Once you have tasted the flavours of Alentejo, you will forever walk the earth with your taste buds directed towards Portugal. But, back home, you keep longing for the glorious light of the Alentejo coast with its golden beaches and jagged cliffs.
The golden beaches of Alentejo
The Atlantic washes the sky endlessly clean.
Even when hundreds of meters away from the shoreline, the sound of surf reveals the tremendous force of the water, coming to a climax at the Sardão cape, where the coast is wild, turbulent and dangerous.
The surf calls and beckons like a siren from Greek mythology. A leap of faith into these waves will indubitably end with death.
Fishing boats can only defy the surf when the wind and the flow of water permit them. Even then, in calm weather, this type of navigation is reserved for the heroic only.
On the coast, life revolves around fishing, which is still a small scale, labour-intensive business over here. Sailors leave in the dead of night in little more than dinghies, only to return around noon. The catch of the day is directly auctioned to a handful of restaurateurs and fishmongers.
Flavours of Alentejo
Squid, shark, sea bream, shrimp, skate, sardine, mackerel, turbot, lobster, cod, sole and Barnacle are offered.
The latter is referred to in Portugal and Spain as percebes. This delicacy is widely consumed on the Iberian Peninsula. Percebes are harvested on the coast of Alentejo in Portugal and on the Iberian northern coast, mainly in Galicia and Asturias.
Gathering these shell-like creatures is a dangerous job. The animals are firmly anchored to rock walls in heavy surf below the waterline.
To thrive, they need big waves. This makes it (so far) impossible to breed them. When harvesting the Barnacle, conditions must be perfect. The lower the water level, the better.
Another crucial catch is Portuguese dogfish.
The sopa de cação, or dogfish soup, has a prominent place on the menu of most restaurants. It is a traditional dish in Alentejo, although the shark is listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In Portugal, they seem to be oblivious to this.
Bacalhau, the Portuguese flagship dish
And then there is cod, Portugal’s emblematic fish. It is said that Portuguese cuisine has 1001 ways to prepare the bacalhau. The dried and salted variety is the most popular. To name a few types, you will find bacalhau hidden in salads, processed in a casserole or served on toast. Of course, fresh cod, bacalhau fresco, is also served.
Fish has to be consumed, allowing for copious amounts of wine. In this aspect, the Portuguese are much like the rest of Europe.
Western Europeans mostly choose a white wine to accompany a seafood platter. However, the Portuguese realize that red wine also tastes delicious with several fish dishes like the aforementioned salt cod, octopus, and squid. Another popular red is the vinho verde (young wine), delicious with grilled sardines.
However, it’s not just fish that typifies the Alentejo cuisine. The pig, preferably free-range, is another local favourite as a supplier of protein. Thus, the Matança do Porco, the slaughter of a pig at home, is, albeit fading, still a beloved tradition in the rural south.
European legislation is restricting home slaughter more and more these days, and animal welfare organizations protest against this ‘barbaric’ way of killing.
Rural Traditions in Portugal
In Portugal, they stick to their traditions.
According to the Portuguese, meat from a free-range pig is much better quality than an animal living a doomed life in big stables. At least the animal has a good life until his death.
It is pretty standard for families in rural areas to keep one or two pigs around the home for their own consumption. Much in the same way as they grow their own vegetables and fruit.
Keeping a pig is relatively cheap because the animal is an omnivore. In the olden times, it was, in fact, the only way to afford meat for poorer families. The slaughter of a pig is for the Portuguese more than simply obtaining food. It is primarily a social event, where families, neighbours and friends gather for the slaughter.
A service which is, of course, returned when the occasion calls for it.
In this land of plenty, traditions compete with gastronomy, history and lush nature for the traveller’s attention. Just like fishing and agriculture, tourism is still small scale in this region. Despite the wealth of Alentejo in terms of nature and historical monuments, you won’t find gargantuan hotels or mass tourism, so typical for many other European coastal areas.
Valle das Éguas
When travelling north to south, start with a wine tasting at Herdade do Cebolal, a family business located in the Valle das Éguas. Especially during spring and summer, when you can enjoy your alfresco dinner among vines and olive trees.
The centre of Évora is classified as UNESCO World Heritage. It is the main town of Alentejo and the heart of this region. Stay at the Vitoria Stone, a quirky modern hotel ideal for couples on a weekend break. To view the prices and/or book, click here.
For excellent food (and drinks), head to Café Alentejo, the building dates back to the fifteenth century. The architecture of the former royal inn has largely been retained.
Évora is about a one and a half-hour drive from Lisbon, mostly highway.
Six kilometres north of Comporta is the photogenic Palafítico Cais da Carrasqueira, a traditional fisherman’s village at the mouth of the River Sado. The quay is surrounded by rice paddies and marshes. The tides provide a constantly changing landscape. Light and shadow play tag while different species of birds come to the shallow water to forage.
You’ll find A Escola, another excellent traditional restaurant housed in an old school a bit further west. Address: N253, 7580-308 Alcacer do Sal.
Although Comporta is not a tourist attraction, the international jet set flocks to this town for a holiday. Presidents, supermodels, princes and Hollywood stars are often spotted on its nearby beaches.
One of the best restaurants is the Museo del Arroz (the old rice factory). The terrace is surrounded by rice paddies. Address: Estrada Nacional 261 Km 0, 7580-612 Comporta, Portugal.
For seafood, bacchanal visit Cais da Estaçao. The restaurant is housed in a former railway station. Av. Gene. Humberto Delgado 16, 7520-104 Sines.
You can stay overnight at the Hotel Vila Park between Sines and Santiago do Cacém. The property is located in a natural setting 10 minutes from the beaches and boasts a large outdoor pool. It has all the facilities but is not exceptionally cosy.
The rugged coastline south of the São Torpes beach is a protected nature reserve. On this beach, dine at the atmospheric restaurant Trinca Espinhas.
Arte y Sal is another excellent seafood restaurant near São Torpes, on the beach (Praia the Morgavel).
Vila Nova de Milfontes
The restaurant Tasca do Celso is located in Vila Nova de Milfontes and is known as one of the better restaurants in Alentejo. In winter, it has a crackling fire and indeed delicious food. Both the fish and meat are great.
The tranquil rural Monte do Zambujeiro is a small hotel overlooking the Mira River.
The Sardão cape, with the emblematic lighthouse, is probably the most spectacular stretch of coast in southwest Alentejo. The restaurant O Sacas is located slightly south of the cape, hidden near the entrance of the harbour (Porto das Barcas) at the village of Zambujeira do Mar. It is a hospitable, friendly gem on the coast.
Hiking Rota Vicentina
The Rota Vicentina is a four hundred kilometres long trail in the southwest of Portugal. A large part of the route goes through a protected nature reserve. The way starts in Santiago do Cacém Alentejo and ends at the St Vicente cape in the Algarve.
The trail is well-marked, relatively easily accessible and divided into day trips of up to twenty-five kilometres long. Along the route, you will find several restaurants and accommodations. Part of the Rota Vicentina is the 120-kilometre Rota do Peixe (fish route). You hike along secluded coves, fabulous sand dunes and towering cliffs. This route is unsuitable for people suffering from vertigo.
Another trail on this route is the GR11- E9, a 230-kilometre long historical path. The trail leads through a rural area with historical value. Along the way, you see cork oak forests, mountains, valleys and rivers. This part is also accessible for cyclists, unlike the Rota do Peixe, which is only suitable for walkers because of the loose surfaces and steep ravines.
More information on the Rota Vicentina trail can be found on the website.
Regardless of what you see or do in this region, this part of Portugal will make you hungry for more.
I travelled to Alentejo as a guest of APTECE and the Alentejo Tourism Board, as part of the Rota do Peixe initiative.
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