My recent visit to Portugal wasn’t the usual Algarve experience that most people think of when talking about Portugal. In fact I visited the regions of Alentejo and Centro which I would describe as “real” Portugal. Tourism in these areas is not huge so not only is it not busy but also has a nicer feel to it as you are surrounded by many Portuguese.
Evora is a pretty town in Alentejo and the centre is surrounded by castle walls with lovely shops, restaurants and tourist attractions. Evora is very historical with a chapel made from human bones from when the monks were around. Evora also has the second largest university in Portugal, but the town itself is not over crowded with students.
The Evora museum explains the development of the city with the history of the monks. The centre is very much still traditional but now also has a modern art museum with new exhibitions every six months. You can hire a guide for the day to explore the city and learn about the history, however for Evora I would recommend doing it by yourself at your own pace as there are many shops along the way and it’s not a huge place to get around.
Convento do espinheiro hotel – This luxury 5 star hotel situated in Alentejo is just minutes from Evora centre and is a restored 15th century convent. It is just a small hotel having only 86 rooms and 6 suites with the most beautiful facilities. The hotel features an indoor and outdoor pool, sauna, Turkish bath, bar and a kids club is available during half term times. Cooking lessons can also be arranged on site.
Attached to the hotel is a beautiful chapel where they hold a mass once a day if you wish to go. They also hold weddings here holding up to 250 people and you can be non-religious to wed in the chapel.
Daily tours of the hotel are given at 5pm were you can learn more about the history behind the hotel and chapel followed by wine tasting which is completely free of charge.
The dinner was beautifully prepared with great wines to compliment the food. Just beware that the goat’s cheese on the menu is extremely strong!
Next stop was Estremoz, about a 40 minute drive from Evora centre. We started our day off by eating in a restaurant called Gadanha Mercearia. The food was exceptional but I would recommend having an early lunch and late dinner as the Portuguese eat many courses.
After lunch we visited the Marble Quarry. Marble is a big part of Alentejo and that was clear to see when visiting the huge deep quarry, it’s definitely worth a visit as you can see how much hard work is gone through to get a block of marble.
Estremoz is famous for little clay models which can be bought from many shop, you can even make your own to take home – a great souvenir!
I would definitely recommend exploring Estremoz with a tour guide as our tour guide was so informative and arranged wine tasting at the end for us in a local vineyard known as Quinta Do Mouro. The tour guide came from a company called Vagar Walking Tours and I would highly recommend them.
The local hotel is called Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel right in the centre. It is a beautiful hotel and has an amazing rooftop allowing you to see great views. Many cyclists stay here as it’s a great stop off when cycling through Alentejo.
About an hour’s drive from Estremoz we stayed in a hotel called Pousada do Crato in the Crato area. It is more of a modern hotel but very simple and plain on the inside but with a stunning exterior. Personally I don’t think I would stay here again as there was not much to do around the grounds compared with other hotels, it is not as spectacular, I would say it’s more of a 4 star than 5. However the food was great at the restaurant, with fresh fish served and a selection of desserts. To start they brought us out a selection of food but one thing I recommend is always ask what it is. I thought I was tucking into a nice piece of squid turned out to be pig’s ear, which is by far the most disgusting thing I have ever tasted!
The next morning we travelled to the Centro Region. We went to a town called Tomar about 1 hour 30 mins from Crato, which has beautiful scenery and lovely little restaurants, unfortunately I did not get to stay in Tomar long so could not experience the town. In Tomar there is a famous convent known as Convento de Cristo- a world heritage site by UNESCO, which was the best convent we visited, it’s an a massive convent with amazing architecture. The convent costs 6 euro to visit but it is free on the first Sunday of every month.
Next was one of my favourites as it was such a unique place. The Cooking and Nature Hotel known as Emotional hotel in the Natural Park of Serra. It was absolutely stunning, as soon I walked in I just wanted to stay there. It is a modern hotel with quirky bits, for example instead of sun loungers there are massive bean bags.
The hotel is obviously known for its cooking, each night a chef can give you a cooking lesson whilst you prepare your food or if you wish they can cook it and serve it to you. The hotel is set in a national park so most mornings the guests will go for a hike or horse riding, followed by a day at the pool and spa, with a cooking lesson late afternoon and then finish off with a drink by the campsite on the hammocks. This hotel is truly a unique place and with only 12 rooms you get a really personal experience. The cost to stay here is about 160 euros per night on a bed and breakfast basis or 135 euros per night if you stay for 2 or more nights. I would definitely recommend this hotel to anyone who enjoys cooking as it’s a great experience.
That night we stayed in a hotel called Luz Houses in Fatima. It’s a quirky hotel with a homely feel. It is run by a couple who opened it up just this April this year but has become very popular. The hotel has a treatment room that is set in a cave with the natural rocks inside and a small waterfall. Each room is slightly different but all are stunning with amazing baths or showers. We didn’t get to taste the food off the main menu as we were all still very full from the big lunch in Tomar, but I had a homemade ice cream which was exceptional.
Fatima is a very religious area and in 2017 the pope will be visiting. The 13th May is recognised as a very religious day in Fatima and around 500,000 people are expected to be in the centre celebrating. As Well as the religious side it also has breath taking nature, situated about 15Kms from Fatima are the largest caves in Portugal
About an hour’s drive from Fatima is the coastline. We went on a bike ride along the coast line in Nazaré. The bike ride was great however they rated the ride 1 out of 5 on the difficulty scale whereas I would rate it at least a 2.5 as it was quite hilly. If you want to go on the bike ride but are not confident you can hire e-bikes powered by battery from the cycling company to make things easier. For lunch we visited a fish restaurant overlooking the sea called Nau dos Corvos in Peniche, the food was fresh from the sea and the price was really reasonable at around 25 euro for a 3 course meal with wine. It was by far the best sea bass I have ever tasted!!
There is a beautiful town called Òbidos roughly 30 minutes from the coastline. The town is encircled by a ring of medieval walls and crowned by the Moorish castle, which is now a Pousada. Many events take place in Òbidos, the most important being the Holy Week festival, the Ancient Music festival in October and the international chocolate festival in March. It is quite a busy town as it is very popular with tourists. It reminded me very much of a typical Italian town with small narrow streets with small old buildings. You can also walk around the wall or get a cable car to get great pictures of the views.
That night we stayed at a hotel called Areias do Seixo in Atlântico, again this was one of my favourite hotels. This hotel offers both double rooms and 3 bedroom villas with private pools. The villas are priced around 500 euro a night compared to the hotel rooms which are around 195 a night for a double. The hotel is right on the beach a very relaxing infinity swimming pool which is heated. The hotel is furnished with natural elements and woods and each night a camp fire in lit. The restaurant transports you to a place where aroma, taste and colour come together using raw materials sourced from the vegetable garden. They created the most delicious gin and tonics with fresh beetroot and orange peel from the gardens!!
About a 5 minute drive from the hotel is a beach bar also owned by the hotel. It is virtually open 24/7 with a typical beach bar in the day turning into a restaurant at night, then a club at night with dj’s creating a really cool vibe. We were lucky enough to also spot dolphins from the bar.
On our way back to the airport we stopped off at a typical Portuguese vineyard. They gave us a tour around of how the wine making process works. The typical price of a tour is 10 euro per person and I would definitely recommend this as it is so interesting and is something you would never see back in the UK.
Overall I really enjoyed the trip. Personally I would say the Centro region was my favourite as I felt the hotels were more my style and I liked the fact we were close to the beach so had the most amazing seafood. I would say this is a great destination for a short break as you have everything you need, wine, food, beach, a few bars, great hotels and still a little bit of sightseeing and shopping. The ideal package would be 2 nights at the Cooking hotel enjoying the lessons, horse riding, hikes and spa then travel down to the cost and spend 3 nights at Areias do Siexo where you have the bars, beach and relaxation.
I really enjoyed the Alentejo region as well but I would say this is more for the discerning traveller who enjoys more sightseeing and history.Again the wine is very good and so is the food. The best itinerary for Alentejo would be to stay 2 nights at Convento do Espinheiro exploring Evora, then over to Estremoz to spend possibly 1 or 2 nights at Pousada Rainha da Isabel then possibly back to Lisbon for 1 or 2 nights as you have both the coast and sightseeing there.
If you are not massive wine drinkers then I would recommend hiring a car and travelling a little bit more through both regions, however if you would rather drink wine every day and give driving a miss then I would probably stay stick to one region and do maybe 2 or 3 hotels otherwise transfers become expensive.
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Alentejo has mainly boutique old fashioned hotels but of a high standard as many are part of the Small Leading Hotels of the World, the Centro region has more modern hotels but still of a high 5 star quality.
Both regions are known for its wine with over 47% of Portugal’s wine market coming from Alentejo. In a hotel called Land Vineyard- Small Leading Hotel of the World, you can experience the process of wine making from picking the grapes to squashing them with your feet if you so choose. The hotel only has 22 rooms with 6 being Sky Suites with a retractable glass above your bed to view the stars. Alentejo has very little pollution so the star gazing is incredible. Land Vineyards has a Michelin star restaurant so you can enjoy the best food ever with their own onsite produced wine