Travelmag Banner

Cycling gently through Alentejo

The Portuguese have an old proverb:  “Live to live and you will learn to live.”  I had read it a few years ago while researching a self-help book.  While it immediately struck a chord with me, I just as quickly brushed it aside as easier said than done.  In our frenetic world life moves so fast, and we often spend our time and mental energy trying to catch up.  We feel we can’t slow down or we’ll fall behind or miss out—on what we’re not sure.  During a particularly stressful time at work, amidst a growing pile of paper and unanswered voicemails, I thought of that proverb again.  I decided to travel to Portugal to see if this idiom remained part of the country’s ethos.  I wasn’t going in with high expectations, however, because all I knew of the country was that its capital, Lisbon, had over 3 million residents, and that the Algarve was űber touristy.  Much to my surprise and delight, however, I did find a region that allowed me to slow it down and inhale deeply, and to live completely in the moment. 

The Alentejo region of Portugal is one of the few remaining untarnished and undeveloped areas in Europe.  Known to the Portuguese as the breadbasket of the country for its production of cork, olives, wines, grain, and livestock, it covers nearly one-third of  Portugal, stretching from the river Tagus in the north, to the Algarve hills in the south.  In the east it shares a border with Spain and to the west it opens into the Atlantic Ocean.  Mainly rural and sparsely populated, it is frequently bypassed by vacationers heading to the busy, popular beach resorts in the Algarve.  Home to diverse and scenic landscape, warm people, and a laid back atmosphere, it is a unique place to visit.  I had the privilege of exploring the southwest Alentejo on bicycle and found an enchanting place where I had an authentic experience, something that is becoming increasingly difficult for a traveler to find. 

My journey began in Vila Nova de Milfontes, a picturesque town nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the wide mouth of the River Mira, approximately 3 hours south of Lisbon.  Its population of 4,000 swells during the summer months, attracting vacationers from the north to its velvety sand beaches.  Whitewashed homes with vibrant yellow or blue trim and terra cotta roofs blend in seamlessly with their seaside environment.  And it is here where one morning I encountered my first pastelaria, or pastry shop.  A Portuguese staple, the pastelaria serves a mouth-watering array of freshly baked goodies, the most popular of which is the pastéis de nata (custard tart). 

Heading south from Milfontes along the coast, I was treated to dramatic scenery in the form of majestic cliffs enclosing secluded coves. Upon closer inspection, I spotted ropes dangling from a few of the cliffsides.  These are used by brave souls craving complete seclusion, who make the stomach-turning descent to the beach below.  I watched white storks glide back to nests built on inaccessible ledges, their bright red bills and legs a stark contrast against the cerulean sky.  The violent crashing of waves pounding rocky outcrops echoed up the cliff, providing the perfect soundtrack as I gazed out at the vast horizon of the Atlantic. 

Thirty kilometers south of Milfontes, the fishing village of Zambujeira do Mar is perched above one of the best beaches in Portugal, and as such constitutes one of its main attractions.  Strolling through town, I found well-kept homes, an abundance of bougainvillea, and the intoxicating scent of lavender permeating the air.  The summer energizes Zambujeira with one of the largest music festivals in Portugal, the Sudoeste Festival.  The four-day event held each August hosts a variety of well-known national and international bands.  Both Milfontes and Zambujeira are located in the Southwest Alentejo and Costa Vincentina Natural Park.  This is the longest protected shoreline in Portugal and is off-limits to development. 

As I moved south and east from the sea, the landscape transitioned to rolling hills and steeper terrain.  The road meandered constantly, and at times I felt like I was on a roller coaster, albeit an extremely slow, self-propelled one.  The feeling that came with inhaling eucalyptus-perfumed air as I careened downhill was both exhilarating and calming.  Traffic was nearly non-existent, and soon I was engulfed in forests of gnarled cork oak woodlands, the symbol of the Alentejo.  The region is home to the largest cork forests in the world, with more than half of the globe’s total cork supply originating here.  Even though the outer bark is stripped every 6 to 9 years, don’t expect to see swaths of barren land as a result.  This is the only tree that can regenerate its bark.  How fitting—a resilient tree that is emblematic of the spirit of the Alentejans. 

The special ‘feel’ of the Southern Alentejo is what impacted me immediately.  It moves at a sleepy pace.  Small farms and houses dot the countryside.  Farmers use traditional methods of agriculture that have seen little change in hundreds of years.  Many eat directly from the land, growing and raising what they need for themselves and their families.  It was a throwback to another time that was completely foreign to me. 

My senses came alive while I drifted along.  Blankets of wildflowers in white and yellow covered the countryside.  Boulevards of olive, lemon and orange trees stretched as far as the eye can see, releasing a cornucopia of fragrant aromas.  The serene sound of nothing was pervasive, interrupted every so often by the trills of richly coloured bee-eaters, or the cock-a-doodle-doo of a rooster. 

Seldom used back roads made for a relaxing, stress-free ride.  There was no timetable or sense of urgency to my days. One morning I stopped and looked at an abandoned clay farmhouse, overgrown with tall grasses swaying in the breeze, and just sipped in the quiet of my surroundings.  Often I would travel several kilometers before seeing a car or another person.  The only ‘congestion’ I came across occurred when I passed leather-faced old men cycling leisurely to their destinations.  Usually they would greet me in Portuguese, or simply offer a friendly smile. 

The southwest Alentejo is not a touristy destination, which for someone looking to experience an authentic taste of regional life, is a welcome sight.  Not a tacky gift shop in sight, not a 4-star hotel or resort to be had–only small, clean B&B’s, guesthouses, and pousadas.  I found it amusing that the locals were not yet indifferent to the sight of foreigners on their soil.  This became apparent when I cycled into the village of Santa-Clara-a-Velha, and all activity on the street stopped.  I was welcomed with smiles, stares, and ‘Ola’s.  Santa Clara is an example of a typical rural village in the Southern Alentejo — a few streets, clean whitewashed homes with vibrant coloured trim, a café, a small supermarket, and a church decorated with azulejos (painted tiles) anchored in the main square.  Elderly men chatting on shaded benches, always nattily dressed in blazers and slacks, was a common occurrence in most every town I visited. 

I rode past shepherds tending their flocks, and was pleasantly surprised to learn this was not just a rural phenomenon.  While walking in the town of Odemira (population 25,000) one evening, I looked up towards the row of houses and chuckled at the site of a half dozen sheep grazing on the hill just below them.  When I noticed the shepherd sitting on a bench, he waved to me.  Apparently roosters have adapted to city life too.  My alarm clock consisted of several cock-a-doodle-doos at 6:30 am, from a dueling pair in the garden below me.  This was a wake-up call I could get used to. 

The siesta is still very much alive here.  Because summer brings with it an oppressive heat, people take mid-afternoon breaks from work and other chores to relax and socialize.  One afternoon I cycled to the hamlet of Nave Redonda for a brief rest.  Walking into the Café Mira Serra brought me smack dab into the middle of such a gathering.  The café was alive and vibrant with the sound of people chatting animatedly—several men standing at the counter washing away their thirst with cold beers, two elderly men sitting in a booth behind me, a woman and her husband enjoying a coffee and pastry.  Pictures of soccer clubs Benfica and FC Porto adorned the walls.  A Portuguese soap opera played on the TV at the front of the café, which was of no interest to anyone except the woman working behind the counter.  Watching this scene unfold brought with it a sense of envy and melancholy.  I live in a fast-paced, modern world where I have access to everything I could possibly want at my fingertips, yet I communicate with friends and family more often than not with blackberries and computers.  Alentejans do not have the same access to material things, but what they do have is much more precious—a sense of belonging and deep-rooted, life-long connections with their friends and neighbours. 

People travel for different reasons – to learn, to escape, to re-invent themselves, or to simply get away from the monotony of everyday life.  I travel to experience the ‘aha’ moment; a moment of a trip that impacts me emotionally and spiritually, and one that will stay with me forever.  Mine occurred on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon.  It was the last day of my cycling trip, on the final leg of the route.  I rode into the tiny village of São Luís.  After stopping to pick a few oranges from trees lining the main boulevard, I sat on a bench next to a trio of old men passing the day away. I peeled an orange and started to eat it, relishing every bite of its juiciness and flavour.  The village was quiet, like all the inhabitants had packed up and left.  Every so often, the sound of (what else?) a rooster punctuated the silence.  I was completely content, savouring this perfect instant in time.  I travel to discover what cannot be found in guide books, to find the true meaning of a place and connect with it.  And as the Portuguese proverb says, to live in the moment. 

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines