IN South Portugal, residents run on two speeds: slow, and still. This is what our guide José tells us as we board our ride from Lisbon Airport.

Very soon, we’re crossing the grand Vasco de Gama bridge over the mighty Rio Tejo and entering into the region that best encompasses this pleasantly passive way of life: Alentejo. Meandering past fields of vivid green, dotted with wild flowers in yellow, lilac and white, its feels a bit like we’ve just jumped off a plane that travels through time rather than space.

During the late stages of winter, parts of the rural Alentejo region resemble Oxfordshire in spring, save for a few stork making their precarious nests atop telegraph poles. Then we reach the cork groves: stripped of their lower bark for harvest, cork oaks are two tone skeletons that descend from dull outer wood to vivid orange-brown on their lower trunks.

These trees are big business for Alentejo farmers; as well as topping the bottles of the region’s fantastic local wine, cork remains one of the country’s largest exports, and each tree will gather €500 upon harvest. Such is the importance of cork to the economy of Portugal that landowners must apply for permission to cut down rogue trees. Past the trees and 88 miles east of Lisbon, we reach Évora.

It’s our first stop on a tour of historically-intriguing locations, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First impressions arrive in the form of the colossal Água de Prata Aqueduct (translated, the Aqueduct of Silver Water). The impressive sequence of arches spans 9km, and is the centrepiece for a town crammed with fascinating architecture and unaltered Mediterranean charm. Évora’s only five-star hotel is a hidden delight among the city’s cobbled streets. Foregrounded by the aqueduct, guests at the M’AR De AR Aqueduto can walk or swim in the hotel’s gorgeously landscaped inner garden while marvelling at the 16th Century monument just metres away.

Inside, the Degust’AR restaurant cooks up a distinct range of gourmet cuisine, fusing traditional Portuguese flavors with other European influences – a sumptuous ‘Magret’ of duck with citrus sauce accompanied with buttery, paper-thin layers of potato is a particular highlight. Dragging ourselves away from such luxuries, we set off to explore Évora’s intriguing past. Particularly alluring is the Manueline-style architecture at the Church of St Francis. Its striking exterior incorporates maritime influences from Portugal’s Discovery era (coral, rope, seabirds) into a late Gothic masonry style. The most memorable part of this historic building, however, can be found to the right of its entrance – a small interior chapel notoriously known as the Capela dos Ossos, or Chapel of Bones. Our guide translates an ornate warning sign for us: ‘We, the bones that are here, await yours.’ Stepping inside, spines immediately tingle: four skull-encrusted walls enclose us. More than 5,000 bodies comprise the decoration in this 16th century chapel.

Unlike this chapel, modern residents of Alentejo seem admirably focused on simple joys in life. The way of living here is slow paced to appreciate those things that truly matter. A memorable meal in a beautifully-renovated barn at the Herdade da Amendoeira (Almond Farm) encapsulates that mentality. We take our time sampling local comfort food; deliciously fried wild pork and migas, a side dish that’s traditionally made using bread, garlic, olive oil, herbs and wild asparagus. Dessert, nuvens escondidas, literally translates as ‘hidden clouds’ – it’s a scrumptiously soft meringue with caramel and cinnamon. Afterwards, we take a stroll around the farm, enthusiastically joined by a pair of loveable Portuguese Mastiffs.

Those who stay here are equally encouraged to enjoy the rolling countryside that comprises the landscape of Alentejo, with a variety of farm activities such as cheese making and bike rental – it’s possible to cycle the 7km from here to Évora, although expect a bumpy ride and plan your route carefully, as signposts are few and far between. A nearby curiosity also worth visiting is the Almenderes Cromlech, a mysterious grouping of stones similar to Stonehenge that dates back to the 6th millennium. Seeing these Neolithic structures up close while wandering through nearby cork forests in the blazing Portuguese sunshine makes for an unforgettable (and free) afternoon. For an inspiring insight into the local artistry inspired by such wonderful surroundings, you’d do well to spend a day or two in the town of Arraiolos, where gifted tapestry makers create impressive woolen keepsakes. Venture behind the scenes at one of these traditional traders (just ask, they’re mostly a laid back bunch), and you’ll learn of the incredible work that goes into each carpet. Most take at least three months to make, from initial paper maps that plan each tapestry down to the stitch, to nimble-fingered needlework by dedicated weavers. You may wish to order a custom tapestry; some local shops will recreate your chosen image in meticulously stitched detail and ship it out to you, although this level of craftsmanship comes at a price – even basic tapestries cost upwards of €160. Alentejo features an enviable climate all year round. While exploring marble-hewn chapels and historic palaces in mid-February felt a tad nippy, we also enjoyed highs of 20 degrees Celsius as we sipped drinks on sun-drenched streets. During summer, it’s not unusual for the region to enjoy regular 40-degree afternoons.

You’ll be able to both enjoy and escape this extreme weather at the awe-inspiring Convento do Espinerio.

Here, an enchanting 15th Century monastery has been tastefully converted into a 20-acre paradise hotel. It’s easy to imagine spending entire summer days exploring their vast herb gardens, lounging in the shade of 1,000-year-old olive trees, before diving into a cool wine cellar and sampling some of Alentejo’s very finest vintage before sunset. It may only be February, but as the hotel’s wine guru beheads a bottle of champagne with an antique saber and expert precision, we can easily imagine the heightened appeal of this place during warmer months. For a less obvious Mediterranean holiday that offers luxury and intrigue, this one is tough to beat.


Essential facts:

Flights: TAP Portugal (from Heathrow):

Accommodation: Hotel Convento do Espinheiro:
Casa do Plátano:

Food: Degust’AR:
D. Joaquim:
Pousada D. João V:
Herdade da Amendoeira: