Every year thousands of holiday makers from around the world head to the Algarve, Portugal’s most southern region, for their annual dose of sunbathing. Our plan was different though, as we wanted to discover the real country, so we went where the Tagus river enters the Portuguese territory, literally dividing the country in two distinct worlds. The Alentejo (“beyond the Tagus” in Portuguese) is Portugal’s largest and one of the less populated regions, where the open, vast landscapes are peppered with numerous cork and olive trees, while a few farmhouses (“montes”) are scattered around the hills.
The inner Alentejo and Algarve are probably the less known parts of Portugal, and yet they hold a hugely rich patrimony, traditions and landmarks, a true reminder of the heritage left by the Arabs, who inhabited these lands between the 8th and the 13th century. Crossing the tiniest of villages, with their traditional whitewashed, rammed earth houses, while feeling the flavours of the local cuisine, it’s as if we are being transported to a town somewhere in northern Africa.
In the peak of the summer temperatures can go well over the 40ºC mark, so finding a cool place uder the shade of a cork-tree or a stone-oak becomes a gift from the heavens. The long, dusty tracks crossing the vast plains and rugged landscapes make us feel like we are driving somewhere in the African Savanna, except that there are no elephants wondering around. Here, time passes slowly following the rhythm of the land itself, giving us a unique opportunity to switch off from our busy agendas and enjoy a slower pace of life, even if only for a few days.
If inland, the castles are a testimony of past battles and old rivalries with the Moors and our Iberian neighbours, the Atlantic coastline is another world apart with deserted beaches framed by golden cliffs, and traditional fishing villages where local men risk their lives to give us some of the best fish in the world. A trip to this part of Portugal would not be complete without going to Sagres and the Cape of St. Vincent, located on the most SW tip of the European Continent. Sagres was called “Promunturium Sacrum” (sacred headland) by the Romans, and for centuries was called “the end of the world”, which was really the case until the 15th century. The fortress built on the rocks brings back the memories of the great Portuguese Navigators from that time, who started their global expeditions sailing along the north African coast of what we know today as Morocco.
We don’t go as far as those intrepid Navigators, but just like the thousands of migratory birds that cross the local skies in search of warmer climates where to skip the harsh winter from the north, we just follow the saying “when in doubt, we head south”…