Exploring the Land of Explorers – The Alentejo, Portugal

Fiona Maclean makes her own discoveries in this beautiful region

Sines - Statue of Vasco da Gama

Sines - Statue of Vasco da Gama

Sines Harbour at Dawn

Sines Harbour at Dawn

Sines - exterior Church of Nossa Senhora des Salhas

Sines - exterior Church of Nossa Senhora des Salhas

Sines - Church of Nossa Senhora des Salhas

Sines - Church of Nossa Senhora des Salhas

Sines - an outfit for Nossa Senhora des Salhas

Sines - an outfit for Nossa Senhora des Salhas

Evora - the Chapel of Bones

Evora - the Chapel of Bones

Evora - the Chapel of Bones - Detail

Evora - the Chapel of Bones - Detail

Looking down to the Temple of Diana Evora

Looking down to the Temple of Diana Evora

The Temple of Diana - Evora

The Temple of Diana - Evora

The Rooftops of Evora from the Cathedral

The Rooftops of Evora from the Cathedral

Town Centre Arraiolos

Town Centre Arraiolos

Making Rugs in Arraiolos

Making Rugs in Arraiolos

Convento do Espinheiro

Convento do Espinheiro

The pousada entrance at Arraiolos_edited-1

The Pousada entrance at Arraiolos

Pousada Chapel Arraiolos

Pousada Chapel Arraiolos

View to Arraiolos from the Pousada

View to Arraiolos from the Pousada

Where does the soul of a place come from?  Step back in time to find the heart of the Alentejo Portugal.  My journey started in Sines, a small coastal town.  Soon enough all visitors bump into relics of the famous sailor who was born here.  It’s the home of Vasco Da Gama, Portugal’s greatest explorer and apart from the shoreline statue looking out to sea, the Castle houses an exhibition highlighting the impact Vasco da Gama had both on the Portuguese empire and maritime history.  His significance in the development of the Portuguese Empire inevitably led to conflict and on the edge of the town you can visit the tiny church built by Da Gama.  At the time building commenced on the Church, Vasco da Gama was given Sines by King Manuel I, in gratitude for his explorations and discoveries.  That was a somewhat controversial move, the Order of Santiago already owned the land and the master of the order, Jorge de Lencastre, refused to endorse the gift because he believed it would encourage the King to continue gifting property that was not his to offer.  Da Gama though was undaunted and continued to work on the new church.  Construction was halted when matters reached a head in 1507 and Vasco da Gama was expelled from Sines.  The church was finally completed in 1529, some five years after his death.  Inside the walls are lined with beautiful azulejos, the altar home to a 17th century carved statue of Nossa Senhora des Salhas.  And, it’s impossible to miss the beautiful miniature dresses, jewellery and accessories on display.  They are costumes made by the local women for the virgin and her child.  Tokens of gratitude for keeping their husbands and sons safe at sea. And even today, on 15th August every year Nossa Senhora des Salhas is dressed in her finest costume and jewellery and taken to sea in a convoy of local fishing boats and vessels.

Inland, Evora the regional capital and UNESCO heritage site was Da Gama’s other home when he wasn’t travelling of course.  It’s a fine university City with excellent shops and restaurants including Restaurante D. Joaquim where we dined one evening enjoying a feast of Portuguese specialities.  Highlights include the Chapel of Bones – built in the 16th century by a Franciscan monk.  The entrance bears the warning Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos (“We, the bones that are here, await yours).  The Cathedral sits at the highest point of the city and from the roof there are unprecedented views across the Alentejo.  Inside, it is ornate and fine, the space accentuated by white mortar on the bare high walls, pillars and vaults.   And of course, the so called Temple of Diana is a must-see sight in Evora.  Now named the ‘Roman Temple of Evora’ it was originally dedicated to Emperor Augustus (all Roman Emperors were regarded as gods).  It’s had a wonderfully chequered history, used as an execution site during the Inquisition and then more latterly as a butchers shop until the mid- nineteenth century.   If you have time then it’s worth exploring outside Evora itself, visiting the stunning Convento do Espinheiro, the Monestery funded by Portuguese royalty to provide a religious retreat with all the comforts of home for times when Lisbon was hit by plague.  Now converted into a luxury hotel and spa you can spend the night in the very room where Princess Isabel of Spain and Pring Alfonso of Portugal spent the night together, before their wedding the following day.  The wedding was intended to bring about some unification of Portugal and Spain.  Shocked monks promised that no good would come of it, and surely enough, the young prince died within the year and his bride lost the child she was carrying.  Persuaded to marry Alfonso’s older brother, Isabel insisted that the terms of her wedding were the expulsion or conversion of all non-Christians from Portugal, just as in Spain, and her second wedding was the catalyst for the start of the inquisition in Portugal.  The hotel manager laughed as he told us that he would never rent the room to a bride-to-be on the eve of her wedding for fear of similar consequences.

And finally, make a detour to Arraiolas.  It’s a pretty walled Portuguese town with a feeling that time has stood still.  That feeling is only reinforced when you walk around the carpet museum, where you’ll find one of the traditional carpet makers sitting, embroidering her work as a piece of living history.  It’s a great way to bring to life (literally) the exhibition of antique carpets,  traditional equipment and old photos showing how these fine tapestries have been made for centuries on display.  Arraiolos is also home to a fine Pousada, one of Portugal’s state owned networks of hotels in converted historic buildings.  This one, in a restored and extended monastery, has a splendid chapel and an amazing view back to the fortified town, surrounded by the remains of Castelo Arraiolos,  the walls of the  ancient fort built by order of King D. Dinis in 1405.

There’s more to see of course.  Vineyards, historic fortified towns and villages, farms producing cheese (the Alentejo has four PDO cheeses), jams, cured meats, sausages and all manner of herbal liquers.  There’s a stunning heritage coastline that is relatively quiet with rugged cliffs and hidden coves.  Fine food, wonderful countryside, unspoilt beaches and a wealth of heritage towns and cities make the Alentejo worth a visit.

Fact Box
Restaurante D. Joaquim Evora – average price without drinks – 20€ per person
Hotel Convento do Espinheiro (Double room / 2 Pax / B&B) – from 250,00€
Pousada Arraiolos (Double room B&B) – from 120,00€
TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932 www.flytap.com) flies from London Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester to Lisbon
For more information on Alentejo, Portugal visit: www.visitalentejo.pt
For more information on Portugal visit: www.visitportugal.com
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