There is no doubt that the beaches of the Algarve are white and inviting or that the fado bars of Lisbon pour out the soul of the country, but to find the real heart of Portugal, you must go to the Alentejo. Here you will find the friendliest people in Europe and some of the answers that explain why Portugal was once the greatest maritime nation in the world. First, a little history. In the royal courts of Europe in the 14th century, things were a little tense. For centuries, the various monarchs had bled their treasuries dry in order to finance endless rollicking wars and now they were up to their royal eyeballs in debt. To frustrate the kings even more, the wealth was held by the Knights Templar, a religious and militaristic order. Up against the wall, Phillippe-le-Bel, king of France, decided the only way out of the dilemma was to execute the Templar's grand master and destroy the knights by accusing them of heresy, idolatry and homosexuality. The king of Spain followed Phillippe's lead with a vicious witch hunt and Pope Clement V officially disbanded the order. Before you could say 'inquisition', monarchs all over Europe were destroying Templar castles, charging the knights with treason and snatching up their wealth. The one exception was Dinis, king of Portugal, who decided that a rose by another name would still be a rose. By simply renaming the knights the 'Order of Christ' and providing sanctuary for knights from other countries, he earned the order's undying gratitude, laid the financial foundations for the Great Age of Navigation and in the process established a pattern of hospitality that still exists to this day. Ask almost anyone what he likes best about Portugal and I will bet over a glass of Sangria he says 'the hospitality'. This is a country with memories of a slower way of life, where things are still done as they have been for centuries. People have time for each other. They smile. They are curious about visitors. Time and again during a mellow meander through the pastoral Alentejo area of central Portugal, I was astonished by the warmth of the people. There was a small country inn where local men posed for pictures and then dragged almost everyone else outside for a group shot. There was a farmer who stopped midway down a furrow to inquire where I was from and explained in great detail why a mule was superior to a tractor. And there was a wagon driver one hot sunny afternoon outside of Estremoz who insisted we pose for pictures together when he saw my camera. This is all part of what makes Portugal so appealing today: an old-fashioned sense of time, a passion for history and a glimpse of the kind of European life that is fading all too quickly in most other countries. For a first visit to Portugal, most visitors chalk in Lisbon and the beaches of the Algarve (which are wonderful) but the purpose of my trip was to attend the Festa dos Tabuleiros (the Tray Festival) in Tomar and to visit the remarkable little hill towns in the Alentejo plains. The Alentejo starts at the border of the Algarve and then stretches 320 kilometres northward to the upper reaches of the Tagus River. It is the country's biggest province and seems to be one endless stretch of olive and cork trees in a tableau of dry, rolling hills. Hidden away within these brown hills, however, are stories of intrigue and romance; ancient dolmens, menhirs and cromlechs that predate Brittany; Roman ruins; and some of the most beautiful hill fortress towns in Europe. Tomar, about 34 kilometres due east of the pilgrimage city of Fatima, is normally a shy little place with pastel houses that rise from cobblestone streets. Every third or fourth of July, however, it becomes Mardi Gras, the Fourth of July and the Rose Parade all in one. The Festa has ancient roots stretching back to a pagan fertility festival dedicated to the goddess Ceres. In the 14th century, a religious group co-opted the old festival and, with the help of a beloved queen named Isabel, used it as an opportunity to give donations to the poor. In its early years, young virgins were dressed totally in white and given huge headdresses (trays) on each of which was attached 30 loaves of bread and various other bits and pieces. Symbolically, this was a kind of 'coming of age' for the girls to prove they were strong and mature enough to bear children - for almost 700 years, they have been proving it over and over again. Today, the girls still dress in white and bear headdresses each with its 30 loaves of bread, flower decorations and either a white dove or a crown. When I asked how many of the 500 girls in white were actually virgins these days, an elderly inn keeper quipped: 'One that I know of for sure.' The procession of 500 girls and their male helpers begins in a park on the outskirts of town and winds its way slowly to the main square and 15th-century Sao Joao Baptista church. Bands with drums and trumpets are interspersed among the girls along with elaborately decorated ox carts and oxen accompanied by their costumed human keepers. This Grand Procession is the highlight of the Festa but since the 17th century new events have been added over the years. In the grounds by the river Nabao, artisans set up booths for a huge folk arts fair and nearby is a very silly 'popular games' competition where people vie to see who can chop down a tree the fastest, race their mules, climb flag-poles or smash clay pots hung on strings. High on a hill and crouched over the town, the Convento de Cristo is one of Portugal's most intriguing historical monuments. This was the seat of the Knights Templar, the militaristic religious order founded in 1119 in Jerusalem during the Second Crusade. The knights began as a force to fight the Moors, defend the Holy Sepulchre and protect pilgrims on their journeys to the Holy Land. In the process of protecting pilgrims, however, the Knights Templar grew very rich and began to accumulate land and enormous power. By the mid-12th century, they had immense castle fortresses all over Europe and swore allegiance to no one but God. The Convento de Cristo is a spectacular walk through time and a confused maze of buildings that were added over a span of five centuries. At the very centre, an eight-sided rotunda was the original Templar church and authorities claim it was modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It is also said that the knights would attend mass seated on their horses. On the exterior, at the end of the church nave, is Portugal's most famous window. Known simply as the Manueline window, it was carved in 1510 and is an ornate mass of intertwined nautical symbols that advertised Portugal's power during the Age of Discoveries. Travelling south from Tomar, I found a spread of hill towns as distinct and lovely as those of Italy's Umbrian countryside. There was Evora, today one of UNESCO'S protected World Heritage towns, and a site that wears the stamp of centuries of occupation all the way from pre-historic man, Romans, Visgoths, Moors and Crusaders. During the Renaissance, it was the darling of royalty and intellectuals and some of Europe's finest artists and writers lived here. In the main marketplace, the solitary Temple of Diana is a poignant reminder of four centuries of Roman occupation and the tangled narrow alleys with their whitewashed houses echo days when the Moors ruled the peninsula. One of Evora's most popular monuments has more to do with humility than history. Inside the Sao Francisco church, the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) is a timeless and cadaverous memorial to the mortality of man. The walls and pillars here are covered from floor to ceiling with the bones of more than 5,000 monks. There is a kind of grim humour about the place starting with the legend over the entrance that says: 'Nos ossos que aqui estamos, Pelos vossos esperamos' (We bones here are waiting for your bones), to the neat and artistic patterns of skulls and tibias around the vaults. Castelo de Vide and Marvao are two more medieval walled towns, each with a stunning view of the countryside. The crumbling ramparts of Castelo de Vide's 14th-century castle enclose a 12th-century keep that sits just outside the walls of a town that has hardly changed in hundreds of years. The town once had a flourishing Jewish population before the Inquisition and a tiny ancient whitewashed synagogue - the oldest in Portugal - is all that remains of a once-vibrant community. Marvao, 12 kilometres away and almost at the Spanish border, sits on a 863-metre granite outcrop looking totally impregnable. Immaculate little houses on twisted cobblestone streets hidden behind its 13th-century gate make Marvao the kind of place from which fairy tales are spun. In the town of Estremoz, you can find a long stretch of stands with jugs, plates, platters and festive clay figures - the pottery and ceramics for which the town has become famous. You can also find one of Portugal's most charming country inns. The Hotel Convento de Sao Paulo, about 15 kilometres from Estremoz, sits in a vast estate of cork and olive trees. The hotel was a monastery and home to an order of hermit monks for 600 years until Portugal dissolved religious orders in 1834. The building lay abandoned until 1876 when it was bought by an aristocratic family for their private use. Three years ago, the family opened 13 rooms to guests who share the vast estate, gardens, fountains, 16th-century chapel and acres upon acres of priceless 17th and 18th-century azulejos (tiles). Each of the rooms is a masterpiece of comfort with fireplaces and luxurious marble bathrooms. Portugal in many ways is a land on the edge - a place caught between its traditional fishing and farming and the lure of an aggressive technology-mad world. As so many cities in Europe fall to relentless homogenisation and countless McDonalds and Pizza Huts, perhaps Portugal's beautiful scenery, stunning blue skies and wide open arms will somehow find the strength to resist.