Monday, 24 August 2015

Alentejo Blues

When I was a child and teenager, the Alentejo was a hot, dry, dusty bit-in-the-middle you had to drive through (preferably as fast as possible) to get from Lisbon to the beaches of the south in summer.

How one's perceptions can change.

Although I love the green mountainous north of the country, there's something captivating about this landscape of golden wheat fields, cork and olive trees, and clean blue-and-white villages.

The small town of Arraiolos, where handmade rugs have been produced since the Middle Ages.

Celebrating 40 years since the Carnation Revolution that ended almost 50 years of dictatorship

Arraiolos with its castle from afar

If you want to get away from it all, this is the place to come: the Alentejo makes up over one third of Portugal's land mass but contains only 7% of its population!

Not really surprisingly, we got quite lost among the olive groves trying to find Vila Extramuros, but oh what a find. 

Owned and run by lovely French couple François and Jean-Christophe, whose home this is too, it's a fabulous surprise for being totally unexpected in style, in a region of traditional pousadas.

Designed by a Lisbon architect, the structure is all contemporary, clean, clear white lines, with rooms surrounding a cool central courtyard. 

The interiors, however, are all the doing of this talented pair, whose tastes are eclectic indeed: local objects and references mixed with Parisian touches and iconic 20th century designs.

It all works brilliantly with their eye for detail and design.


Not to mention their love of good food. Perfect summer supper in the courtyard was salad, grilled bread with local cheese and herbs, chouriço and patanegro.
Breakfast (below, with view to Arraiolos): delicious queijadas, Alentejo bread, cherries

François and Jean-Christophe, who moved here from Paris and have never looked back, fell in love with this landscape, saying they were attracted to the Alentejo as 'one of the last wild regions of Europe, where you have kilometres and kilometres of nature and wilderness.'
A neighbouring farmer's sheep graze on their land, providing free control of the vegetation.

The heat was intense, in the low 40s, and we were enormously happy to trail down this path ...

to wallow in the cool clear swimming pool ...

and stretch out under olive trees with the cicadas for company.

I just wished I could have stayed for weeks doing little else.

Alentejo, Portugal June 2015
Day 9 Iberian road trip

Friday, 21 August 2015


Oh Lisbon, did I compare you unfavourably with Porto the other day?
I take it all back.

Late summer afternoon, Avenida de Liberdade

Cherubs in the pink, Restauradores

Quiet moment on the benches, Largo de São Carlos

Book-head: Pessoa lived here

Dinner in the opera square: Teatro São Carlos

Icons of the city: Pessoa in a tram
Café Lisboa

Sunset views from Skybar, Tivoli

The Old Pharmacy, Rua do Diário de Notícias, Bairro Alto

Lisbon, Portugal June 2015
Day 8 Iberian road trip

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Monks and battles: Buçaco forests

Roughly halfway between Porto and Lisbon, a short detour off the national road into green wooded countryside leads to Buçaco Palace, an extravagant architectural fantasy in romantic Manueline style.

It's set in a hilly forested region not far from the Serra de Estrela, Portugal's highest mountain range, in the midst of forests filled with trees brought back to Europe by Portuguese explorers from Africa and the New World.

The Palacio (now a luxury hotel) itself is not very old, built at the turn of the 1900s, but there's a much older Carmelite convent right next to it, where monks long ago established elaborate gardens complete with fountains, mazes, waterfalls and secret grottoes (still there today).

Two papal bulls from the 1600s are handily displayed at the entrance to the gardens - one banning women from entering this garden of Eden (to keep the monks free of temptation?) and another threatening any person harming the trees with excommunication. At least one of those had some lasting value.

The palace's interiors are all elaborate ornate stucco ...

... and grand marble staircases guarded by knights in armour and massive tiled murals depicting gory battle scenes.

Over the top? Absolutely. But the dining room is elegant and cool with views to the 'garden of Eden' and forests beyond.

There's masses of history here. In 1810 one of the great battles of the Peninsular Wars was fought in these woods, and the Duke of Wellington tied his horse to an olive tree and spent a contented night in the Convent after helping the Portuguese defeat Napoleon's troops in a battle in these woods.

Later (in a kind of Portuguese-French reconciliation?) Portugal's last king, the young Manuel II, used the Palacio as a discreet venue for trysts with his girlfriend, French actress Gaby Deslys.

We did not linger for lunch but pressed on south to Lisbon.

Buçaco, Portugal June 2015
Day 7 Iberian road trip

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Love affair with Porto

I'm a Lisboa girl myself - give me the most spurious or flimsy of excuses to go there and it will rapidly become an urgent necessity - but re-acquainting myself with Portugal's second largest city, Porto, after many years of absence has turned my head.

This is the end point of the journey for the casks of port wine brought down along the Douro river for centuries, to be taken up by the big Port wine lodges for bottling and export. 

These views are all from the terrace of the Yeatman hotel with its fabulous location high up on the hillside of Vila Nova de Gaia. 

On this side of the Douro is the half of the city called Vila Nova de Gaia

On the other side of the river is the city of Porto itself 
(please don't call it Oporto, which is a linguistic misinterpretation originating with English speakers who misheard the definite article o ('the') as being part of the city's name!). 

The big port wine houses are all located on the Vila Nova de Gaia side. Fonseca, Ferreira, Graham's, Taylor's, Sandeman, Cockburn's, Ramos Pinto ...

Walking down the hill from the Yeatman terrace you negotiate narrow cobbled alleys that wind between the Port lodges ...

to the river, whose winding path we'd followed through the valleys and vineyards.

Looking across here to the colourful Ribeira, riverfront, of Porto on the other side, where Henry the Navigator, patron of explorers and discoverers, was born.

These are the old barcos rabelos, the surprisingly insubstantial looking (but sturdy enough to withstand rapids) flat-bottomed boats that transported the port along its river journey to this dockside at Vila Nova de Gaia - from the 13th century until as recently as 1964.

It's possible to swing through the sky to cross the river here, in dinky little cable cars, but we elected to walk across the Dom Luis bridge (in the very top photograph), a grand construction designed by M Gustave Eiffel shortly before he built the famous Paris tower.

Porto has undergone a massive urban renewal in the last 10-15 years, and this was new to me. I was struck by how well new modern centres and construction worked alongside Porto's historical architecture.

In the centre of the city is a grand railway station like no other: the São Bento station  with floor to ceiling tile (20 thousand tiles to be exact) murals showing scenes from Portuguese history - battles and conquests going back to the 11th century.

When it's time for a break, there's no better place than the Majestic Cafe, a landmark in the city and rated in the world's top 10 most beautiful cafes. The interior is all mirrors, cherubs, chandeliers, carved wood and leather chairs ...

and of course good coffee and pasteis de nata .

 There's more Art Nouveau at another unique institution in the city: the Livraria Lello, where visitors stop dead in amazement (and to whip out their cameras) at the entrance. Lello's interior is all stained glass, elaborately carved wood and copper, and an amazing spiral staircase (said to have inspired the Hogwarts staircase - JK Rowling lived close by here in pre-Potter days, teaching English).

The sheer numbers of people crowding into Lello on a summer's day made it difficult to take pictures that would do it justice, but see here (the most beautiful bookstore in the world) for much better pics taken minus crowds).

In total contrast, the modernist Casa da Musica concert hall designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaus looks like an angular white spaceship from the exterior, with cool glass and concrete interior spaces.

Dinner at DOP, one of chef Rui Paula's restaurants, totally lived up to its reputation for fantastic food and Douro wines, and came complete with a musical performance in the square, through the open doors. A perfect ending to the day.

Porto, Portugal June 2015
Day 6, Iberian road trip

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