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Once you have tasted the flavours of Alentejo, you will forever walk the earth with your taste buds directed towards Portugal. Back home you keep longing for the splendid light of the Alentejo coast with its golden beaches and jagged cliffs.
The Atlantic washes the sky endlessly clean.
Even when hundreds of meters away from the shoreline, the sound of surf reveals the tremendous force of the water, coming to a climax at the Sardão cape, where the coast is wild, turbulent and dangerous.
The surf calls and beckons like a siren from Greek mythology. A leap of faith into these waves will indubitably end with death.
Fishing boats can only defy the surf when the wind and the flow of water permit them, and even then in calm weather, this type of navigation is reserved for the heroic only.
On the coast, life revolves around fishing, which is still a small scale, labour intensive business over here. Sailors leave in dead of night in little more than dinghies, only to return around noon. The catch of the day is directly auctioned to a handful of restaurateurs and fishmongers.
Flavours of Alentejo
Squid, shark, sea bream, shrimp, skate, sardine, mackerel, turbot, lobster, cod, sole and Barnacle are on offer.
The latter, referred to in Portugal and Spain as percebes, is a delicacy that is widely consumed on the Iberian peninsula. The Percebes are harvested on the coast of Alentejo in Portugal and on the Iberian northern coast, mainly in Galicia and Asturias.
Gathering these shell-like creatures is a dangerous job. The animals are firmly anchored to rock walls in heavy surf below the waterline. To thrive they need big waves. This makes it (so far) impossible to breed them. When harvesting the barnacle, conditions must be perfect. The lower the water level, the better.
Another important catch is Portuguese dogfish.
The sopa de cação, or dogfish soup, has a prominent place on the menu of most restaurants. It is a traditional dish in Alentejo, despite the fact that the shark is listed as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In Portugal they seem to be oblivious to this.
And then there is cod, Portugal’s emblematic fish. It is said that the Portuguese cuisine has 1001 ways to prepare the bacalhau. The dried and salted variety is the most popular. To name a few varieties, you will find bacalhau hidden in salads, processed in a casserole or served on toast. Of course, fresh cod, bacalhau fresco, is also served.
Fish has to be consumed allowing for copious amounts of wine. In this aspect the Portuguese are much like the rest of Europe.
Where Western Europeans mostly choose a white wine to accompany a seafood platter, the Portuguese realise that red wine too tastes delicious with several fish dishes like the aforementioned salt cod, octopus and squid. Another popular red is the vinho verde (young wine), especially tasty with grilled sardines.
However, it’s not just fish that typifies the Alentejo cuisine. The pig, preferably free range, is another local favourite as a supplier of protein. Thus, the Matança do Porco, the slaughter of a pig at home, is albeit fading, still a beloved tradition in the rural south.
European legislation is restricting home slaughter more and more these days and animal welfare organizations protest against this ‘barbaric’ way of killing.
In Portugal, they stick to their traditions.
According to the Portuguese meat from a free-range pig is of much better quality than that of an animal living a doomed life in giant stables. At least the animal has a good life until his death.
It is quite normal for families in rural areas to keep one or two pigs around the home for their own consumption, much in the same way as they grow their own vegetables and fruit.
Keeping a pig is relatively cheap because the animal is an omnivore. In the olden times it was in fact the only way to afford meat for poorer families. The slaughter of a pig is for the Portuguese more than simply obtaining food, it is primarily a social event, where families, neighbours and friends gather for the slaughter.
A service which is of course returned when the occasion calls for it.
In this land of plenty, traditions compete with gastronomy, history and lush nature for attention of the traveller. Just like fishing and agriculture, tourism is still small scale in this region. Despite the wealth of Alentejo in terms of nature and historical monuments, you won’t find gargantuan hotels or mass tourism, so typical for many other European coastal areas.
Valle das Éguas
When travelling from north to south start with a wine tasting at Herdade do Cebolal, a family business located in the Valle das Éguas. Especially during spring and summer, when you can enjoy your al fresco dinner among vines and olive trees.
The center of Évora is classified as UNESCO World Heritage. It is the main town of Alentejo and the heart of this region. Stay at the Vitoria Stone, a quirky modern hotel, ideal for couples on a weekend away. To view the prices and / or book click here.
For particularly good food (and drinks) head to Cafe Alentejo, the building dates back to the fifteenth century. The architecture of the former royal inn has largely been retained.
Evora is about a one and a half hour drive from Lisbon, mostly highway.
Six kilometers north of Comporta is the photogenic Palafítico Cais da Carrasqueira, a traditional fisherman’s wharf at the mouth of the River Sado. The quay is surrounded by rice paddies and marshes. The tides provide a constantly changing landscape. Light and shadow play tag while different species of birds come to the shallow water to forage.
A little further west you’ll find A Escola, another excellent traditional restaurant housed in an old school. Address: N253, 7580-308 Alcacer do Sal.
Although Comporta itself is not much of a tourist attraction, attracted by the peace and quiet the international jet set flocks to this town to holiday. Presidents, supermodels, princes and Hollywood stars are often spotted on its nearby beaches.
One of the best restaurants in this area is the Museo del Arroz (the old rice factory). The terrace is surrounded by rice paddies. Address: Estrada Nacional 261 Km 0, 7580-612 Comporta, Portugal.
For a seafood bacchanal visit Cais da Estaçao. The restaurant is housed in a former railway station. Av. Gene. Humberto Delgado 16, 7520-104 Sines.
You can stay overnight at the Hotel Vila Park between Sines and Santiago do Cacém. The property is located in a natural setting 10 minutes’ drive from the beaches and boasts a large outdoor pool. It has all the facilities but is not particularly cozy.
The rugged coastline south of the São Torpes beach is a protected nature reserve. On this beach dine at the atmospheric restaurant Trinca Espinhas.
Arte y Sal is another excellent seafood restaurant near São Torpes, on the beach (Praia the Morgavel).
Vila Nova de Milfontes
The restaurant Tasca do Celso is located in Vila Nova de Milfontes and is known as one of the better restaurants in Alentejo. It winter it has a crackling fire and indeed very tasty food. Both the fish and meat are great.
The tranquil rural Monte do Zambujeiro is a small hotel, overlooking the Mira River.
The Sardão cape, with the emblematic lighthouse, is probably the most spectacular stretch of coast in southwest Alentejo. The restaurant O Sacas is located slightly south of the cape, hidden near the entrance of the harbour (Porto das Barcas) at the village of Zambujeira do Mar. It is a hospitable, friendly gem on the coast.
Hiking Rota Vicentina
The Rota Vicentina is a four hundred kilometers long trail in the southwest of Portugal. A large part of the route goes through protected nature reserve. The route starts in Santiago do Cacém Alentejo and ends at the St Vicente cape in the Algarve.
The trail is well marked, relatively easy accessible and divided into daytrips of up to twenty-five kilometers long. Along the route you will find several restaurants and accommodations. Part of the Rota Vicentina is the 120-kilometer Rota do Peixe (fish route). You hike along secluded coves, great sand dunes and towering cliffs. This route is unsuitable for people suffering from vertigo.
Another trail on this route is the GR11- E9, a 230 kilometer long historical path. The trail leads through a rural area with historical value. Along the way you see cork oak forests, mountains, valleys and rivers. This part is also accessible for cyclists, unlike the Rota do Peixe which is only suitable for walkers, because of the loose surfaces and steep ravines.
More information on the Rota Vicentina trail can be found on the website.
Regardless of what you’re going to see or do in this region, this part of Portugal will make you hungry for more.
I travelled to Alentejo as a guest of APTECE and the Alentejo Tourism Board, as part of the Rota do Peixe initiative.