visiting historic fortified towns along the Spanish border, before heading to the south west tip of the country and working our way up the west coast back to Lisbon, was an exciting prospect. One filled with the romance and adventure of this region.
Travelling down quiet lanes flanked by ancient cork trees, passing abandoned houses, before reaching the massive defensive walls of sleepy villages and towns which have seen centuries of history, turned into a memorable and fascinating insight into the ‘real’ Portugal. The Alentejo region is as far removed from Lisbon as it is from the fleshpots of the Algarve and, without wishing to sound clichéd, it does feel like stepping back in time.
Having our own car allowed us access to remote corners that public transport doesn’t reach. It also allowed us to find traditional restaurants in tiny hamlets serving up delicious local specialities, before strolling the quiet streets or taking our place amongst the old men and women on benches in the local plaza.
The shock of the Alentejo after Lisbon’s busy streets is the sense of time moving at a snail’s pace. You can feel the pace of life almost literally drop to a crawl. This isn’t just hyperbole, many (too many) of the ancient towns and villages of the Alentejo are slowly being abandoned by young people, leaving empty houses and an ageing population. It’s a great shame that these communities – at least the ones which haven’t attracted tourism and holiday homes – appear doomed to fade away.
Reaching the wild tip of Cabo de Sao Vicente, the iconic south west corner of the country, was like reaching a distant foreign land compared to the Alentejo. This stretch of coastline is all towering cliffs, small but magnificent beaches, crashing Atlantic waves and tremendous seafood. I was glad the weather was hot and calm, I can’t imagine walking these cliff tops in stormy weather.
Portugal’s small size means you can cover a lot of ground in a relatively short time, and travelling out of season meant that we rarely saw many other tourists. Wherever we went people were always friendly and helpful, giving us tips on where to eat and what to see. This will be a trip that lives long in my heart and mind. These photos are just an amuse-bouche for the rest of the trip…I hope you enjoy.