A journey to the Alentejo countryside

In a Turismo Rural, you can get back to the land Portuguese-style. Rachel Rashleigh and family headed for the Alentejo countryside

It's our first evening at the Quinta Vale de Marmelos - Quince Valley Farm - and we're sitting at a marble table under a walnut tree drinking a good local Borba wine. Our 18-month-old daughter, Nancy, is asleep upstairs. I gaze upwards, straight into the eyes of a tawny owl perched just above us. We watch each other for 20 minutes before it glides away over the pool and into the orange grove.

We had arrived that day, sweeping through the gates of this grand Italianate villa after a two-hour drive from Lisbon. Up on our balcony, we drank the scent of the hundreds of varieties of flowering plants and trees, while red-rump swallows swooped with impressive bravado between the pillars. We had found the perfect rural retreat.

This is Turismo Rural, a category devised by the Portuguese authorities to help visitors get their accommodation right. We could have chosen Turismo de Habitacao - a mansion or stately home - or Agroturismo, which means a farm stay (mucking out optional). Our choice in the Alentejo, Portugal's most agricultural region, guaranteed us traditional rustic housing in the heart of the countryside, but with no heavy lifting¶.

Our quinta was a gardener's and birdwatcher's delight. The nine-acre estate was planted 50 years ago by a botanist, but was lost in semi-neglect until two English gardeners bought it last year.

From our bedroom window, we looked over a canopy of tall palms and squat variants - thick-trunked giants that looked like 50ft pineapples - Judas trees, mulberrys, walnuts, citrus orchards and a bamboo grove. Little wonder that on our first morning, Nancy pointed excitedly out of the window and announced: "Park!"

Nancy's learning curve continued at breakfast, which we ate in the courtyard under a blue sky after picking grapefruit from the orchard. Also for breakfast on a pick-your-own basis were kumquats, pome-granates, apricots and about 10 varieties of orange. After breakfast, we visited the pig. If my partner and I chose this place for sunshine and charm, we had sold it to Nancy exclusively on the basis of the pig. Nothing - not the swimming pool, the gardens, nor even the swings and slide in the olive grove - interested our urban offspring half so much as the prospect of exchanging real-life animal noises.

The pigs here are porcos pretos (black pigs) and feed on the acorns of the holm oak, which impart a special flavour to local hams and dried sausages. Our pig, known reverently as O Senhor Porco, lived in a magnificent pen in the shade of an apricot tree. I doubt he appreciated his luck. As instructed by our hosts, we scratched his hairy back with a trowel and fed him orange peel. Nancy treated him to a long woofing solo and he gave her a look of intelligent concern.

Later, we discovered this pig was for the pot. Each May, the resident of the pig pen is slaughtered with great ceremony by the local builder and a feast is held on trestle tables under the lemon trees. Lazing may not be an option with an 18-month-old, but while she slept at midday we swam in the pool and read in the shade of the courtyard. The 19th-century house is a high-ceilinged, three-storey affair with a cobbled drive and plenty of trailing purple bougainvillea. The library is well-stocked with guide books and ideas for excursions. On our hosts' advice, we swam in the river Guadiana, which divides Portugal from Spain. You can also ride, bird watch or ramble, - a right in Portugal.

But the great charm of the location is Elvas, perhaps the best medieval fortified town in the region. Elvas has applied for Unesco World Heritage status for its fortifications: the hilltop town is circled by a defensive wall and ditches, with access through 20ft-thick stone gates. Spaniards come here to buy Portuguese linen in a cobbled street called Alcamim, reflecting the town's Arab past.

Without the sea or the bright lights of the coastal resorts to put it on the tourist map, the Alentejo has kept its peace. I relished this on our last day, when I took Nancy down to the quinta's bottom field to watch sheep pick off leftover pimento foliage after the harvest.

There was not a sound anywhere except for sheep bells, the shepherd's dog panting on its side, and a certain small child learning how to baa.

THE COMPACT GUIDE

HOW TO GET THERE

EasyJet (0905 8210905; easyJet.com) flies to Lisbon from £66 return. Car hire from Carrentals.co.uk (0845 225 0845) from £81 a week. A double with breakfast at Quinta Vale de Marmelos (00 351 268 626193; quintavaledemarmelos.co.uk) costs from £37 a night, based on two sharing.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Portuguese Tourist Board (0845 3551212; portugaloffice.org.uk).

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