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alentejo region

Alentejo: Away from it all

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Alentejo: Away from it all

by Fiona MacLeod

A guest lodge owner tells how he was seduced by the unspoilt landscape of Portugal’s sparsely populated Alentejo region.
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Frank McClintock, owner of Quinta do Barranco da Estrada, with his parrot on the bank of Santa Clara lake
This article was published by Finantial Times on September 14, 2012. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/7485e294-f812-11e1-828f-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz26uPETDPH

Twenty-five years ago guest lodge owner Frank McClintock set off from his family home in Dorset, in southern England, in a pale blue double-decker bus with first world war aircraft painted on its sides. It was loaded up with most of his possessions, and his new wife. Their destination was Portugal, and he has lived there ever since.

The couple had just returned from their honeymoon in southern Portugal where they had discovered the natural beauty of the sparsely populated Alentejo region, in particular the area among the rolling hills of cork forests (montados) bordering Santa Clara lake.

“Going to Portugal initially was a chance thing,” says McClintock. “We had no money and someone offered us a flat in the Algarve for our honeymoon. We had travelled by car and on the way south had come across the stunning countryside of the Alentejo. The Algarve, by comparison, was just flats and high-rises, dust and sand, not what we were after at all, so we drove every day up to the Alentejo to explore its unspoilt landscape. I completely fell for it and we decided on the spot to make a go of living there.”

On their honeymoon they struck up a friendship with a local Alentejo resident who had stopped to help them with a puncture. Although they couldn’t speak the same language, the Portuguese man managed to communicate that, if they were keen on finding something to buy in the area, he could find them a place to stay. “Nobody around here speaks anything apart from Portuguese but I’ve never found it difficult to speak with my hands and a smile,” says McClintock.

The couple decided to collect their possessions from England and to try Alentejo for three months. The double-decker, purchased in a field in Wales, was for McClintock the cheapest solution to moving lock, stock and barrel across Europe. “It took three days to drive to Portugal, including a bit of a detour to Belgium, where I wanted to visit Wilfred Owen’s grave. We picked up hitchhikers on the way.”

They soon blew their limited budget on 12 acres of land on a waterfront plot on the banks of the Santa Clara lake. Three small wooden shacks already stood on the site, providing some sort of base to live in at the outset. “In such an isolated area we knew we would have to earn a living through tourism, and the attraction of being on the water was a must.”

Twenty-five years on, Quinta do Barranco da Estrada is well established as an idyllic hideaway guest lodge that offers bird and nature tours and is run full-time by Frank and his second wife Daniella. A long, low building with several verandahed bedrooms sits in the grounds of a subtropical garden: agave, yuccas, date palms and Australian bottle brush grow there.

“The key to creating a garden from scratch, as we have done, is to grow some trees for shade and to install irrigation, as the heat can be searing here,” says McClintock. “It was a barren plot when we came but we now use all the waste water from the Quinta to hydrate the garden. We have a solar-powered pumping system that brings water from the lake up to a reservoir we dug above the buildings. This supplies all the water for the house and for a garden irrigation system at more or less zero cost.”

Most of what exists at the Quinta has been created through the hard labour and often hastily acquired skills of McClintock and visiting teams of friends, family and volunteers.

“When we came to the area it was very primitive – nothing much had changed since the 1930s, or even the 1430s. The locals used horses and carts and mules for transport on predominantly dirt roads,” says McClintock. “We had a Renault 4, which struggled to transport our heavy loads of building supplies up the miles of rough, bumpy track, so we used to bring everything across the lake on a boat and then barrow it up the hill to the building site. In those days everything had to come from the Algarve and nobody would deliver.”

Years later, inaccessibility still provides hurdles and frustrations. “We are 13km away from the main road but it is illegal for us to put a sign there, as the law says you can only advertise an attraction up to 9km away. Even though we are providing vital employment for local people in a very poor area, bureaucracy forbids something that would make a huge difference to the viability of our remote business.”

State administrative inefficiency is an aspect of Portuguese life that McClintock finds most exasperating. “It took me fully 18 years to legalise the building and business that we have here. I think most people would find that excessive.”

While there are downsides to living in such a remote area, McClintock says it has mainly been a source of pleasure, for him and his guests. “Although we are quite cut off, we have our own dinner party practically every night at the Quinta, hosting people from all over the world. One of the consequences of being so remote is that we have had to survive by marketing ourselves constantly.”

McClintock can’t see himself ever returning to England. “I really believe that what we are doing here in a small way makes a positive impact on the world. We provide local employment and by doing that help to keep the countryside going.”

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www.paradise-in-portugal.com & www.birding-in-portugal.com

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Portugal: One man on a bicycle in a land of beauty

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Portugal: One man on a bicycle in a land of beauty

David Baxter pedals through the idyllic landscape of the Alentejo region to find castles, standing stones – and sweet custard tarts

Visiting Alentejo

When the rain stopped and hazy sunshine emerged, I climbed off the bike and gazed around. The landscape was not dramatic, but it was utterly entrancing: an undulating expanse of green meadows dotted with cork oaks, holm oaks and olive trees, seemingly devoid of fences or walls. From this country road only the faint, tingling bells of unseen grazing animals and the call of birds could be heard. It was April and wild flowers were out in force, the meadows carpeted in yellow, white and purple, the waysides thronged with vivid poppies, rock roses, bugloss and alkanet.

I was in the depths of the montado landscape of the Alentejo region, which stretches across southern Portugal south of the Tagus and north of the Algarve. This corner of it lay close to Evora, the regional capital. The area has few big hills, but it is by no means flat – a fact that the cyclist quickly appreciates.

The montado may appear wild, but it is actually a tended ecosystem designed to produce a valuable crop – cork. Portugal produces three quarters of the world's cork, most of it used as wine-bottle stoppers. Cork oaks are harvested for their bark every nine years, and each tree is numbered to show when it was last stripped. Underneath their branches, sheep and goats crop the grass; pigs fatten up on the acorns.

My week-long, self-guided tour involved covering modest daily distances between towns. I'd been given detailed route maps and notes and my baggage was transported for me from one place to the next. All I had to do was pedal. The rainy day was an exception: most of these spring days were sunny and dry.

This area has long been a frontier, first between Christian and Moor, then Portuguese and Spanish. My itinerary connected several towns – including Monsaraz, Vila Viçosa and Estremoz – that clustered around castles which are now notable for their magnificence, when seen from afar, and for the views from their ramparts. Some, like Monsaraz, have become beautiful museum-pieces.

Imposing churches, convents and paços – fortified baronial palaces – abound, often displaying an array of Islamic, Gothic and Baroque elements. They remind visitors of grander times and flaunt the flamboyant native Manueline style, with motifs from Portugal's golden age of discovery and trade. These days, door and window surrounds are picked out in pastel blue, yellow or grey, a charming effect against stretches of white walls.

Lodging in Alentejo

Approaching Evora, I cycled along country tracks to several megalithic sites such as the Almendres cromlech, rediscovered in 1964 and one of the largest and oldest in Europe. More than 90 monoliths, typically around 10ft tall, stand on the hillside, as if enjoying the view. Some experts believe the two eliptical arrays of stones are, like Stonehenge, set at a latitude that captures the Moon at its zenith.

Evora itself is a Unesco-recognised gem, its cathedral, well-preserved Roman temple and museum, grouped conveniently at the end of narrow lanes winding up from the main Giraldo Square and arcaded shopping streets. Its historic mansions include one that belonged to the great explorer, Vasco da Gama. Rather more macabre is the ossuary lined with the bones of 5,000 people.

For lunch, I indulged in the first of many visits to a pastelaria, where a coffee and a small chicken pie, or a pastel de nata (custard tart), can be had for less than €2.

I moved on 30 miles towards Reguengos de Monsaraz. At the pottery at São Pedro do Corval I seized the chance to buy two small olive dishes, which promptly smashed when my parked bike fell over, a few hours later. Reguengos, now a wine centre, is where the inhabitants of Monsaraz moved when they got tired of their water-less hilltop fortress.

Next day, before tackling the climb up to Monsaraz, I paused on the banks of the Alqueva – a vast reservoir created by damming the river Guadiana. Its full extent was visible from Monsaraz's castle ramparts, along with swathes of the Alentejo and Spain. Below, along the Rua Direita, black openwork balconies stood out against the bright white walls of old houses.

Vila Viçosa, my next destination, was for centuries the base of the Bragança family, who supplied Portuguese kings and an English queen: Catherine, Charles II's wife. The imposing Paço Ducal is full of the finest artefacts, from azulejo tiles to Aubusson tapestries. Fascinating museums of archaeology, carriages and hunting are divided between the palace and the nearby castle, from where the Tapada Real, the royal hunting park, was visible. I wandered along streets of handsome town houses to the main square, flanked with orange trees heavy with fruit.

My hotel for the night was a delightful conversion of a 16th-century mansion, the Solar dos Mascarenhas. For dinner, I ate an açorda, a mixture of fish, bread and pennyroyal baked and served in a hollowed loaf, which I washed down with a glass of red. Alentejan cuisine is admired in Portugal: poverty, it is said, compels imaginative use of simple ingredients. Pork, bacalhau (salted cod) and dogfish are also much in evidence.

Around Vila Viçosa, a wasteland of marble quarries interrupts the rural idyll. The "white gold" is exported and is also used locally. I peered into deep, marble-lined pits and watched machines slowly cutting the blocks. Then, for lunch – as suggested by my tour notes, I stopped at a simple country restaurant and ordered the speciality: rabbit. It came in a huge earthenware dish with chips, salad and bread – all for less than €10.

I spent my final night at Estremoz's medieval castle, now a luxurious pousada with grand public rooms. It was here that I encountered my first tour group – I'd often been the only tourist in the small hotels I'd stayed in. The next morning, I wandered around the lively Saturday market with its array of cheeses, cured meats, live chickens, handicrafts, bric-a-brac and plants.

Estremoz should be one of Portugal's busiest places. After all, it's where the E90, the European superhighway between Madrid and Lisbon, meets the IP2 (the main north-south road). But the Alentejo seems miraculously untainted by the 21st century.

Source: The indenpendent

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Best Portuguese Wine Presentation ever . . .

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Best Portuguese Wine Presentation ever . . .

WOW! What a presenter! Can't blame him really, Portuguese wines are some of the bests in the world. Gary Vaynerchuk hosts one of the most popular online wine channels in US, and is a biggest fan of Alentejo Wines. Today he brings us a very enthusiastic overview of Alentejo wine. Relax and enjoy his presentation.

 

- Gary, a big THANK YOU for your enthusiastic presentation of Portuguese Wines!

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Olive Oil, Portugual's finest nectar

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Olive Oil, Portugual's finest nectar

 

 

Olive oil, is one of Portuguese finest nectares. Despite its low production when compared to other competitor countries, Portugal has been recognized by one of the best producers of this gastronomic nectar due to its extraordinary quality.

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