The Alentejo, in the southwest of Portugal, is a region of rustic bliss, defined by long, infinity-defying Roman roads flanked by endless forests of cork trees – the region exported a staggering $1.28 billion of the stuff during 2022 – intertwined with prickly cacti, tightly packed olive groves and vineyards dotted across its rolling open plains. It’s where Portugal’s predominantly Atlantic-influenced climate starts to dissipate as it heads south towards the Mediterranean, and where prized Alentejana beef-cattle graze on terracotta-coloured lands, close by monumental, glossy Lusitano horses. There is a wildness about Alentejo that is comparable to Puglia and punctuating these arid lands are picture-postcard hilltop villages with sleepy narrow streets and cobbled alleys of low-slung whitewashed houses.
Vila Nova da Baronia
One such example is the village of Vila Nova da Baronia, in the middle of the Alentejo plain: every single property has its doors, window frames and baseboards painted in characteristically bright Alentejan colours – vivid blues, ochre yellows and reds – specifically designed, local legend has it, to deter creepy-crawlies from entering the property. Base yourself at new kid in town, The Green House, from the makers of Santiago de Alfama Boutique Hotel in Lisbon. Owned by gracious hosts, husband and wife Manuel and Heleen Da Silva, it’s nestled in a quiet, cobbled back-street in the village and only opened a month ago. ‘You know the rules,’ Manuel reminds me as we check in. ‘Stress is forbidden.’ I’m immediately at ease as flights of nesting, chirping swallows swoop from the eaves above while Poppy, the Old English sheepdog, brushes past. ‘Our Alentejo village experience is something we’ve been dreaming up both during and post-pandemic,’ explains Heleen. ‘It makes the perfect base,’ adds Manuel, ‘as most places of note are never really any further than half an hour away, in any direction.’ ‘And always through pretty countryside,’ smiles Heleen.
The couple knew they wanted to create something entirely different – not simply another remote herdade (homestead). ‘It is like going inland into deepest Provence or Tuscany, with a strong rural underpinning and a local culture that is slow, quiet, and one that has remained unchanged for a very long time.’ explains Manuel. And why call it The Green House, you may ask? The property is a symphony of white with green accents, of course, but also because their ‘lab’ vegetable garden is based within the walls of the property. Tended by South African native Jenna Warner, it supplies some of the fruit and vegetables for the hotel. ‘We are trying to make the place as “green” as possible,’ explains Manuel, ‘with the aid of water capture, solar panels for hot water and electricity etc.’ The service concept here is inspired by the safari lodge, with breakfast and dinner included as part of the guests’ stay. Breakfast is served whenever you decide to surface, on an individual-room basis, but in the evening it’s sundowners followed by dinner on a big communal table beneath a twinkling fairy-light canopy, and the gaze of the majestic floodlit Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Assunção.
Guests dine on house specialities, crafted by the ever-smiling executive chef Tiago Cesar, such as divine “peixe ao sal” – white fish cooked in a thick layer of sea salt to keep it super moist, a similar concept to the banana leaf used in Asian cooking, with the salted crust simply removed from the fish after cooking. Wine pairings are curated by one of Portugal’s best up-and-coming oenologists, Mariana Salvador. Everything at The Green House radiates around the centrepiece pool, framed by exotic kentia palms and explosions of magenta-coloured bougainvillaea, and there are plans to build an even bigger pool at the rear of the site.
There are four elaborate suites at present, each individually decorated with high-end furnishings, affording guests the kind of elevated comfort, privacy and style one could only otherwise imagine on the pages of House & Garden. All suites have strikingly wallpapered feature-walls (ours was a pastel green-and-yellow symphony of cascading flowers); king-size beds enveloped in Portugal’s finest linen; seating areas to lounge in like basking lizards; a “nook”, as Heleen describes it, where you can have something to eat en suite, should you so wish; and spacious galley-style bathrooms with stand-alone baths, rainforest showers and his-and-hers sinks. There’s a spill-over situation the Da Silvas call their Japanese-inspired pod rooms, which were a great breakout space for our two teenagers, complete with wall-mounted TVs and (the dreaded) Xboxes.
The Green House, 26, Rua 5 Outubro, Vila Nova da Baronia
Where to Eat
Services in the village are much like Moroccan riads (likely inspired by the Moorish occupation of Portugal between the 8th and 14th centuries), in that they are rather unassuming from the outside, giving little indication of what lies within, coupled with the fact that the majority of shopkeepers and restaurateurs refuse to pay the yearly fee to display proper signage. There are some authentic lunch spots in the surrounding streets, should you decide to ever leave the property (which is a tough ask) and extend your Alentejo village experience further. It’s a great excuse to see how the locals eat: if you fancy a spot of lunch then Flor de Sal is the closest eatery, literally just outside the back gate and straight in front of you, specialising in grilled chicken and cold beers to eat in or takeaway. Restaurante O Camões, (Rua 5 de Outubro 13, 7920-368 Vila Nova da Baronia) is the place to head to for the best traditional Alentejano fare, particularly the Iberian free-range pigs – their “pork secreto” is probably the most popular and tastiest cut. This is a real under-the-radar spot, mostly frequented by locals, and is utterly authentic; you really wouldn’t have a clue it was there. It’s a vast, cavernous, candlelit space, with a colossal fireplace and wagon wheels transformed into side-tables – the kind of place you could imagine a cowboy sidling up to on horseback, leaving his steed outside while he devours a three-course lunch with a carafe of wine. Restaurante O Casão (Rua Joaquim Henrique da Silva 4), literally translated as “the barn”, is of a similar ilk but much smaller and more intimate, with wall-mounted plates and vintage agricultural artefacts artistically displayed. It serves traditional, nonna-style home-cooked Alentejano fare: think pork medallions wrapped in bacon and served in a cream sauce; and the old Portuguese staple of Bacalhau Espiritual, which combines bread, milk, grated carrot and onions with salted cod, topped off with a bechamel sauce – a recipe that can be traced back to the city of Nîmes in southern France. The Portuguese twist puts this dish firmly at the heart of the nation’s cuisine. Fora da Caixa (R. Pinto de Melo 49) isa pint-sized local casa da chá or café – a real retro time capsule with original fixtures and fittings – great for coffee, teas and drinks throughout the day, and renowned for its freshly baked goods.
What to See
Heleen da Silva, owner of The Green House, shares some of her favourite nearby attractions: Vila Nova da Baronia is part of a group of three villages within 5km of each other, forming a sort of cultural triangle, with a host of important monuments and churches in each. Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Assunção de Vila Nova da Baronia dates back to the 16th century, with impressive clock towers and an eye-catching blue-and-white 17th-century azulejos-tiled interior. Perhaps the star of the show, though, is in Viana do Alentejo, whichhas an incredible Baroque church which would not look out of place in Mexico. It’s called Santuário de Nossa Senhora de Aires, built between 1743 and 1804, but has been a recorded site since the second century – first by the Romans, then the Arabs who occupied these lands until the 16th century. A four-day festival takes place on the fourth weekend in September, and has been celebrated annually for nearly 270 years. It’s also worth visiting Viana do Alentejo Castle, which dates back to 1279 and houses the main church as well as a collection of chapels. The interior of the main church is decadently bedecked in blue-and-yellow azulejos tiles with a wealth of gold decoration. Also worth seeing in Alvito is a superb 15th-century castle which the Pestana hotel group have renovated into a Pousada. This gothic castle was formerly occupied by the military in order to protect the Portuguese border. Artes & Oficios have a retail space just a few doors down from the hotel where you can purchase anything from local ceramics, cork belts, wallets and coin purses, and sign up for all manner of workshops from pottery classes to pastoral art.
Just half an hour’s drive from Vila Nova da Baronia is the Unesco World Heritage city of Évora, which dates back to the second century BC and means “she who lives near yew trees”. Park the hire-car at Porta da Lagoa, one of the ancient medieval gateways to the walled city, and you’re free to navigate its labyrinth of streets on foot. Such is its beauty, it’s hardly surprising Évora was chosen by the kings of Portugal to serve as their residence in the 15th century, which contributed to its subsequent development and cultural importance. Legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama is said to have stayed in Évora before his epic voyage to India.
What to See
Catedral de Évora, Like many of its counterparts throughout Portugal, Évora’s cathedral, from the outside, gives the impression of a fortress. The Basilica Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption is the largest medieval cathedral in the country. Its two towers and impressive marble portal carved with images of the 12 Apostles, from the 14th century, make up the exterior, while inside a combination of Gothic and Baroque styles prevail. Be sure to visit the Cathedral’s expansive terraced roof for birds-eye vistas – you only have to scale 106 steps, a breeze by European standards!
TheTemple of Diana (Largo do Conde de Vila Flor, 7000-863 Évora), built in Corinthian style in the early first century, it is one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, and also happens to be one of the finest and best-preserved Roman temples on the Iberian Peninsula – and part of the reason why Unesco bestowed World Heritage status upon the city back in 1986. It stands in the shadow of Évora Cathedral on Largo Conde de Vila Flor, and for many centuries was wrongfully attributed as being dedicated to the goddess Diana. Taking a stroll in the adjacent Jardim de Diana is a must, pausing for an obligatory ice-cold Super Bock or two at the little Quiosque Jardim Diana. And if the budget won’t quite stretch to that hot air balloon ride, then this is the next best thing: the garden affords magnificent views across the whitewashed city’s rooftops and distant Alentejo plateau from its lofty vantage point.
Capela dos Ossos – Chapel of Bones (Praça 1 de Maio, 7000-671 Évora)Every city has its quirks, and this is Évora’s rather spine-tingling example. Chapel of the Bones is a teeny-tiny ornate 16th-century chapel which is home to over 5,000 skulls and bones, once belonging to Franciscan monks, embedded within its walls and ceilings. There’s something strangely, darkly comic about the way the remains have been crafted into rather beautiful, if somewhat macabre repeat patterns. All the while, you’re resisting the temptation to recite the lyrics from Dem Dry Bones under your breath.
On your ascent to the cathedral and Temple of Diana, you’ll pass through Rua Cinco de Outubro, a bustling hive of handicraft stores, trinket shops and galleries, whose bountiful wares spill delightfully onto the street.
You’ve heard of a pastel de nata; they’re just about everywhere nowadays. Now meet Évora’s take on it, the humble queijada: a little plumper than its Lisbon cousin and made from a creamy sheep’s cheese, which makes a great accompaniment to a galão, Portugal’s take on a latte. Best consumed at A Muralha (R. Cinco de Outubro 21, 7000-854 Évora)
Where to Drink
While it’s possible to taste wine within the city limits of Évora – Enoteca Cartuxa (R. de Vasco da Gama nº15, 7001-901 Évora) was my personal favourite – nothing quite beats tasting the stuff at source. Some of Alentejo’s best vineyards lie within a 20-minute drive.
Lobo de Vasconcellos Wines Lda (Adega Lobo de Vasconcellos, 7200-041 Vendinha, Évora)Winemaker Manuel Lobo first gained recognition for the fabulous wines he’s been crafting at Quinta do Crasto, in the Douro Valley, but he now divides his time between there and his new estate in his native Alentejo. As well as indigenous grapes, Lobo has experimented with international varietals like sauvignon blanc, which you’d imagine would find it too hot in Alentejo, but not so. He’s even crafted his own delicious Alentejan interpretation of port – licoroso – a fortified wine that cannot technically be labelled port as it’s produced outside the Douro.
Open Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm and weekends by appointment only
Fita Preta Paço do Morgado de Oliveira (Estrada M527 km10, 7000-016 Évora) is considered by some as the most beautiful vineyard in Portugal; little wonder that it is such a popular wedding venue. Portuguese winemaker António Maçanita (a sprightly 23-year-old at the time) and resident English viticulturalist David Booth, first met in early 2004. Booth took Maçanita under his wing, furnishing him with the necessary skills to forge a career as a winemaker, and a close friendship developed. Fast forward nearly 20 years and the pair are producing a host of award-winning wines.
Quinta do Quetzal (Estrada dos Sesmarias, 7960 Vidigueira) is a stylish, contemporary winery with breathtaking views across the Alentejo plains. Its vineyards lie on schist slopes near the Serra do Mendro, which offer unique conditions for producing both white and red wines. I challenge you not to stay for lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday, it’s so good.
Cortes de Cima Wines (7960-189 Vidigueira)is a family-owned vineyard that produces wine and olive oil. These guys are fully committed to implementing green strategies such as transplanting centuries-old olive trees and adhering to organic principles.
Portugal’s answer to the Hamptons – although it wasn’t always the case. The beaches here were formerly the preserve of underprivileged locals, because there were a lot of rice paddies which attracted mosquitos. It then became a surfing mecca but is now very much Porsche SUV territory. Start by perusing the plethora of chic, boho shops that are nestled around Beco da Comporta, before heading 15 minutes down the road by car to the legend that is Restaurante SAL, gateway to some of the finest beaches in Europe.
Lavanda (Largo de São João 3, 7580-624 Comporta) The brand was first established in 2000 by its Norwegian founder, Cathrine Austad, originally selling handmade Portuguese house linen as a wholesale business, mainly to shops in Scandinavia. A decade later, Austad opened her first flagship concept store in Comporta. Since then, the business has expanded, selling everything from women’s and men’s clothing with an accent on “bohemian chic”, to beautiful and unique furniture that she takes considerable pride in sourcing herself.
Be Comporta (R.Beco da Comporta – S/N, 7580-649 Comporta)Besides being a great coffee stop with super-friendly staff, whether you’re a couple or with kids in tow, Be – situated in a buzzy corner of Comporta village close to the boutique quarter – has you covered for breakfast, brunch and dinner. Particularly strong on eggs Benedict, delicious yoghurts, salad bowls, hamburgers and pizzas. And as the sun sets, the G&Ts really start to flow.
Herdade da Comporta (Espaço Comporta, EN 253, Km 1, 7580-610 Comporta) is nestled on the Sado Estuary nature reserve, surrounded by rich flora and fauna, pine forests, sand dunes and paddy fields. Here, imbibe the glorious nectar of the gods – namely, the sublimely gluggable moscatel galego vinho branco, crafted with a host of other fine salt-infused varieties in this unique microclimate of Comporta, a wild and serene terroir tempered by its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. A tasting here pairs a trio of wines with scrumptious local cheeses, sausages and jams, expertly chosen to bring out the best flavours. adega.herdadedacomporta.pt; email@example.com /; +351 965 280 465
Where to Eat
Lunch at chi-chi SAL (Praia do Pêgo 7570-783, Carvalhal), which has become a byword for Portuguese seafood perfection over the years. It’s perched above the otherworldly Carvalhal beach, with never-ending azure-tinted ocean views, and flanked by Atlantic rollers, sand dunes and rice fields in an area of outstanding natural beauty where indigenous wild horses roam freely. Plump for whatever catch of the day is on offer, and you won’t go far wrong. Chunky white sea bass, in our case, grilled to perfection. There was approval, too, from the younger ranks for the house burger. (+351) 265 490 129; firstname.lastname@example.org
Quinta da Comporta is another great lunch spot: namely Mar d’Arrozal, the estate’s sustainable restaurant and bar overlooking the rice fields, where you can feast on seasonal dishes whipped up by head chef João Sousa. He takes inspiration from each season’s offerings, drawing upon a rich bounty of produce grown on site: ‘We wanted to explore the way guests could experience Comporta’s essence,’ says Sousa. ‘Each dish honours a local ingredient, playing upon its most characteristic flavour, and at the same time allowing us to discover a new way to savour it.’
No holiday is complete without an ice cream – pretty much everyone will agree on that. Gulato (CCI 3575, Aldeia do Possanco Lote 135, 7580-680 Comporta)is Comporta’s premium ice cream destination, boasting over 100 mouth-watering flavours, all artisanally crafted at their nifty ice cream lab, complete with outdoor seating. email@example.com
Where to Eat
Ask any local and they will tell you that Melides is how Comporta used to be before the European elite arrived. A very humble, dozy hamlet where, on initial inspection, it can feel like there’s not a lot going on. Melides operates very much at its own unhurried pace, as you can imagine it might have done 100 years or so ago. Access to its remote, dune-fringed beach brought to mind trips to Holkham Beach in Norfolk as a child. But there’s a whiff of change in the eucalyptus-scented air, thanks to the glitz and glamour Christian Louboutin’s newly opened hotel will surely bring to what was already a thriving creative community, drawn to Melides’ inconspicuous, non-gentrified credentials. There has also been an influx of well-heeled Europeans, slowly building designer holiday homes in between the sun-bleached pines.
Lisbon-based Francisca van Zeller from the esteemed Van Zellers & Co, the oldest port wine family, is a regular summer visitor to Melides. She shares her Secret Tips:
‘I love the feel of the family-run Taberna das Sobreiras Altas (Grândola 7570-743 Melides),and the warm welcome I always receive. My go-to dishes are the choco frito, which is fried squid, and the plumas de porco preto, Iberian pork loin. It’s a very local restaurant, just by the side of the road with an outside seating area, with great food and very affordable. I also like O Fadista (R. Nova 13, 7570-639 Melides) in the centre of town. Order the house speciality: prawn and clam rice. I often choose the highly reliable local aromatic white wine, Dona Maria, to pair with it. I have my morning coffee in the little square where you have the bakery, fish monger, fruit stall and butcher.’
Tosca (Estrada Nacional 261-2 Melides)This newly-opened wicker-clad pizzeria and pasta joint is the place to visit for unhurried lunches with families and friends. There’s a real beach-club vibe and a fabulous terrace with DJs spinning tunes in the evenings. The service is impeccable, and the food is outstanding. +351 913429897
What to See
Vida Dura (R. Nova 18, 7570-635 Melides)is the brainchild of three friends who share a passion for all things house and garden. Renowned for the originality of its products, the brand specialises in handmade goods ranging from dinnerware and table linen (its tablecloths are insanely beautiful) to ceramics, lighting and accessories, all crafted by local and international artisans.
It would be almost criminal not to partake in a sunset horse ride along Melides’ pristine strand, even if you’re a novice. Passeios a Cavalo Melides can oblige you here. Riding in such rarefied, splendid isolation in awe-inspiring surroundings such as these is a great stress reliever, as you inhale the purest air imaginable under immense golden-hour skies, in the shadow of the Atlantic, with the mesmeric pine forests, chattering cicadas and wildlife of Grândola. I guess you could say these guys are the equine equivalent of the ‘slow movement’, respecting their environment with every trot and canter. ‘If we choose to ride in the dunes of the coast of Melides, especially in Vigia, we should do it slowly, in order to enjoy the beautiful botanic species that grow in the sand.’ In a madding world, here’s to that.
How to get there
Allow yourself a week (though ideally two) to explore this hidden gem of a region, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado Airport, crossing the awe-inspiring Vasco de Gama bridge, the longest in Europe at just over 12km – one of the most ambitious public works ever carried out in the country, which connects Lisbon to the Setúbal peninsula.
By Lee Osborne, creative director, Secret Trips. Lee spent a decade as creative director of Condé Nast Traveller before setting up his own luxury content studio specialising in travel, fashion and lifestyle. Portugal would be his second home if he could. Follow him @sartorialee
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