ALENTEJO, NOT ALGARVE...
70 miles southeast of Lisbon through olive groves and part-peeled cork trees, Evora commands a region whose expanses offer bucolic freedom by virtue of covering a third of Portugal with just 5% of its population. The town's filigree of cobbled lanes entwine inside medieval town walls that replaced Roman originals. Its magnificent Aquaduct might also seem a Roman throwback but is actually a gnarled 16th century original, whose six mile stretch provides a popular walking route into the surrounding countryside.
Back by the Temple, the Palace of the Dukes of Cadaval provides a glimpse into the lives of one of Portugal’s most noble families through five centuries of possessions displayed in slightly careworn grandeur. Across the square, the Museum of Evora mixes more of Rome with Renaissance art inside a former archbishop’s palace.
It's typically hearty Alentejo nosh that I walk off with help from a checklist of palaces and grand churches. One morning I breeze quickly into Evora's 16th century Jesuit University to check out its ravishing courtyard and sneak a peek at classrooms where unique azure-tiled panels illustrate the different subjects taught in each. A clamber up the steeple of the 13th century Cathedral – where the flags of Vasco da Gama’s ships were brought for blessing before his epic voyages – burns more calories.
For a day-trip, head to the whitewashed town of Arraiolos to browse superb handmade carpets that showcase Persian weaving skills acquired during Moorish occupation, before moving onto the lovely town of Vila Viçosa, a riot of pinkish marble bedecked with citrus trees.
The main sight here is the Palace of Bragança – and if that sounds familiar, it's because the family relocated here from Guimarães with Portugal's political shift south. It was Catherine of Bragança who introduced the popular Portuguese aristo pastime of tea drinking to Britain during her 17th century marriage to Charles II – bless her. Make time, too, for the hilltop castle with its engaging Hunting Museum plus the Marble Museum atmospherically housed in the town's old railway station
Back then, this was Al Qa?r ('the castle' in Arabic) – a castle I'm lucky enough to be staying in, now a bright airy Pousada with a pool surrounded by old battlements and views across the town rooftops to brightly-painted old trading boats moored on the River Sado. It even has its own excellent museum of Roman and Moorish finds dug out of the grounds during renovation.
The broad coastal strip through which the Sado links Alcácer to the Atlantic is an ideal base to explore this part of the western Alentejo - a land of rice-paddies and simple fishing spots edged by Portugal's finest beaches. The gritty port city of Setubal is just 30 minutes north, with its atmospheric medieval old town augmented by acclaimed seafood restaurants (Avenida Luisa Todi and by the fishing harbour on Rua Saude) and engaging museums like the Michel Giacometti Work Museum chronicling old work trades in a former sardine factory.
Those Alentejo beaches, meanwhile, start half an hour's drive west of Alcácer on the chic strand at Comporta, and stretch a dozen miles north up the Troia peninsula as well as south to more rugged coves beyond Sines. The woodland and dunes behind Comporta and Troia hold plush hotels, eco-lodges and beach hideaways for the likes of Jose Mourinho. An eye-wateringly expensive restaurant sits on the Comporta sand, adjacent to a more affordable diner for the less flush. Whatever your wealth, the beach is wide, idyllic and free.
En route, I stop at the fishing village of Carrasqueira to snap its iconic quay built on traditional higgledy-piggledy wooden stakes topped by ramshackle huts. A couple of sun-burnished old-timers pause from shooting the breeze amid a tangle of nets to assure me that any of the little village restaurants will do a grand job cooking up their catch.
With temperatures hitting 40C, though, I need a bracing dip more than food, and afterwards head instead to another locals' tip, the Mira Ponte in Carvalhal, where I fall on a huge bowl of shellfish-and-rice washed down with Comporta wine. After lunch, the afternoon becomes a kaleidoscope of contrasts – Roman ruins at Mirobriga, a chat with the miller at a spindly windmill straight out of Don Quixote, then a couple of sundowners on Santo Andro beach watching the flaming orb take its own Atlantic dip.
Driving back, the darkness of the country road back towards Alcácer prompts me to pull over to look up at the night sky. I'm lost instantly in a cosmic vision, a stellar panopoly smeared with the pale gauze of the Milky Way. A shooting star startles me then is gone. Cicadas continue their nocturnal song. As beach days go, the Algarve could be on a different planet.
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