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Portugal’s Alentejo is a corker

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Amy-DoneganBy Amy Donegan

“They are cork trees and a huge source of income for Alentejo,” replied our guide José in answer to my query about the strange-looking specimens.

Amidst carpets of green, yellow and white flowers, the cork trees are a key feature of the Alentejo landscape. Each tree must be harvested by hand-axe once every nine years, and can produce €500 worth of cork.

Post-harvest, the trees acquire a striking two-tone appearance. “We say they are blushing because they’re naked,” smiled José.

Hidden amongst groves of these mature cork trees (they really are everywhere) is Portugal’s answer to Stonehenge. Discovered in 1966, the Almendres Cromlech is one of Alentejo’s archeological mysteries dating back to the 6th millennium BC. The site is one of the largest collections of menhirs in Europe and makes a great, free family outing.

Situated approximately 130km outside Lisbon, Évora is the capital of the Alentejo Province. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986, the city is characterised by labyrinths of cobbled alleyways, a historic centre and a well-preserved Roman Temple.

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A sight not to be missed, Évora’s unique Capela dos Ossos (or Chapel of Bones) lies next-door to the Church of St. Francis. Decorated with more than 5,000 human remains, the chapel was originally built by a Franciscan monk who wanted to depict the transitory nature of life. At the entrance, visitors are greeted by a chilling inscription that heeds the warning “We, the bones that are here, await yours”. For a piece of 16th Century history with a spooky twist, enter if you dare. No wonder the Alentejo is one of the best holiday destinations in Portugal.

Originally a 15th-Century Monastery, the Convento do Espinheiro lies a 10-minute drive away from Évora. Guests are offered a host of activities inspired by the region, including wine-tasting with old military bayonets and spa treatments overlooking the Alentejo landscape. You can also try bread-making, using the same techniques that belonged to the monks who inhabited the monastery between 1458 and 1834. If you prefer basking in the Portuguese sunshine, you can always take a quick dip in the pool or visit the nearby beach. Prices for a double room start at around £130 per night with a breakfast buffet included.

A recently-crowned UNESCO World Heritage Site, the fortified city of Elvas has guarded the Portuguese/Spanish border for centuries. Throughout its history, the fortifications’ unique design has helped Portugal survive a number of sieges, most notably from the Spanish in 1658 and 1711.

Take in the spectacular views from the top of the fortifications, stand where the Duke of Wellington once fought or pay a visit to the 17th-Century aqueduct that used to provide clean water to the city’s inhabitants. Here, it is clear that history is an important part of the Alentejo culture; anywhere you go you will be (in José’s words) “immersed in the middle of it”.

A visit to Alentejo would be incomplete without some gastronomic delights. Set amidst a backdrop of Mediterranean hills, the 7,000-acre Herdade da Amendoeira (Almond Farm) offers its guests an abundance of gastronomical goodies made on site, including liquor, honey and cheese. My taste buds were tickled by the bubble and squeak-esque ‘migas’ and the ‘nuvens escondidas’, or ‘hidden clouds’ – a dessert consisting of cinnamon, caramel, egg whites, sugar and a little pinch of lemon designed to melt in the mouth. It certainly did just that.
Blushing trees, rich gastronomy and a preservation of the past; this quiet corner of Portugal has it all. You won’t find the hustle and bustle of the Algarve here, but instead, an intimate insight into real Portuguese life.

* Amy Donegan was a guest of Turismo de Portugal. She travelled to Portugal with TAP Portugal, which flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Lisbon with return fares from £115 including taxes. Find out more about the Alentejo region.

Our editors recommend Sunvil Holidays, which offers a range of trips to the region.

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