Putting Alentejo on the tourist map

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The Independent Travel

This - I want to demonstrate to everyone I meet by jabbing at a map of Portugal - is how you do it. Some journeys turn out so deliciously surprising that you turn into a travel evangelist - and my trip through the Alentejo, from tip to toe, was one of those rare events. Look, I will explain to anyone prepared to listen, from Lisbon you can take a marvellously meandering railway journey alongside the watery artery that divides the nation. The majesty of the Tagus barely dwindles as you journey alongside it, but the character of the country changes with every swerve. Soon you shake off the trappings of modernity, and start cutting through terrain that seems bereft of human influence, bar the odd crumbling agricultural relic, yet with an instant visual appeal.

However remote you may feel, when you arrive at Marvão-Beirã you discover a railway station where they do things properly. In the days before Europe was united, this was a frontier post - and the trappings of officialdom have been preserved, along with incredibly ornate tilework. When no-frills meant many hours of surface travel, this was the first many people would see of Portugal, and the simple elegance was surely designed to put visitors in the right mood for the joys to come.

These days, Marvão-Beirã is the rail head for a sequence of pleasures, with the first a mere 9km south. I do not know how many movies Marvão has starred in, but this spectacular hill town would provide a perfect backdrop for many a celluloid drama.

The real thing is so much better, though. As soon as you start clambering up through the narrow, cobbled lanes that lace this rocky outcrop, you feel in touch with a turbulent past. The fortress that crowns the hill has taken a battering from the centuries, yet still triggers a struggle between the sense of history and views of stark beauty. Why, I will later demand, have you not seen the Alentejo for yourself? And with Castelo de Vide so close (about 20km), surely you will be calling in for some lunch at Marvão's more well-to-do sibling.

Castelo de Vide drapes itself with similar elegance over a hilltop, but has a scale that permits some handsome civic and religious buildings. It also retains a significant Jewish quarter, complete with one of the oldest surviving synagogues in the Iberian peninsula. And, more pragmatically, it has a regular bus link with points south.

The Alentejo - literally, the area beneath the Tagus - flows south in a series of waves. The roads skim across the rippled landscape south past Portalegre, guarding the São Mamede range that jostles against the Spanish border. Then the ground softens to take you breezing through profoundly green meadows, at least until the midsummer heat begins to drain the colour from the land. If you happen to be on a bus, it will skirt the edge of Évora before dropping you off in the only unsightly corner of this spectacular city. No matter: within five minutes you can wander through a handsome gateway and back several centuries. One word sums up Évora's look, and mood, and people: grace.

At this point you can start delving into much more ancient history. Millennia ago, men were creating monuments west of present-day Évora whose precise meaning is now a mystery, but which are among the most important megaliths (literally, "big stones") in Europe. Or go south-east to the mighty dam across the Guadiana river, which has created a gigantic reservoir. A handy by-product of large-scale water management is a playground for holidaymakers.

Perhaps, though, you should stick to the IP2 - the inland highway that binds together the Alentejo. Just north of Beja it slices through a rumple of rock, before inviting you to visit another sleepy, faded and entrancing town. A short way south, take the turn to Mértola for a fitting climax to your journey. Suddenly you find yourself in heather-clad moorland, yet another dimension to the drama of the region. And then you find the sweetest hill town of all, set high above the river in a manner that not even Hollywood can manage. Explore the town, of course, to discover its Moorish past and Christian present. Then spare a couple of hours for an off-road circuit. This works equally well on foot or in a vehicle (though check rental agreements to make sure you are allowed to take the car along a tough, but manageable, track). Go south on the road to Vila Real de Santo António. Follow the sign to Neves on the left, and aim as straight as you are allowed through terrain that, in spring, is ablaze with flowers of intense yellows and delicate whites - and Impressionist violet, creating a purple haze like Provençal lavender. You should get close to the river, whereupon the track leads north back towards Mértola.

Perched on a ridge to your right, high above the river, is a decaying customs post, designed to keep an eye on comings and goings in the days when Mértola was a working port - the highest navigable point on the Guadiana river. You can see how; from here, the river looks lethargic in the extreme. Save the photo and the picnic until you have Mértola in your sights. This is the best view you will find, with the town tumbling down beneath the castle.

You continue further up the Guadiana valley, following a short and winding road that finally swings away from the river to emerge close to the viaduct, at a sign reading Bombeira do Guadiana. Within an hour, you could join the bustle on the Algarve coast - but look, I will insist, what about tracing the pyrites mining history, and visiting the drowsiest town in all Europe: Almodôvar? Only now can you take the greatest drive in Portugal, across the mountains to the familiarity of Faro - where you will surely start berating holidaymakers who have not yet had the wisdom and good fortune to steer inland to the Alentejo.

RESTORATIVE RETREATS: THE POUSADAS OF ALENTEJO

The Pousadas de Portugal, much like Spain's Paradors, are a chain of over 40 hotels located throughout the country, offering exclusive accommodation in restored castles, monasteries and convents. Each has its own individual style, with excellent facilities usually including fine regional restaurants and often with chic, contemporary interiors.

There are 14 pousadas in Alentejo, ranging from small country houses to grand hilltop castles. The Pousada de São Francisco in Beja (see panel, top right) is one of the most atmospheric and well-positioned, while Pousada D. Afonso II (pictured) has perhaps the most striking setting. Located in a 1,000-year-old Moorish hilltop castle, the pousada overlooks the languid Sado river and the sugar cube houses of Alcácer do Sal. The thoroughly overhauled interior is stone-clad and stylish, with airy rooms and a vaulted dining room. Within the gap-toothed castle walls is a pleasant swimming pool, while Roman and Moorish remains can be viewed in the small museum beneath the pousada.

Intriguing history abounds at the Rainha Santa Isabel in Estremoz, set in a castle dating from 1258. Built by King Diniz I for his wife Isabel, the castle has battlements and a marble tower overlooking the surrounding olive groves. The rooms are a mix of converted monk's cells (the castle has also been used as a monastery, an army barracks and armory) and deluxe suites with antique furniture and four-poster beds.

Information and bookings for all of Alentejo's pousadas: 00 351 218 442 001; www.pousadas.pt or through the UK-appointed agent Keytel International: 020-7616 0300; www.keytel.co.uk.

Francisca Kellett

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