It was quiet in the early morning except for a far-off cacophony of crickets and cowbells as I drove through a landscape filled with wildflowers, cattle, sheep and not much else heading east from Lisbon on the road to nowhere.
“Nowhere” is a disparaging term the Portuguese use to describe the country’s least developed, least populated region covering about a third of the country, south from the Tagus River to the mountains of northern Algarve and east from Lisbon to the Spanish border.
The Alentejo, its proper name, has been traditionally cast as the land of bread and bad wine, a place of little industry where farmers have slugged it out with nature for centuries growing wheat and sunflowers and raising sheep, cattle, pigs and goats while relying on the poorest soil for olives, cork oak trees and vineyards.
The somnolent landscape of vineyards draped on gently undulating hills, of quiet roads, and whitewashed villages where storks nest on rooftops was a place that seemed to have changed little over centuries.
Even some foreigners appeared unimpressed. “It’s so dull, so boring,” gushed a flame-haired Irish bar attendant I’d encountered earlier in Lisbon. A young bloke at the bar overheard. “It’s just cork trees and crap wine,” he mumbled. But as I ventured further into Central Alentejo, I began to wonder if they’d ever been there.
Off the freeway, lesser roads such as the N4 led to some of the loveliest bits. When the scrubland suddenly opened up I was in the old Portugal I remember seeing as a kid in National Geographics, a bullock-drawn plough, the occasional ox-cart and women dressed in funereal black working in olive groves.
Rolling green plains stretched to the horizon and gnarled cork oak trees twisted up out of spent wheat fields and anywhere else that there was space where they could grow.
Cold in winter, blisteringly hot in summer, springtime had brought a broad canvas of colours to the landscape; vast meadows of lavender, poppies, calendulas, daisies and buttercups decorated an impressionist scene redolent of Claude Monet at his finest.
In the middle of all this was Igrejinha, a little gem of a town full of buildings all whitewashed against the summer heat with vividly coloured trim and red tiled roofs typical of towns across the Alentejo.
I stopped to admire its sleepy streets lined with gleaming white shops and houses with carved doors mostly painted bright blue, apparently to deter insects, and beautiful inlaid azulejos, Portugal’s traditional painted ceramic tiles.
I saw the exquisite Church of Our Lady of Consolation around which the town was built about 1758 and groups of elderly men sitting outside houses and coffee shops in the warm spring sunshine killing time, of which they had plenty.
They talked quietly and gave me the once over. Not many strangers came this way and when they did, I imagined how the locals would wonder why.
Beyond Igrejinha I made out the stark circular outline of the 14th century Arraiolos Castle piercing the light haze and crowning the pretty town of Arraiolos renowned for its distinctive tapestry and carpets, a cottage industry believed to have begun during the Moorish occupation around the 12th century.
The pace of life in Arraiolos didn’t appear to have accelerated much since the Moors left, its quiet streets almost deserted, but behind the bright blue doorways I could see women dressed in “peasant” clothes chatting as they embroidered the classic tapestries with hands that spoke of hard labour.
Since Roman times, Alentejo’s extreme continental climate has produced some very intense red wines, most of which found their way into cheap casks.
But in 1992 the flash Bordeaux outfit, Domaines Barons de Rothschild, saw potential in the Alentejo and invested heavily in the centuries-old Quinta do Carmo estate, imported winemakers and equipment and began a transformation that would spread throughout the region placing Alentejo wines firmly on the map.
Just outside Arraiolos, Herdade dos Coelheiros was one of the most successful vineyards with 38 hectares under vines, another 100 hectares devoted to walnuts, plus a cork forest, hunting grounds, a lovely old fashioned nine-bedroom B&B and a restaurant.
In the modern wine tasting cellars owner Maria Teresa Leal opened a bottle of her award-winning Tapada de Coelheiros Chardonnay, considered one of Portugal’s finest whites with traces of walnut, honey and pineapple that left a pleasant fruity aftertaste.
A fruity, spicy 2004 Branca de Almeida, blended with Merlot, local Trincadeira and the French Alicante Bouschet, had won silver at the prestigious Challenge International du Vin in France.
In the restaurant, above rustic wooden tables, the walls were adorned with stuffed hunting trophies from the estate including a fox’s head with a stuffed and mangled bird clutched in its mouth. No softies around there.
A light lunch began with fish pudding (a sort of fish and tomato mousse), estate-grown fresh green olives, soft goat cheese and red pork salami with Chardonnay followed by wild boar, robust Alentejo reds, orange tart and homemade walnut liqueur, a splendid introduction to the earthy delights of Alentejo peasant cooking.
But the real surprise of this “Nowhere Land” was the regional capital, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
Evora is the finest urban example of the golden age of Portugal, a walled city crammed with churches, chapels, convents and palaces and so historically rich that its centre was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
Evora can trace its origins back to Roman times when the conquerors built their most magnificent temple in honour of emperor Augustus but it reached its zenith in the 15th century when the city was chosen as the royal residence of Portuguese kings.
The royals left a legacy of beautiful whitewashed buildings decorated with hand-painted tiles (azulejos) and wrought-iron balconies dating from the 16th to the 18th century.
Portuguese nobility built palaces beside chapels, convents, churches and the majestic Gothic cathedral but most of these monuments are anything but moribund, many are now used to stage world-class musical performances, art exhibitions and puppet shows for kids.
Dictators and despots have come and gone but the remnants of their times in Evora have barely changed in a city where residents still walk its narrow medieval cobbled streets alongside the few tourists who discover this place.
I joined them on a sunny spring day climbing to one of the prettiest squares, Largo Conde de Vila Flor, and rising from the cobbles was the 2,000-year-old Temple of Diana with 14 Corinthian columns and a giant marble podium, one of finest Roman monuments on the Iberian Peninsula overlooking the city and the Alentejo beyond.
Around the square was an attractive collection of ancient buildings; to the east was the Pousada dos Loios, a former 15th century convent, now a stylish boutique hotel with vaulted rooms, rich furnishings and an unlikely swimming pool. It remains one of the best-preserved heritage buildings in Evora.
To the south was the Museu de Evora with fine collections of paintings, sculptures and archaeological specimens and just beyond that was the fortress-like Romanesque-Gothic cathedral completed in 1204.
If you believe local legend, it was in this cathedral in 1497 that one-time resident and explorer Vasco de Gama had his flags blessed before the fleet left Lisbon on its famous voyage of discovery.
I wandered down Rua de Vasco da Gama into the cobbled streets of the old town where big archways led into pedestrian-only streets and squares laced with terraced cafes, bars and restaurants.
Local craft shops competed with contemporary top name brands and Alentejans gathered to gesticulate over coffee and those to-die-for Portuguese custard tarts they call pasteis.
In the main square, Praca do Giraldo, open-air cafes were scattered across the centre under the gaze of the 16th century St Anton’s Church at the northern end.
Surrounding the square were some of those beautiful old pastel and whitewashed buildings and wrought-iron balconies which gave Evora a leg up onto the world heritage list.
Off the eastern side was a narrow alley, Rua 5 de Outubro, with some of the best local craft shops selling typical Alentejan products such as pottery, olives, honey, woollens, wine bottles and all sorts of things fashioned from cork.
I found a square known as Praca 1 de Maio which had one of Evora’s more startling sights attached to the Church of Sao Francisco, the ghoulish 16th century Capela dos Ossos – Chapel of Bones.
Under vaulted ceilings of painted murals the walls and pillars were “wallpapered” with a bizarre collection of about 5,000 human skulls and skeletons.
Franciscan monks apparently created Capela dos Ossos in the 16th century to prevent some 42 cemeteries taking too much space in Evora by moving the bones to the chapel on display so the faithful could contemplate the inevitability of death. To reinforce the message, a Portuguese inscription read: “We bones that are here await yours.”
But the atmosphere in this addictive little city was anything but funereal. At night the centre began to buzz when students of this university town came out to play.
I followed them around the circuit beginning at Barue on Rua Diogo Cao, on to the Diplomata Bar Pub on Rua do Apostolos and ending up in Evora’s only disco, Kalmaria.
“Evora’s quiet now,” a bookish young bloke told me. “Come back in May when the place really rocks for graduation week Queima das Fitas (Burning of the Ribbons). “Lots of music and dancing,” he grinned, “and lots of drinking.”
If this was nowhere, nowhere seemed the place to be.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)