This is the first of an occasional series of blogposts on Travel. It won’t be every Tuesday, but Tuesday will be when it appears.
Considering the amount of energy devoted by the media to goings-on in Portugal, it’s sad that so little has been devoted to discovering that part of the country beyond the Algarve and the largest cities. It is, however, not surprising: the tourist trail in Porto does not extend far up the Douro Valley, and that in Lisbon, although taking in the coast west to Cascais, does not reach even Santarém to the north east.
So the discovery of the southern Alentejo region featured yesterday by the Guardian was a step in the right direction. As the piece tells, the Alentejo accounts for almost a third of Portugal, yet well under 10% of the population lives there. There are walled towns scattered around the region, then between them the occasional village and little else.
Largest of the walled towns is the region’s capital, Évora: although the old town is now encircled by the inevitable ring road, the area within that wall still contains narrow streets, whitewashed houses, a cathedral, Roman ruins, and at its heart the Praça do Giraldo. Just inside the walls to the south is a park where a monument to the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s birth, donated by the South African province of Natal, can be seen.
South of Évora is another, smaller walled town, that of Beja, overlooking the plains of the lower Alentejo. Here, the old centre of the town houses more narrow streets, the hill being topped by a castle. Also close to the centre of Beja is the Pousada de São Francisco, one of a chain of formerly state run hotels housed in historic buildings.
Both towns can be covered as day trips from Lisbon, and although having a car may be fine out in the Alentejo, in the capital it is hard work, what with the traffic, and the difficulty in finding affordable parking spaces. There is, however, a regular coach service, and the rail link is being upgraded.
Be warned, though: in the Alentejo there are vast open spaces, and little in the way of population, as I found in a visit back in November 2009. Despite the rumble of traffic over Beja’s cobbled streets, life moves at a slower pace out here.