The wines of Alentejo are not well-known internationally, which has made them a terrific bargain, especially when popped open at a local café. Of the nine main grape varieties, few people outside the Iberian Peninsula have probably heard of even one. Names like Alfrocheiro, Castelão, and Roupeiro don't exactly have worldwide acclaim. The intimidation factor is low in Portugal though since most wines sold are blends anyway and the overall quality is surprisingly good at every price point. Spending what you do on a low-end bottle on the wine list at your favorite restaurant in the U.S., Canada, or England gets you something special in Alentejo. Good terroir and reliable sunshine all summer result in especially great red wine blends that go well with the local aged cheese, sausages, and farm-fresh meats.
Monoliths and Musings
On some days we pass tombs from the original inhabitants of the land, giant rocks stacked in a pattern over the dead. Other times our biking directions lead us to giant stone monoliths, standing alone in a field with a small observation area we always have to ourselves.
Between attractions, cycling in Alentejo is a mostly quiet affair, with plenty of time to think. It's an excellent digital detox, with hours to ponder ideas and just be in the moment, with no bleeping distractions that require some immediate response. After a rainy start to the year, the wildflowers are out in full force, spreading a blanket of color across all the fields. Had Monet and Renoir come here for a visit in the 1800s, we'd probably be looking at Portugal on museum walls instead of France.
Punctuating the colorful fields are white-building villages with blue trim, cute little churches, and grand castles. We come upon one castle that combines the three themes of our trip: a lone Medieval castle in the middle of vineyards, wildflowers sprouting up in the rows between the grape vines.
One day is longer than the rest, hillier than the rest, and seems to have way too much distance between any towns with something to eat. After hours of what feels like mostly an uphill slog, we enter the main restaurant in Alandroal town feeling ravenous. We say yes to the proprietor's daily special recommendations without asking the price. The "small" carafe of house wine that comes with it looks to hold the equivalent of a bottle.
At the end of a hilly journey of around 50 kilometers we ride into Vina Vicosa exhausted but energized by what we see: a lively town with lots of people at outdoor cafes. We're even more excited when we pull up to our hotel for the night: a fancy pousada in what was once the convent next to the Ducal Palace.
After acting like royalty for the night, we tour some 50 rooms of the Palace and see where the real royalty of the Braganza dynasty spent their time over a ruling period of more than 300 years. We learn once again that knowing lot of Spanish helps quite a bit with Portuguese menu deciphering, but does absolutely no good when listening to a tour guide talk about architecture and family histories.
Storming a Portuguese Castle by Bike
Our last day of riding is a mellow one, first past giant marble quarries that extend below the ground as far as a skyscraper reaches above. Along the way we see the castle town of Borba, where even the most modest buildings seem to be adorned with the abundant local marble. One town on we make a lunch stop in Café Fasca Antonio, where the owners make their own wine and age it in clay pots. We drink their wine poured from a plastic jug and eat what's for lunch: fresh fried lake fish served with eggplant and peppers, and of course bread and olives.
Traveling by bike does have a few disadvantages, like when we stop in the pottery village of Sao Pedro do Corval and admire the hand-painted plates, serving bowls, and figurines. We only buy a few small finger bowls, being afraid anything bigger would not make it home in one piece.
At the end of the week's journey we climb another small mountain to another castle in Estremoz. It's a knight's tale ending as we have to actually cross a drawbridge to get through the gate of the castle walls. At this point our legs are asking, "Are we done yet?" so we're happy that our last hotel is the best. Pousada Rainha Santa Isabel is a castle turned hotel with panoramic views of the city and countryside over the walls at the top.
The next morning our aching legs carry us down the hill to the local Saturday market, where the slow food experience comes full circle. Wheels of cheese sit next to mountains of strawberries and live chickens and rabbits have their own price tags. We buy some local olive oil and cheese for gifts, then reluctantly get into a car and make our way back to Lisbon to head home. A few pounds lighter, a little bit healthier, and definitely less distracted than we'll be back in the grind.
If you go:
Bike Tours Direct offers reasonably priced bicycle tours in a wide range of locations around the world, working with the best ground operators such as Turaventur in Portugal. For more information on traveling in Portugal, including the Alentejo wine and castles region, see the Visit Alentejo and Visit Portugal websites. For unique places to stay in historic buildings, see the Pousadas de Portugal site. You definitely need a good phrase book here and we were happy with Rick Steves Portuguese, especially the humorous entries beyond the norm.
Editor Tim Leffel has won dozens of travel writing awards and is the author of four books, including Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune and the 4th edition of The World's Cheapest Destinations. See more at his Cheapest Destinations Blog or check out some of the gear he uses on his trips at Practical Travel Gear.
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