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The rural retreats in historic Portugal

Away from the beaches of the Algarve, the rural retreats of Guimarães, Evora and Alcácer do Sal paint a picture of a cultured, historical Portugal with all the requisite Iberian charm this entails.

The rural retreats in historic Portugal

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Guimarães

‘Aqui nasceu Portugal’ (‘Portugal was born here’). These are the words proclaimed in huge white letters on the medieval battlements overlooking Guimarães’ Largo do Toural. Yet, despite its historic prominence, few British visitors make it to this northern Portuguese beauty, tucked into the lush hills of the Minho, inland from Porto.

Guimarães served as capital of the fledgling nation in the turbulent years before and after a decisive victory in 1128 over Moorish forces just outside the city at São Mamede  — today the name of an arts-cum-club complex and the city’s hippest boho hang-out. But when the political spotlight shifted south, the locals quietly wrapped themselves in layers of ravishing architecture and comforted themselves with the region’s renowned wine, vinho verde.

I down handy half bottles of the stuff with each meal — crisp, tinglingly tart — from various dining perches around the town: outdoor tables on the picture-postcard cobbles of Praça de Santiago, the courtyard at Papaboa, or lunching amid boisterous family groups at Mumadona. Nearby, Valdonas restaurant serves up in a shady 17th-century courtyard.

Simpler places also beckon, such as Restaurant Dom João, on the street of the same name off Largo do Toural, where I get half a dozen grilled sardines with rice plus a drink for an unbelievable €4 (£3.50). Paying at the bar, I spy a bottle of the fabled local hooch, bagaceira, and try to bump up the bill with a shot glass of aromatic warmth by way of alcoholic research. When the barman pops a half-filled plastic water bottle down beside me, I assume it’s to dilute the booze, only to find — with a huge swig — that it’s a generous gratis chaser of the firewater. I thank him huskily and pop the bottle in my bag for nightcaps.

In the summer heat, I seek natural air-con with a cable-car ride to the breezy summit of Mount Penha. Half the town seems to be up here with me, wandering amid pine and eucalyptus woods dotted with granite boulders the size of houses and various holy stop-offs. Hymns drift from the mountain-top church, an accordion-player entertains picnickers, and happy chatter rises with the heat from the wood-fired oven grilling fish and flatbread at the Adega do Ermitao, an excellent outdoor diner with a dramatic clifftop view.

There’s more of a respectful hush the next morning as I sidle around the tapestry-hung rooms of the grand Palace of Bragança museum. I tag behind chattering teenagers scaling the heights of the compact 12th-century castle next door, before marvelling at a gilded interior to make Midas jealous inside the Church of Sao Francisco.

Another day, I head into the Minho countryside to the Citânia de Briteiros, 10 miles north of Guimarães on a wooded hilltop. A major settlement when Lisbon was barely a fishing village, this was the last holdout of the area’s native Castro culture to fall to the Romans, leaving behind an atmospheric melange of rocky paths, ancient foundations and
epic views.

Afterwards, I join the throng at the holy hilltop hot-spot Bom Jesus do Monte. Here I climb its wonderfully-named, zig-zagging Stairway of the Five Senses and Stairway of the Three Virtues, before heading down into the nearby city of Braga, dubbed the ‘City of Fountains’. Lunch provides a chance to potter through its likeable mix of history and modernity, with stop-offs at Portugal’s oldest cathedral and the grand Cafe Vienna on Plaza de Republica.

Back in Guimarães, I people-watch from the balcony of my cool, dark-wooden room in the old town, Pousada, melded from several 16th-century townhouses into a rambling charmer with an unbeatable location on the gorgeous Largo da Oliveira, ringed with medieval houses and bars.

Al fresco orchestral concerts take place beneath my window in the evenings. Friday’s brass shimmers in harmony with the balmy air, while Saturday’s strings soar in harmony with the swallows darting above the square. Contrasting versions of Over the Rainbow on both nights provide sweet counterpoint.

Guimarães’ churches join in the music-making. No simple hourly dongs here. Carillons sound at odd times for odd durations. At 7.26 each morning, the church bells by the pousada — traditional Portuguese hotels — burst into a medley of mysterious rings so harmonious that I don’t mind the early wake-up.

Perhaps it’s some clever musical prelude to Guimarães’ step back into the spotlight next year as 2012 European Capital of Culture. I’m disappointed to find myself between exhibitions at the town’s star turn, the Vila Flor Cultural Centre. Set in an 18th-century palace-turned-gallery with a sternly 21st-century modern adjunct, the Centre usually presents a fantastically eclectic programme of global music and theatre. But Galeria Gomes Alves and The Arts Lab provide me with tiny contemporary alternatives, and craftwork by top Minho makers offers retail temptation at Oficina on Rua Rainha.

Before my last-night dinner, a neon sign promising ‘Museu a Noite’ draws me through the twilight to the Alberto Sampaio Museum. Portugal’s only museum to open at night is worth a visit any time — dazzling metalwork, ceramics and religious art showcased in a 16th-century monastery. So, a fine museum that stays open until midnight in a bar-lined medieval square: Guimarães is truly a civilized place.

Évora

Before anyone went in much for the heritage thing, Évora’s first-century Roman temple was nearly torn apart for stone. Its survival was largely due to it becoming an abattoir until 1870. Let’s thank this gory conversion that left the temple’s magnificent Corinthian columns adorning the city’s hilltop plaza, Largo Conde Vila Flor: a grand marble podium overlooking a green swathe of Alentejo plain.

Travel 70 miles south-east of Lisbon through olive groves and part-peeled cork trees, to find Évora, a town whose filigree of cobbled lanes entwine inside medieval town walls that replaced Roman originals. Its magnificent aquaduct might also seem a Roman throwback but is actually a gnarled 16th-century original, whose six-mile stretch provides a popular walking route into the surrounding countryside. Évora’s regional expanses offer a distinctly bucolic freedom by virtue of covering a third of Portugal with just 5% of its population.
Back by the temple, the Palace of the Dukes of Cadaval provides a glimpse into the lives of one of Portugal’s most noble families through five centuries of possessions displayed in slightly care-worn grandeur. Across the square, the Museum of Évora mixes more of Rome with Renaissance art inside a former archbishop’s palace.

Lunch at Taberna Tipica Quarta-Feira a few hundred yards down the hill on Rua do Inverno pairs superb local Monte da Ravasqueira red with slow-cooked ‘black pork’ (an Alentejo breed descended from wild boar) followed by a gorgeous sweet cake of cooked pumpkin and walnuts. Later on in my trip, I squeeze into the tiny Tasquinha do Oliveira on Rua Candido dos Reis, where an array of starters are placed down temptingly on the table — you pay only for those you taste. I pluck gorgeous salt cod fritters and beautifully cooked octopus, followed by duck roasted with rice. Dinner at O Gremio (Rua da Alcárcova de Cima) focuses on Alentejo’s peasant classic migas — bread crumbs soaked in olive
oil and garlic — in an asparagus and pork incarnation.

It’s all typically hearty Alentejo food that I walk off, with help from a check list of palaces and grand churches. I breeze into Évora’s 16th-century Jesuit University one morning to check out its ravishing courtyard and sneak a peek at classrooms where unique azure-tiled panels illustrate the different subjects taught in each. A clamber up the steeple of the 13th-century Cathedral burns more calories.

Évora’s most striking sight, though, is the Chapel of Bones at the Church of São Francisco. Its creepy decor fuses bones from 5,000 skeletons with traditional blue tiles and murals — an unforgettable amalgam given added poetic resonance by the Portuguese memento mori inscribed over the entrance: ‘We bones that are here await yours’.

Life goes on, though, in the main square, Praça do Giraldo. Al fresco cafes demand obligatory pauses for coffee and patisserie, while a beautiful fountain provides a meeting place outside the Renaissance Santo Antão Church. Here too, though, the Grim Reaper hovers, as each morning, Évora’s oldsters cluster around the town notice board to peer at the latest death notices. To celebrate continuing existence, I grab a free wine-tasting at the Alentejo Wine Tour office on Praça Joaquim Antonio d’Aguiar, where I chat to a British couple on a vineyard trail through one of Europe’s rising-star regions.

For a day-trip, head to the whitewashed town of Arraiolos to browse superb handmade carpets that showcase Persian weaving skills acquired during Moorish occupation, before moving on to the beautiful town of Vila Viçosa, a colourful riot of pinkish marble bedecked with citrus trees. The main sight here is the Palace  of Bragança — the former residence of the first Dukes of Bragança who relocated here from Guimarães with Portugal’s political shift south. It was Catherine of Bragança who introduced the popular Portuguese aristo’ pastime of tea drinking to Britain during her 17th-century marriage to Charles II. Make time for the hilltop castle with its engaging Hunting Museum plus the Marble Museum, housed in the town’s former railway station.

On my last day in Évora, I head 10 miles out of town to Iberia’s ‘Stonehenge’. Hidden down a dusty road, the Cromlech dos Almendres eclipses what’s on Salisbury Plain, with nearly a hundred monoliths brooding mysteriously on their hill for the past five millennia. In Britain, there’d be hefty charges and a naff tea room. Here, I have them to myself, and am free to wander unfettered.

Alcácer do Sal

Located 40 miles west of Evora, Alcácer do Sal was once so prized, locals claim — dubiously — that the Vikings sent longships south in an unsuccessful attempt to snatch the town from the Moors in 966.

Back then, this was Al Qasr (‘the castle’, in Arabic) — a castle I’m lucky enough to be staying in. Now reincarnated as the bright, airy Pousada Alcácer do Sal, with a pool surrounded by old battlements, it has views right across the town rooftops to brightly-painted old trading boats moored on the River Sado. It even has its own excellent museum of Roman and Moorish finds, dug out of the grounds during renovation. Trade in the salt that earned the town its ‘Sal’ tag made Alcácer rich for a millennium. Today it’s a charming backwater where delicious fruit and pine nuts are now the main produce, sold by the sleepy quay, dotted with appealing restaurants such as O Ninho or the more upmarket Retiro Sadino.

The broad coastal strip through which the Sado links Alcácer to the Atlantic is an ideal base from which to explore this part of the western Alentejo — a land of rice paddies and simple fishing spots edged by some of Portugal’s finest beaches. The gritty port city of Setubal is just 30 minutes north, with its atmospheric medieval old town augmented by acclaimed seafood restaurants plus engaging sights such as the Michel Giacometti Work Museum, which chronicles working life in the former sardine factory.

Those Alentejo beaches, meanwhile, start half an hour’s drive west of Alcácer on the chic strand at Comporta and stretch a dozen miles north up the Troia peninsula, as well as south to more rugged coves beyond Sines. The woodland and dunes behind Comporta and Troia hold plush hotels, eco-lodges and beach hideaways for the well-heeled and the likes of Real Madrid’s boss José Mourinho. An eye-wateringly expensive restaurant sits on the Comporta sand, adjacent to a more affordable diner for the less flush.

En route, I stop at the fishing village of Carrasqueira. For photographers, this is a must-snap for its iconic quay built on traditional higgledy-piggledy wooden stakes topped by ramshackle huts. With the mercury hitting 40C, though, I need a dip more than food, and afterwards head to another locals’ tip, the Mira Ponte in Carvalhal, where I fall on a huge bowl of shellfish and rice washed down with Comporta wine.

After lunch, the afternoon becomes a kaleidoscope of contrasts — Roman ruins at MirÓbriga, a chat with the miller at a spindly windmill straight out of Don Quixote, then a couple of sundowners on Santo André beach watching the flaming orb take its own Atlantic dip.

Driving back, the darkness of the country road towards Alcácer prompts me to pull over to look up at the night sky. I’m lost in a stellar panoply smeared with the pale gauze of the Milky Way.

A shooting star startles me, then is gone. Cicadas continue their nocturnal song. As beach days go, the Algarve could be on a different planet.

ESSENTIALS

Portugal

Getting there
EasyJet flies from London to Lisbon (for Alentejo), plus London to Porto (for Guimãraes). British Airways flies from London to Lisbon. Sunvil has weekly May-Oct flights from London to Beja (for Alentejo). www.easyjet.com www.ba.com  www.sunvil.co.uk

 

Getting around
Portugal has an excellent road network. Or, trains link Guimarães with Porto (1h) and Lisbon Oriente (4h). Also, Lisbon Oriente to Évora (1h30m) and Alcácer do Sal (1h30m). Trains of Portugal. www.cp.pt

 

When to go
Summer can be blisteringly hot, with the Alentejo breaching 40C. May and September/October see temperatures in the 20s. Winters average 10-15C, with most rain around the turn of the year.

 

Need to know
Currency: Euro. £1=€1.16.
International dial code: 00 351.
Time difference: GMT +1.

 

Places:

Guimarães
Bragança Palace/Castle. http://pduques.imc-ip.pt
Vila Flor Cultural Centre. www.ccvf.pt
Sao Mamede. www.sao-mamede.com
Galeria Gomes Alves. www.galeriagomesalves.com
Citania de Briteiros. http://citania.csarmento.uminho.pt
Bom Jesus do Monte. www.visitportugal.com

Évora
Palace of Dukes of Cadaval. www.palaciocadaval.com
Museum of Évora. http://museudevora.imc-ip.pt
Chapel of Bones. T: 00 351 266 704 521.
Casa Bragança Museum. www.fcbraganca.pt
Vila Vicosa Castle. T: 00 351 268 980 128.
Vila Vicosa Marble Museum. T: 00 351 268 881 101.

Alcacer do sall
Mirobriga. visitportugal.com
Michel Giacometti Work Museum. www.mun-setubal.pt/museutrabalho
More information
Guimarães: Visit Portugal. www.visitportugal.com
Evora/Alcãcer do Sal: Visit Alentejo. www.visitalentejo.pt
Rough Guide To Portugal. RRP: £15.99.

 

How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three nights at Pousada de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira in Guimarães from £499 per person, including return flights to Porto, car hire and B&B accommodation.
www.kirkerholidays.com
Sunvil Discovery offers three nights at Hotel M’Ar de Ar Aqueduto in Évora from £542 per person, including car hire, B&B, and flights from Heathrow to Beja. www.sunvil.co.uk
www.mardearhotels.com
Keytel is UK agent for Pousada Alcácer do Sal. Doubles from £115 per night, B&B. www.keytel.co.uk  www.pousadas.pt

 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)