Marvão no Irish Times: Alentejo's walking heaven

GO PORTUGAL: Austria and Italy have long had a monopoly on walking holidays for Irish travellers, but the hilltop towns and undulating landscape of this Portuguese region have plenty of wow factor as well, writes SARA KEATING
THIS TIME OF YEAR brings out the best in Portugal. Far from the scorched resorts of the Algarve or the busy shopping streets of Lisbon, its inland landscape has come to life in rich verdure.
In the Alentejo and Centro provinces of the country, a long wet winter soaked the vast valleys and high mountains with a stunning palette of yellows and greens. It is a rural idyll, rich in history and rustic pleasures, and is an ideal destination for civilised outdoor adventures, with competitively priced accommodation and walking trails of all varieties.
Austria and Italy have long had the monopoly on walking holidays for Irish travellers, but Portugal offers a more authentic experience. The Serra da Estrela (Mountain of the Star), reached by flying to Oporto, has sharpened crags and gorges, mountain streams and lakes, dense pine forests and stunning views. It remains free from tour buses and the mass marches of groups, despite the fact that its peak (the Torre) is accessible by paved road.
Flying to Lisbon, you can access the gentler landscape of Alentejo, which undulates far into the distance. The country roads unfold like mannered avenues, lined with the oak trees native to the region, which are easily distinguished by the two-toned bark on their trunks where they have been stripped by cork harvesters. Fields of small olive trees, lined up like upside-down dancers with their heads in the soil, promise their bounties. Farther inland the landscape gets more rugged and mountainous, as if protecting itself from the Spanish border.
It seems strange to begin a walking holiday by picking up a car, but that is precisely what my partner and I did as we started a 10-day trip through Alentejo. A car gives the walker more flexibility and independence, and a broader vision of the epic sweep of the landscape.
Crucially, roads in Portugal are a joy to drive on. The motorways have impeccably clean, fully serviced pit stops every 30km or so, while country roads are deserted and exceptionally well maintained.
Getting into the small historic towns that cling to the hilltops and mountainsides for an overnight stay, on the other hand, is more than a little unnerving. And yet although the steep one-way streets are so narrow you can hardly fit your car through, they always manage somehow to spit you out right in the centre of town.
Arraiolos is our first stop. It is an hour and half east of Lisbon and a perfect overnighter on the way farther inland. As we de-camp at the local pousada, the expansive countryside is at our feet. From the hotel bedroom we can glimpse a silver lake in the glow of the setting sun. It looks even more magical in the morning; a gentle sloping trail from the hotel snakes down towards it. There are also shorter circular trails around the hotel grounds, and stables if you feel like taking a trek through the countryside.
The Pousada de Nossa Senhora da Assunção, at Arraiolos, is part of a network of historic hotels dotted through Portugal. While camping or self-catering is often the preferred option for intrepid walkers, pousadas provide a perfect entry point for several walks, and a natural structure to exploring the region. They also provide a luxurious contrast to a hard-walking day, and with the Pousada Pass they can be good value, allowing you five nights with breakfast at any of Portugal’s 44 pousadas for €475 for two people (€400 for older travellers). With car hire included, the price is €610 or €535, and you also receive money off all food.
An hour northeast of Arraiolos lies the town of Portalegre, the main gateway for the nature park of Serra de São Mamede, where rugged quartz sculptures scar the bare heights of the mountainside, and abundant chestnuts and oaks provide shelter to a variety of birds.
In the lower reaches of the parkland, montes (traditional farm complexes) reap what they can from the landscape, while small villages of low whitewashed houses and abandoned colonial-style villas lend an eerie deserted feel to the surroundings. (An ageing population and internal migration have left their mark on rural Portugal.)
Small hamlets like Marvão, Arronches and Castelo de Vide provide starting points for several marked walks through the park. Maps and leaflets are available from the local tourist offices, though irregular opening times make advance planning necessary. (I would advise trying to find maps and routes on the internet before you go.)
Marvão, in particular, is a little miracle of a town, perched on an inhospitable ridge. Named after a ninth-century Muslim rebel, it has historical significance, too, and it is worth wandering through the streets surrounding its central square.
There are eight marked routes around the Serra de São Mamede nature park, ranging from eight to 16 kilometres – a half or a full day, depending on your pace. Several of the trails are also accessible for mountain-biking, while climbing is facilitated at Penha de Portalegre.
Coming down from the mountains to the low desert-like landscape surrounding Crato, the imposing magificent fortified convent-cum-castle of Flor de Rosa, restored to a pousada, dominates the town. Flat farmland studded with small vineyards rolls out to the east.
A jaunt south through green valleys takes us to the small walled Unesco World Heritage city of Évora, in the centre of the Alentejo region, for some shopping and historical diversion. It also exposes a welcome surprise: alternative walking routes that bring Alentejo’s rich nature right to the edges of the city. The Évora Ecopista, which runs from the city for 20km to Sempre Noiva, along a disused railway line, is exposed rather than sheltered, so would be too hot in high summer, but in spring and early summer it is bright with yellow and white budding flowers. The Água da Prata walk, meanwhile, follows the lines of Évora’s aqueduct. Built in the 16th century, it still carries water to the city; you can follow the well-maintained route from the city walls for eight kilometres.
From Évora it is an hour and a half back to bustling Lisbon, and the traffic in the chaotic environs of the city is a reminder of how peaceful the countryside has been. We spend 10 days exploring it – and our final night in the majestic suburb of Queluz planning alternative routes for our next visit. If that isn’t a recommendation, I dont know what is.
Where to stay
Pousada de Santa Maria. Marvão, 00-351-245-993201, pousadas.pt. The best accommodation in Marvão. Spread over two houses in the charming narrow side streets, the large rooms have a rustic feel, with wooden furniture and beams. From €95 a night.
Quinta do Pomarinho. Castelo de Vide, 00-351-965- 755341, pomarinho.com. A small holiday farm within walking distance of Portalegre. Choose from the Friends of Nature house (hostel style, sleeping up to 12), camping, a cottage and an apartment. From €4 a night.
Where to eat
Tomba Lobos. Bairro Pedra Basta, Portalegre, 00-351-245- 331214, tombalobos.com. Difficult to find amid the sharp turns of mountain passes, but worth the effort. Small, local, cheap and gourmet. A two-course meal for two costs about €30, excluding wine.
Porfirios. Rua de Montoito, Redondo, 00-351-266-909737. Despite the cool cellar – it must be welcome relief in the summer – the welcome is extremely warm. Traditional fare in enormous portions. A two-course meal for two costs about €30, excluding wine.
O Alpendres. Bairro Serpa Pinto, Arraiolos, 00-351-266- 419024. A popular family-run taverna specialising in regional cuisine. A two-course meal for two costs about €35, excluding wine.
Where to go
Monsaraz . A sleepy mountain town, 40 minutes from Évora, with fantastic views. Arrive early in the day, when the light is silver and misty and the landscape has a magical view. There are a few gentle trails around the town’s periphery. Pack a picnic and follow the winding road from the car park towards the lake.
Capela dos Ossos. Praça 1 de Maio, Évora, 00-351-266- 704521. If you need to get out of the wilderness and back to civilisation, combine some small-city shopping with a visit to the Bone Chapel at Évora’s Church of St Francis. Despite the otherworldly ambience, the ossuary was a way of honouring rather than punishing the dead.
Redondo . This village is remarkable not so much for its whitewashed centre as for the drive to it. As you approach from Crato and Serra de São Mamede, it offers a vertiginous vision of colour and depth – like the Sally Gap on an epic scale.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Lisbon from Dublin and Cork. Ryanair (ryanair. com) flies to Oporto from Dublin.

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