Portugal with Lisa Knotts
Air Canada Amazing Race
I was a lucky participant in Air Canada’s latest running of their “Amazing Race”, based loosely on the TV show of the same name. This year’s edition was held in the lesser known Alejento Province of Portugal.
Located just about 90 minutes east of Lisbon, Evora was our base for the first three nights in Portugal before moving for two nights to Alter do Chao, about 70 minutes north of Evora. Our final night was just an hour south in Arraiolos for an easy ride back to Lisbon. Our hotels were each less than two hours from Lisbon. From our hotel bases we also visited Estremoz and Monsaraz.
Alejento Province of Portugal is the country’s largest province encompassing more than 30% of the country yet a little less than 5% of the country’s population. As we left Lisbon, we crossed a large body of water that if you were not looking at a map, you might confuse with the ocean coastline but in fact it is the mouth of the Rio Tejo.
Once we had crossed the river and started the easy drive towards Evora, we were soon viewing rolling hills and the agricultural landscape. It soon became clear that the trees that were scattered across the fields were olive trees or cork trees and they offered a welcome shade.
Over the next six nights as we explored the region the relaxed nature of the people and their approach struck me. They easily spoke English in each place we visited and it never felt like we were in a throng of people. Here was somewhere we could explore and catch our breath.
And for history there is much to see and explore, if you are a history buff. We spent primarily our time in the medieval towns that were along the route to Spain.
English is widely spoken across Portugal, but if you have a few words of Portuguese and make a little effort, they appreciate it. “Obrigado” is the masculine form of “thank you”, while “obrigada” is the feminine form - and the speaker determines the word used, not the receiver of the greeting.
When you are ready to explore Alejento, make sure you rent a car so you can really visit the many fortified towns. Once you are out of Lisbon, it is an easy driving province without the mad rush of traffic. The principal roads are easy to navigate. Check out Rota Historica (or the historical route). However, once you enter the towns, you really need to be in a small vehicle and not in any rush.
Alejento is known for its summer heat, particularly in August when temperatures have been exceeding 40°C in recent years. Maybe plan your visit in April – early June, or mid-September to November if you like more moderate temperatures.
While we stayed in many lovely properties on this trip, my favourite was Herdade da Cortesia, located near the town of Avis. This hotel and their philosophy captured my imagination. In chatting with the gentleman who created this retreat, he admits he’s not a hotelier by training so he didn’t follow the rules, but that hasn’t prevented him from creating a unique and beautiful space. His passion has evidently translated into a lovely resort with no pretense. Here, there is no rush. As they say, “Here, breakfast has no hours".
Want to start some adventures? Here you have access to hiking trails, bicycles, paddle surfing included. And if you are a little more adventurous, rowing and boat tours are at the resort’s edge…with three different arms to explore so you have choices.
This hotel regularly hosts several national rowing teams as they prepare for their seasons. So if the gym is important to you, this one is athlete approved. You may even workout next to some future Olympians.
I particularly enjoyed the medieval village of Monsaraz, just one of the many villages perched on top of a Portuguese hilltop that rewards you with stunning views of the countryside where you can see more of the agricultural landscape. And as you look across Lake Alqueva, you can see Spain as well. Ancient walls surround this historic village and include the remains of a 13th-century castle. As you enter the gates of the village you are wandering the ancient, winding cobblestone streets lined with white houses. And there are still about twelve families that still live within the gates of this village. Make sure and make some time to enjoy some refreshments while you take in the sweeping views down the hillside.
Portuguese cod fish stew is definitely worth trying. There are a few variations. The one I enjoyed was with a flavorful herb broth with lots of garlic broth over fresh bread. Other variations include the addition of boiled eggs, olives or fresh tomatoes.
Considered the most famous pastry in Portugal is the “Pastel de Nata” a delicious egg tart pastry that is filled with a custard cream and dusted with cinnamon or icing sugar they are well worth enjoying. But I also enjoyed the Arroz Doce, a creamy rice pudding and a few variations of lemon cake.
Of course, when you are in the center's heart of cork production look for the cork. There are many cork products and souvenirs that are not connected to a wine bottle. Hot pads, placemats of course but also some beautiful fashion pieces including shoes, hats and purses too.
Harvesting of the cork trees is a specialized skill that is a manual process so that the tree is not harmed. The harvest season is normally between May and September, among the warmest times. It takes about 25 years before a cork tree is mature enough for the first harvest and then it is harvested again every nine years. The TIRADORES, cork strippers, work in pairs to make two cuts horizontally on the truck and then peel the cork off the tree.
Final piece of advice
Pack your walking shoes and your water bottle as you are bound to walk your socks off. Pack your sense of adventure and explore to your heart’s content.