Exploring Alentejo, the Ancient Heart of Portugal
Welcome to Alentejo, the remote Portuguese region of deep tradition, poetic landscapes, and a slower, more considered way of life. From beautiful sunsets to unending flatlands, there is an inherent romance to Alentejo that captures the hearts of all lucky enough to pass through it.
To guide us through Alentejo, we sat down with Ângela Silvestre, a Portuguese local and veteran Travel Director who takes us through this remote part of her mother country. We’ll explore the medieval charm of Monsaraz, a village steeped in tales of the past. Then the celestial mysteries of Alqueva, a pioneering destination in dark sky tourism, where the pristine night skies and the absence of light pollution offer a spectacle that truly sets this corner of Portugal aglow.
Alentejo produces over half of the world’s cork.
Tell us a little bit about Alentejo
Not many people live there! It’s really off the beaten track, characterized by farming, agriculture, large pieces of land. It’s usually the region we always think about when we want to run away, you know – beautiful landscapes, plains areas, amazing sunsets. It’s a really beautiful region that also has a very, very long history – going back to the megalithic era!
There are many special things in Alentejo, for example, the cork. It’s the largest cork region in Portugal, it’s a very important export for the country. Also the starlight, in Alentejo we don’t have any light pollution, so we have the first designated dark sky region in the world! We have another world heritage designation for a special kind of song, the Alentejo choir. We call it Canto. On tour, we have a lunch with this choir singing for the guests. So Alentejo combines a lot of different things, it’s extremely rich and it makes a trip really worthwhile. Especially because the majority of visitors really don’t know Alentejo much. When you think about Portugal, everyone thinks about Lisbon, Porto, Algarve, and essentially that’s it. Alentejo is still one of those hidden gems waiting to be discovered.
What is your favorite thing about Alentejo?
The landscapes. You know Alentejo is the plains region. So amazing landscapes, amazing driving. Just arriving there, at the end of the day, you have amazing views from the sunsets. You feel a part of the world, but like you can be away from everything. It’s my favorite thing in Alentejo. And then the food!
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What is Monsaraz’s significance for the region?
Monsaraz is one of those hidden gems of the region, and of Portugal. The majority of the Portuguese know it, but it’s still a place that many, many Portuguese and tourists haven’t visited. You can see Spain from Monsaraz, it’s very near the border, and it always played a very important role in our history in terms of military strategy. You have to remember that before, Portugal was a county and under the kingdom of Leon – one of the several kingdoms of Iberia. And there was a rebellion, and that was when Portugal was formed as a nation. It was very important to protect the borders, and Monsaraz was part of our defence line, and still today it is by the border between Portugal and Spain. When peace arrived, many of those towns and villages were forgotten. The central government in Lisbon, they didn’t need to use them anymore. So it’s like you are entering in a place that is really stuck in time. It’s a very, very small village. Whilst I was there, I talked to a local and found out there’s only 40 people living there. The younger people left Alentejo to emigrate and go to the bigger cities in Portugal to work. Now it is being discovered by tourism.
What do you think are the most interesting parts of Monsaraz’s history?
For me one of the most interesting parts of Monsaraz is related with a time when the Muslims, the Jews and the Christians were living there in peace. There was a long period when the Muslims – or Moors – settled in the south part of what is nowadays Spain and Portugal. But there was a relatively long period of peace, and all the others were allowed to live and have their religion. It was a really fruitful time where the three religions converge together. And that’s the reason why we have so many different arts and buildings in the south of Iberia until this day – and Monsaraz is a good example of that. The Jewish community, for example, was very, very important there. They had organized trading, they were very important in terms of the official services of Alentejo. And the Muslims with music, literature – it was a place with lots of light. Then of course, the Christians started the Reconquista and they settled there until today.
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Alqueva, in Alentejo, was the first place in the world to be certified by the Starlight Foundation as a ‘Starlight Tourism Destination’, supported by UNESCO.
What is Alqueva?
Around the regions of Beja and Évora (the two main cities in Alentejo), they flooded the land to try fight against the problem we have with climate here. In Alentejo it is always very dry, and it’s getting worse due to climate change. But now we have loads of almond trees, olive groves, it helped agriculture a lot. It helped farmers develop other types of products, so it was a good change for the people who depend on the land. It is really, really big, and it’s important not only for the land, but also for the agricultural activities. We have a beach, by Monsaraz, and the water there is good. We take guests for a picnic on the beach.
Why is it so good for stargazing?
The sky in Alentejo is the clearest we have in the country. It’s a designated dark sky reserve, great for photographers or people like us who don’t understand anything about astronomy. If you just want to learn, they have special programs for families and children, it’s really amazing. We have another one in Portugal, but the one in Monsaraz is the most important.
What can guests expect to do when they visit Alentejo with Insight Vacations?
Amazing landscapes and a bit of peace. We go to the lake, we have a cruise and a picnic. Then we leave the lake and go to local olive mill, and there is one of the best restaurants in the country. And they serve amazing food to our guests – local wine, local foods, local desserts. It’s really an amazing day, and usually the favorite day of our guests for the whole trip.
We’re grateful for Ângela’s palpable passion for her home country, and her expert knowledge of Alentejo – where time slows down and the fertile land glows in gold from the welcoming sun above. And unlike many other places in Europe, Alentejo’s beauty is subtle: like that of a place still untouched, still “undiscovered” by those unfortunate enough to not be in the know.
Discover Alentejo with Ângela or other Travel Directors on Country Roads of Portugal
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