Photo by Leandro Neumann Ciuffo licensed under CC
Tourists have largely ignored Portugal's Centro and Alentejo regions. But with beautiful scenery, great food and wine, quiet beaches and historic cities to explore, these less-travelled regions are certainly worthy of a visit.
Those visiting Portugal, arriving via Lisbon, usually head straight to their destinations in the Algarve, the wine growing Douro area and Porto, or to the beaches of Estoril and Cascais. These are wonderful areas, but tourists are missing out on 2 special parts of the country: the Centro region directly north of Lisbon and the Alentejo region above the Algarve.
The cork region of Alentejo
Alentejo is one of Portugal's best-kep secrets, which has only managed to stay out of the overseas tourists’ gaze because it simply has not been promoted in any way.
The area is fabulously fertile, due to its position below the Tejo river, with great local produce, delicious cuisine and stunning scenery. Ancient villages cling to the hills and the attendant fortified castles rise out of the agricultural lowlands that make up much of the region.
Equally enticing here are the wines - while only 6% of Portugal’s population live here, the area actually produces 46% of the country’s wine.
Summers in Alentejo can be very hot, so spring is a good time to visit, when flowers of all colours and descriptions flood the landscape.
The cork harvest takes place in May or June, and it is absolutely vital to the income of the local people. Portugal actually exports more cork than any other country in the world, and it is of such exceptional quality that even NASA uses it for heat protection in their space rockets. Everything in this area is made of cork, from umbrellas and jewellery to the traditional corks found in wine bottles.
Evora: the historic capital with its protective walls
The capital of Alentejo is Evora, located just over an hour’s drive east from Lisbon. The city was the home of Portuguese kings during the 15th and 16th centuries and today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, surrounded by protective, castellated walls.
The city is a great testament to Portugal’s Golden Age of architecture that followed the destruction of Lisbon by earthquake in 1775. Yet, despite being replete with history, it is still firmly set in the 21st century thanks to its bustling university and busy student life.
The beaches along Alentejo’s western coast are also stunning, and they are often empty so you can enjoy an atmosphere like that of the Algarve of the '60s, before the crowds arrived.
Porto Covo and Vila Nova de Milfontes are excellent for a visit, full of charm and not over-developed. If you are looking for a gentle summer holiday with relaxing coastal walking, they cannot be beaten.
The heart of the country
The Centro region is the heart of the country, boasting sandy beaches running for miles along the Atlantic coast and dramatic seas that are excellent for surfing, if that’s your thing.
The mountains bordering Spain are once again dotted with villages and castles which were built during medieval times to prevent invasion. The ambiance pervades to this day and you can easily imagine dramatic battles taking place here.
Places most certainly worth a look are Almeida, Castelo Rodrigo, Monsanto, Sortelha, Piodao and Idanha-A-Velha.
Portugal's intellectual centre
Portugal’s academic and intellectual life is centred on Coimbra, where the university has been in existence since 1290, the oldest in Portugal. As is the case in Evora, even though it has UNESCO World Heritage status, the students keep the place dynamic and full of life.
The university library is a place of wonder and you can visit this extraordinary building. The 300,000 books held within are very rare and old, housed in baroque rooms of great beauty.
To prevent insect damage to the manuscripts, an interesting eco-solution has been designed: bats! Yes, they sleep during the day among the books, before devouring any lurking insects at night. The old and rather beautiful library furniture is protected from the nocturnal droppings by cloths. It’s a marvellous, natural way of keeping the books in good condition.
Other places to discover and enjoy are the coastal cities of Aveiro and Viseu, where the Estrela National Park begins. They too are old, historic cities with many tales to tell. And if you like cheese, Estrela is said to be the home of Portugal’s tastiest samples.
If you are happy to hire a car, Alentejo and Centro provide the perfect destination for a relaxing fly-drive holiday, with uncrowded roads, lots of history, fabulous scenery and great food and wine.
You will come across accommodation in ancient converted buildings, maybe a palace or convent, skilfully re-created to be a remarkable hotel. Hospitality is part of the Portuguese character and it is evident wherever you stay.
For exceptional and individual holidays to these regions, try Sunvil Discovery, recommended by Silver Travel Advisor.
This article is brought to you by our partners Silver Travel Advisor.