Just beyond the outskirts of Lisbon, the Alentejo countryside quickly appears on the horizon: first vineyards and olive groves that stretch off into the distance; then a smattering of cork oaks by the side of the road. The deeper you go into this country, the more numerous these trees become. They’re easily recognizable since almost three-quarters of their bark has been stripped for cork. Alentejo is home to the world’s largest forest of these prized evergreens.
At Imani Country House, however, it’s orange trees that preside over the surrounding landscape; mornings here begin with a glass of freshly squeezed juice. Just 90 minutes from the Portuguese capital, this eco-friendly hideaway – water is heated by solar panels and 80 percent of waste is recycled – is a luxury base camp for experiencing the region at your own pace. Spend a little time lounging by one of two pools under the eye of the property’s resident donkeys or hop on a bike to explore.
Before sunset, head to the neighbouring town of Evora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most captivating landmark in the ancient walled town is the Capela dos Ossos. This 16th-century chapel derives its name from the bones of some 5,000 skeletons (skulls included) that adorn its walls. Afterward, calm your nerves by dining at the BL Lounge, where simple, perfectly cooked dishes –think rib steak, seasoned with garlic and herbs – are served in an unexpectedly modern setting.
Guided by the experts at Turaventur, you can learn about cork processing, tour the startling moonscape of the Estremoz marble quarries or marvel at the menhirs and dolmens at the region’s ancient megalithic sites; some of them are over 6,000 years old.
After all that excitement, treat yourself to an evening of quiet contemplation. Trade your sunglasses for a telescope and head for Lake Alqueva. The skies above the neighbouring villages are so clear that the Starlight Foundation chose the area as its first stargazing destination in the world.
For dinner, try Sem Fim, which doubles as both a bar and art gallery and is housed in a former olive oil factory; the period machinery is an integral part of the decor. Order chef/owner Tiago Kalisvaart’s recommendations; the octopus, served whole, is incredibly tender. If you’re lucky, Kalisvaart may even give you an outdoor astronomy lesson after the meal.
Check into the rustic but cozy Monte Alerta Inn, located at the foot of the lovely hilltop village of Monsaraz. You can even continue your stargazing in the company of the property’s animals (ponies, goats, horses and chinchillas, to name just a few).
No trip to Alentejo would be complete without a tasting of the local vinho. Although there’s no shortage of vineyards in the region, Herdade dos Lagos stands out for their organic wines made from local varietals. Their 100-percent Aragonez blanc de noir (white wine customarily produced from red grapes) is surprisingly fresh for a wine that hails from a sunny locale.
Located halfway between Évora and the Guadiana Valley Natural Park, the vineyard (which also produces organic honey and olive oil) makes for a perfect stop before an alfresco picnic. Dietmar, who runs the property here in his adopted homeland, will give you a warm Alentejo welcome.
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