I enjoy traveling and seeing new places, and when I come back I often say I will go back there sometime. But life intervenes and I go somewhere else instead. Not this time. I had never heard of the Alentejo region of Portugal a month ago and I did not know what a Pousada was. Alentejo is a hidden gem. It is about one third of Portugal but only contains some seven per cent of the population.
At the west are 100km of beaches but it was in the beautiful rural area that I spent a few days travelling with temperatures in the high twenties under blue skies in October. This was what every fibre of my being needed. And that was before I experienced the Pousadas which are historical buildings; they were once convents or monasteries, which have been skillfully and lovingly turned into magical hotels, each unique, each friendly and each memorable.
We flew to Lisbon and ideally one should hire a car and plan to stay in several Pousadas with a drive of an hour or two on excellent roads each day between.
You will see a lot of sheep, olive groves, vineyards, lemon trees, beautiful colourful villages and cork trees. Portugal is the biggest cork producer in the world and everything can be made from cork apparently. In one shop I even saw a wedding dress in cork. The only cork I recommend at weddings should make a popping sound.
Our first destination was the southerly Pousada de Beja São Francisco, once a 13th Century Franciscan convent, now a comfortable, marble-floored, 34 room hotel. I inhabited a spacious 'cell' looking out on gardens and the pool. Swim? Yes.
Pre-dinner we sat out on the cobbled streets where Sagres beer was ninety five cent and a half bottle of wine was €3. The Pousadas are, by and large, free of religious artifacts so you don't have any feeling that you are residing in a convent. Rather that you are in very splendid accommodation that is a few hundred years old with a lot of original furniture.
You must visit a vineyard and we went to the excellent Rocim. Nuno, our guide, spoke perfect English and was knowledgeable, interested and interesting. According to him Alexander Fleming had observed that penicillen cures people but wine makes them happy! As he produced glass after glass to taste, I was not inclined to disagree. Seven weddings were booked in over the coming months in this fabulous location.
We lunched at Pousada de Evora Loios which dates back to 1485. Évora is a Unesco world heritage site. The Roman Diana Temple beside it has been there since the 1st Century. The conversions to Pousada are not recent. Many ceased their religious function with the suppression of the religious orders in 1834, when Church property was seized . This one was empty for years and began life as a Pousada in 1965.
We had a good wander around the cobbled streets of Evora with its spacious square with lots of tourists drinking coffee and wine. Down a side street, within the Church of St Francis which is currently undergoing major renovations, is a chapel I will not forget, Capela dos Ossos which translates as the Chapel of Bones, for that is what it is. The chapel was built in the 16th Century by a Franciscan Monk from the bones of about five thousand skeletons buried locally. He wanted people to reflect on the transitory nature of life and its meaning and I did just that.
My attention was focussed by the inscription as you enter which translates as "We bones that are here, for yours await." A stiff drink was consumed on my return to the square. I will not make a pretty skeleton.
Our next night of luxury was in Pousada de Vila Viçosa de João IV, a former Royal convent. It was founded in 1514, when the Duke of Braganza decided to build a religious house beside his palace. At the back of his mind was the idea that they would take in the daughters of his second marriage who could not find noble husbands. He was not the only one on a second marriage so many daughters of aristocrats turned up. The highlight for me was the nuns' cage which they were locked in to receive visitors! We strolled down the road to Williams' Bar where three draught beers were had for €6.
At many meals there was talk of codfish which the Portuguese love. Bachalhau is their word for cod and sometimes you see bachalhau dourado which is referred to as Golden Cod. There are literally hundreds of recipes for bachalhau and you will not be in Portugal long without eating it. And it is delicious. I also loved a starter of a poached egg in tomato soup with oregano sprinkled on top. Even I could make that and it would impress.
Best dessert was encharcada made with eggs, sugar and water and maybe some lemon zest. From the texture I was sure there was some fruit flesh in the mix but I was told definitely not. It seems to curdle in a way that gives the texture and it is difficult to make. This is an original recipe from the nuns who lived there and who had a lot of eggs to use up. And also try pao de rala, a tasty breadlike dessert made with sugar, eggs, almonds and pumpkin. Moreish.
On the road from Vila Viçosa to Estremoz we visited a marble quarry which was enormous. Looking down 300 metres gives me vertigo. Most Portuguese marble is white or pink, but there is some green and black.
With all that food exercise was needed and for €24 we canoed on the river Seda and even went up three waterfalls. Our guides were brilliant. (See www.azenhasdaseda.com). We were pleasantly exhausted but we did not know the treat that lay ahead in our final resting place.
Ah, the splendour of Pousada do Crato Flor da Rosa. The Order of Malta called it home in the 14th Century. Today it is a must visit hotel with 24 rooms and three suites in the Castle tower. I will book the top one on my next visit. I will skip straight through to a suite.
At least in my own head I deserve the very, very best!
Each Pousada is different but they have the pleasant feel in common. There are nine Pousadas in Alentejo (www.pousadas.pt), each with wonderful traditional menus and wines.Booking is easy on www.pousadas.pt with a wide range of prices beginning at less than €100 for room and with lots of options in the €150 to €200 range.
Aer Lingus has daily flights Dublin-Lisbon and weekly flights Cork-Lisbon and Cork-Faro (March to October) www.aerlingus.com
by John Masterson in Independent