O, Alentejo! The wonder of Portugal’s big nothing
“O Alentejo?” It’s hard to pull off a disdainful expression when you’re smudged with plaster dust, but somehow Luis manages it. Then he shrugs dismissively and turns back to his grouting. “There’s nothing there. Fields. Sheep. Sun. I went through it once on a train. Wouldn’t bother.”
We’re in a chic, uptown Lisbon apartment, where I’m staying as a short-term airbnb guest, and Luis is doing some renovation work. He’s an urbanite through and through, and I can’t help but grin at his scorn for my travel plans. This is the same man who described Alfama, Lisbon’s labyrinthine, Moorish district, as ‘old’ – and he didn’t mean it with even a hint of affection.
Still, his opinion of Portugal’s largest, hottest and most agricultural region is not uncommon. Its people are often the butt of Portuguese jokes, characterised as slow, stupid, country-bumpkin types, and apart from Evora, the cultural capital of the Alentejo, the area does not feature highly on tourist itineraries.
On the bus out of Lisbon, the city seems to go on forever – the many pastel shades of the high-rise apartment blocks, church steeples, satellite dishes, lines strung with washing. But eventually we emerge onto the Vasco de Gama Bridge; a thrilling swoop across the vast Tagus River, and eventually, the cityscape fades away. Soon, we’re surrounded by a patchwork of sun-scorched fields; meadows painted purple and yellow with sprays of wild-flowers; and neat, precise vines, the leaves a youthful shade of green.
Disembarking in Estremoz, I’m greeted by a huge grain silo. At least, I think that’s what it is. It’s a hulking cylindrical thing, at any rate. Dwarfed beside it is the old train station, marking the end of a defunct line. But the town is far from unattractive: this is one of Portugal’s marble towns, built on the wealth of the quarries nearby. There’s so much marble here that the streets are paved with it, and, crowning the town, is a medieval tower made entirely of marble. In fact, the whole of Estremoz seems to shimmer and shine.
High in the old town, beyond the medieval walls, a few Portuguese tourists snap photos of the tower. In the little network of streets beyond, children play on tricycles, women clean their front steps, dogs scrap and slumber. On the slopes beneath the walls, a herd of sheep is grazing, their bells clanging musically in the somnolent afternoon air. The shepherd snoozes on a rock, one hand resting against his staff. I can almost see the Zs rising above his head, and I feel a burst of fondness for this pastoral scene.
There are two buses to Evora on a Saturday: one at 4pm, the other at 6pm. I discover this at the bus station at 10am. So I have no choice but to kick around Estremoz for another day. Fortunately, the weekly market is underway, which is diverting entertainment. The whole town is a brief fracas of hooting cars, squawking chickens and market cries, but just as quickly, it is over, and the locals are out with brooms, sweeping away the remnants of lettuce leaves and feathers. Three old men in flat caps and matching knitted sweaters have regained their semi-permanent position on the bench in the sun, and life in Estremoz is back to its familiar, gentle pace.
Evora, when I eventually get there, is a marked change of tempo. On the surface, it is not dissimilar to Estremoz: same whitewashed buildings, with co-ordinated, coloured window-frames and doors; same crenulated medieval walls surrounding the town. But rather than local men in flat caps, in Evora’s Praca Giralda, large, loud tour groups hold sway. At the centre of it all, a group of Spanish pensioners wearing brash baseball caps are running a poor waiter ragged, with shouts of ‘camarero!’ and streams of complaints from all directions.
It’s an indisputably beautiful city. The pillars of an ancient Roman temple frame the pastoral views; church bell-towers and domes are silhouetted against the dusky evening light. I suppose also that the tour groups are no worse than those in Rome or Paris – Lisbon certainly has its fair share. But after the unprepossessing charm of Estremoz, I can’t help but think of Evora as beauty-queen wearing too much glitter and make-up – a victim of her own success, and ever so slightly spoiled.
For the final stop of my Alentejo tour, I take transport into my own hands and hire a car. It’s a necessity to reach the town of Marvao, the highest in Portugal. I wind my way up some rather treacherous hairpin bends and breathe in as I squeeze the car through the medieval archways. When I finally bounce over cobblestones into a parking space, I’m relieved that both the car and I have arrived unscathed.
I walk on tiptoe through the quiet, charmed streets of this whitewashed town, feeling like I’ve stepped into a medieval tale. I practically have the place to myself; the odd other tourist occasionally appears, wearing the same expression of dazed awe. I climb the vertiginous stone steps up to the castle, a sheer drop on one side. I could just walk the sign-posted way, past the church and the topiary garden, but where’s the fun in taking the easy route?
From the very top, I can see all the way to Spain; the mountains blue and misty on the horizon. In the valleys below, small villages and solitary farmsteads appear in miniature. A breath of wind catches the tops of the trees and whispers across the landscape. Everything is bathed in a burnished light as the sun glows orange on the horizon. From one of the distant hillsides, there is a faraway musical ringing of sheeps’ bells. As if in response, the church bell clangs seven echoing chimes.
Luis was right: most of the Alentejo is, from a city point of view, a wide expanse of nothing much. Fields, sheep and sun. But compose those elements perfectly, look at the result from the highest town in Portugal, and all that nothing becomes something close to heaven.