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The steady pulse of the Alentejo 

The sun greets me with a warm embrace. I flew into Faro, so I could travel from south to north through the heartland of the Portuguese interior, country as yet unknown to me, through the Alentejo.

Photo by Odile Hein

Portugal’s Highway 268, Estrada Nacional, is lined with pine trees, and the drive provides me with a brilliant transition into travel mode, travel mood... I have left the Algarve behind me; in my travel bag is a ham from a black pig, the local porker bred in the Alentejo. The choice of travel-sustenance lifts my already buoyant spirits even higher and I feel sorry for all vegetarians – who choose to miss out on this experience – and take a good bite out of the ham sandwich I just fixed myself.

1. The West Coast

Rough and bumpy little roadways lead me past grand panoramas. Leaving a cloud of dust behind me I visit isolated little coves, which here are a part of reality rather than photos from a travel & tourism advert. Even the term ‘wild and romantic’ seems to me inadequate to describe the landscape that emerges, punctuated by the craggy and truly steep coastal cliffs of dark slate or bright sandstone. It is such a luxury to choose among the many almost totally deserted little patches of shoreline – Burrinho Beach, Samouqueira Bay, Espingardeiro Beach, to reveal just a couple of the names...

Sitting atop a rocky crag with my legs swinging freely, I allow myself to be hypnotised by the waves of the Atlantic as they roll without rest onto the shore. Another glance off into the distance, then I scramble down to the beach and run into the water. Not the least chance that I could master this monster of the tides – no matter how vigorously I hurl myself against the waves, they wash me back spinning onto the shore.

Doing this means that I work up an appetite... I read the word ‘Percebes’ on a signboard in front of a rustic restaurant, and I see a price posted that leads me to think that here there must be something special to be had. This seems right on time to me, and without further ado I place my order for this surprise.

‘You have only yourself to blame’, I think, as the cheerfully smiling server sets a platter before me. A platter upon which whimsical little black stubby things are piled, as if they had fallen out of the prop closet in the funhouse at a carnival. Percebes, as I learn from the waiter, are gooseneck barnacles (Lepas anatifera and the like), a rare delicacy. Which I am about to eat. And apparently, eat with my fingers. It’s too late for the question, if I even want to touch them... So I pull on the softer part and disengage it from the black husk and from its shell-like hard end, which looks like a claw.

And I get squirted – apparently I have done something wrong. But it seems that nobody else has noticed. They taste really good! With the second bite, I forget everything and nothing further intervenes between me and the pleasure of the flavour. Percebes have a firm texture, perhaps best compared with prawns. I taste freshness and I taste salt – this particularly fine flavour of fresh shellfish.

2. The Lay of the Land

Thusly fortified and one experience the richer, I head into the interior. One more little bit of civilisation lies behind me with every metre of the gravel track my trusty auto puts away under its wheels, as I snake my way through seemingly endless fields. The cork oaks, their bark conspicuously peeled away, stand evenly distributed in the gently rolling landscape. Where does this lead?

I follow my instinct and it serves me well: stopping at a snack bar on the side of the road I meet with Joao, a cork harvester, who reacts to my curious glances and explains to me with hands and feet and above all with a great deal of patience about what exactly is involved with peeling off the bark. Accompanied by a glass of the local firewater – homemade aguardiente – I learn that the cork oaks live to a monumental age and can only be decorticated once every nine years.

It is indeed hard work, he says, and continues that it also demands a great deal of sensitivity, with carefully-aimed strokes of the axe and skilful hand-technique, in order to remove the bark whole from the tree without breaking it to pieces – and above all without harming the tree. More curious workers continue to join us; one can see the hard work in their hands and on their faces. But they are proud of the work they do – and most likely happy to have a job.

Having learned a couple new words in Portuguese, I hit the trail in the direction of Evora. This city – the one that everybody enthuses over so much – already coming to the conclusion that I just won’t get there on this visit...

There are just too many lovely spots along the way, and the temptation of devoting more time to these inviting little stopovers is simply too great. Now, for example, a house with green tiles that stands out among buildings with whitewashed walls arouses my curiosity. We are in Ourique, a charming place with benches clustered around a small fountain – the church and the town hall; everything is nestled close together. So the tour would not have taken so long had I not stumbled over a pair of legs sticking out from underneath a parked car. After the sudden jolt, relief: the legs begin to move and a man wearing red overalls scrambles to his feet. From nodding at one another a conversation develops, one with few words and plenty of imagination. Pointing toward the sky, Miguel brings directs my attention to a nearby tower... ‘Lovely’, I say. ‘No, no’, Miguel responds, and waves energetically – which basically means, ‘Follow me!’

He shows me an almost lawful path up to the high tower and its platform, located in a small and rather desolate park. Here high above, my glance can rove over the entire town. I discover two trees in front of the town hall that are just the right distance apart for me to hang my hammock. And as a matter of fact, I am in luck and can indeed take a nap. There are so many impressions that have simply inundated me during the first couple of days – it’s time for forty winks before I continue with my travels. 

The town of Beja crosses my path and it is love at first sight. Above all on account of its quizzical, almost comical contrasting proportions, because the interplay of the great plaza with its monastery (between here and there is a hotel worth recommending) and the small labyrinthine alleyways is refreshing and has an organic feel to it.

I mention that I like it here in Beja, but the residents wave off the compliment: there’s nothing going on here – Evora is the place I ought to visit. But I like it here. Very much, in fact. And so I sit myself down in the little café and examine the imposing structures of the monastery. This peaceful Portuguese way of life: I have arrived.

Next day, which like all other days is a hot day, I decide to drive to a large blue spot on my map, one that promises an opportunity to cool down.

The big blue spot reveals itself to be Lake Alqueva. And it is the largest reservoir in all of Europe.

I park my car at the jetty – the herd of sheep around me disperses in a frantic wave – and I jump in the lake.

3.) Climb the Mountain

To reach Monzaraz, I had to make my way up the hillside upon which it is situated. I arrive at the village in appropriate style through two mediaeval gateways. Whitewashed, single-story houses are arrayed next to each other along the narrow alleyways paved with cobblestones. Here for the first time I encounter a few tourists and souvenir shops. Fortifications stand at the other end of the village, and in the middle of them there is a bullring. The panoramic view is a rewarding experience, and becomes twice as lovely seen against the background of the setting sun.

It is almost dark by the time I get to the hotel. A good glass of wine on the patio underneath a starry would be a fine conclusion to this lovely day, but I take the opportunity to go on the nighttime tour at the observatory. For hours in the open air, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide with the patience of an angel and the aid of an impressive telescope leads us through the vast canopy of stars.

Although I have marvellous highways and byways behind me, it is the Milky Way that remains the most beautiful -way in the Alentejo. And to travel along its paths, it is sufficient to just lean your head back and look upward. The loveliest memento that I took home with me is the picture of the starlit sky I keep in my mind. Sometimes at home when the city gets too loud at night, I see this image in my mind’s eye, and I soon have the feeling that somebody has turned down the noise. The Alentejo – it belongs to the stars.

Article by Odile Hein.