Detours: Alentejo, Portugal

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 December, 2008, 12:00am

It's quiet in the early morning as I speed through a landscape of wildflowers, sheep, cattle and not much else, heading east from Lisbon along the road to 'nowhere'.

Nowhere is a disparaging term Portuguese use to describe the country's least developed, least populated region, covering about a third of Portugal south from the Tagus River to the mountains of northern Algarve, and east from Lisbon to the Spanish border.

The Alentejo, its proper name, has been traditionally cast as a land of bread and bad wine, a place of little industry where farmers have toiled for centuries growing wheat and sunflowers and raising sheep, cattle, pigs and goats while relying on the poorer soil for olives, cork oak trees and vineyards. But it's an undervalued destination on any Portuguese road trip.

Off the highways, lesser roads lead to the old Portugal I remember seeing in National Geographic as a child: a bullock-drawn plough, the occasional ox-cart and women dressed in black working in neatly tended olive groves. Beautiful in its simplicity.

Rolling green plains stretch to the horizon and gnarled cork oak trees twist up out of the dust of wheat fields and anywhere else there is space to grow. Springtime introduces a broad canvas of colours to vast meadows of lavender, poppies, calendulas, daisies and buttercups, an Impressionist scene redolent of Claude Monet.

In the middle is Igrejinha, a little gem of a town full of whitewashed buildings with vividly coloured trim and red-tiled roofs typical of towns across the region. I stop to admire its sleepy streets, gleaming white shops, houses with carved, bright blue doors and inlaid traditional azulejos painted ceramic tiles.

I see the picture-postcard Church of Our Lady of Consolation that was built around 1758. Groups of elderly men sit in the warm spring sunshine killing time; there seems to be plenty of it. They talk quietly and give the stranger the once-over, not in an unfriendly way, just with curiosity. Not many strangers come this way and when they do, I imagine the locals wonder why.

Beyond Igrejinha, along avenues edged with eucalyptus and pine trees, I make out the stark circular outline of the 14th-century Arraiolos Castle, piercing the light haze. It crowns the pretty town of Arraiolos, renowned for its distinctive tapestry and carpets, a cottage industry believed to have begun during the Moorish occupation around the 12th century and continued ever since. The quiet streets are almost deserted but behind bright blue doorways I glimpse women embroidering the classic tapestries with hands that had obviously done hard labour.

In 1992, the flash Bordeaux outfit Domaines Barons de Rothschild, recognising the region's potential, invested heavily in Alentejo vineyards, elevating the local 'bad' wines to world standard. Near Arraiolos, Herdade dos Coelheiros vineyard has 38 hectares under vine, walnut groves, a cork forest, hunting grounds and a lovely, old-fashioned nine-bedroom bed and breakfast house. There is also a cosy restaurant with rustic wooden tables and walls adorned with stuffed hunting trophies from the estate, including a fox's head with a stuffed 'blood'-spattered bird clutched in its mouth. No softies around there.

A light lunch begins with fish pudding (a sort of fish and tomato mousse), estate-grown fresh green olives, soft goat cheese and the vineyard's award-winning Tapada de Coelheiros Chardonnay, considered one of Portugal's finest whites. Estate-made red pork salami is followed by wild boar, the Branca de Almeida red, orange tart and homemade walnut liqueur.

It is a splendid introduction to the earthy delights of Alentejo peasant cooking in a region that most visitors whizz by.

If this is nowhere, nowhere is the place to be.