Exploring Alentejo with Portugal’s Best Cycling
After our first few days in Lisbon, we headed out for the centerpiece of our trip, our bike tour with Portugal’s Best Cycling. We followed Claudia’s advice and took the bus from Lisbon to Évora, a pleasant few hours’ trip, especially with our seats at the front of the bus.
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Once we arrived in Évora, a medieval walled city in the central Portuguese province of Alentejo, our taxi driver picked us up and took us to our farmhouse home for the next week, Monte do Serrado de Baxio.
Dina met us at the house and immediately made us feel at home. After we settled into our room we explored the farm, met the chickens, goats and our daily alarm clocks, the pair of donkeys.
After a few hours of lounging, Teresa came over and gave us an overview of what to expect for the rest of our week of cycling in paradise. We planned out our days of cycling, our day of rest, and our mix of home-cooked dinners at the farm and visits to local restaurants in town.
That night, we had our first authentic Alentejo meal at Fialho, an elegant place in the Évora town center, and our first taste of local chorizo (much better than the one we tasted in Lisbon) and another regional delicacy, black pork. The pigs are black and the meat is deliciously tender.
For the rest of the week, we used the farmhouse as our base and every day, our guide, Mário, picked us up and took us to visit a different Alentejo area. We originally thought we were riding as part of a group so we were thrilled with our accidental private tour.
We knew little about the area before we arrived but we got quite an education during our week at the farmhouse. Alentejo translates to “beyond the Tagus river,” meaning, just beyond the big Tagus river in Lisbon, and it’s the agricultural heartland of Portugal. Up until the 12th century, most of Portugal was controlled by the Moors, and when the Christian monarchs captured Lisbon, it became a crime to practice any other religion, so the Moorish people who were left, as well as many Jews, moved to this area where it was more tolerant.
During our first day, we drove about an hour away from the farm and started our journey deep in the Alentejo countryside. Mário took us on a tour of some of Portugal’s famous megaliths, starting at a ring of stones called the Almendres Cromlech that dates back to 4,000-5,000 BC. As it turns out, Mário is an archeologist by training, so we had not just a great bike guide but an actual expert to show us these ancient ruins.
We visited Stonehenge many years ago and while that was certainly an interesting experience, it was nothing like seeing the first ring of stones that day. They are just a bit off of the main road, surrounded by private property and active farmland. There were only two or three other tourists there and we could wander around, we could touch the stones, and we could spend as much time there as we wanted. Since it was so quiet you could almost imagine what it must have really been like there back in the BC’s.
We also saw a few single ancient standing stones called menhirs, believed to be fertility symbols, and most impressive, the Dolmen of Zambujeiro, a half-excavated ancient burial site that dates back about 6,000 years. The burial site had more modern signage but was kind of this odd place in the middle of private property, with a corrugated metal cover over it. We could go in and out if we wanted and touch everything without restriction. It was fascinating to see such ancient relics so accessible.
After our morning touring the ancient stone structures, we rode our e-bikes through the country roads and into the town of Évora itself, which was bustling with people enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the grassy park. After a pleasant light lunch outside, we toured the medieval Evora cathedral, which was built between 1186 and 1250, then later remodeled during the Manueline period of the wealthy Portuguese explorers.
The cathedral itself was lovely but the most memorable part was the Bones Chapel. Built by Franciscan monks in the late 16th century, it is a massive display of hundreds of bones, all set in tidy rows. In this time of great wealth, the chapel was both practical (excavating bones from the cemeteries freed up valuable land) and delivered a subtle message about life: “We bones, are here, waiting for yours.” It was more thoughtful than creepy and definitely worth visiting.
After our visit to the cathedral we headed back to the farm, mostly along the dedicated bike path adjacent to the road. This path goes for many kilometers, making riding that much more pleasant. This first day was one of our longest and we were tired and ready to rest once we returned. We were happy to lounge outside on the couches and hammocks and retire early after a great home cooked meal at the farm that night.
Wine and Marble
Our second day we packed our bikes in the van and drove out to Estremoz for the beginning of our Wine and Marble Ride.
Estremoz is one of three famous marble towns in the region and has been inhabited since prehistoric times. We started our ride at the top of the hill town overlooking the area, near the castle that is now a boutique hotel. Queen Isabel died there in 1336 after negotiating a peace treaty between the Portuguese and Spanish.
The area is known around the world for its marble. Marble had such an important role in the economic growth that many of the towns still have curbs, sidewalks and squares covered in it.
For lunch we stopped at Café Restauração in Vila Vicosa – a cafe that specialized in burgers. Not burgers we’d expect in America exactly but all kinds of different choices, lamb, pork, chicken, veggie – with fresh sides and unique breads and buns. My bun was pink since it was made with beets. And of course, a local dessert, some kind of yummy custard cake/pie sort of thing. Perfect fuel for the rest of our day.
After lunch we rode up to some of the marble quarries. These were huge holes with plenty of workers, bulldozers and huge trucks extracting marble from the earth. It was interesting to see all the activity and surprising, at least to me, that no one seemed to care that we were there. No Keep Out signs or barriers or checkpoints. Everyone just went about their business, ignoring the bikers circling the mines and checking out their work.
Conquest of Valongo Castle
This ride was our longest and most challenging day. The terrain wasn’t that difficult, but it was by far the hottest day of our tour. Temps were well into the 90s Fahrenheit, much hotter than we expected for mid-October. Once again, we thanked ourselves for choosing e-bikes.
We started our day back in the Évora town center, where we visited the University of Évora, the second university in Portugal, established in 1559. Since we had our own private guide, alumnus Mário, it made touring the campus even more personal.
Classes were in session and the place was buzzing with students all over the buildings. Mário took us to peek into some of the oldest classrooms, which were decorated with extravagant tile paintings related to what you were studying, say, mathematics or astronomy. We also got to go inside the large, intimidating hall where students present their theses and the beautiful library, filled with students working.
After our tour, we hit the road to conquer Valongo castle. On the way, we passed acres and acres of olive trees. Portugal is in the top 10 countries in terms of its olive oil production, and about three-quarters of that comes from the Alentejo region. While there are still some original family producers and organic farmers in the area, much of it has turned into super-dense, irrigated olive groves, which are driving Portugal’s volume up even higher. Experts are predicting that Portugal will be the world’s third largest producer by 2030.
While all these olives and their oil are good for Portugal’s economy, the long term effects of this kind of super-dense farming remain to be seen. Olives are traditionally a rain-fed crop but these super dense groves require significant irrigation. Alentejo is already a dry region so it will be interesting to see how this all turns out.
We rode our e-bikes gleefully through the olive and occasional grape groves until we saw Valongo Castle rise up out of nowhere. This is not your typical tourist castle, while some people believe it might be traced back to Roman times, historical record has it going back to 1283. While it is a national monument and you can walk up to it if you want, it’s on private property in an orchard. We got great views from the road but decided to skip going in because of the heat. Another great benefit of being on a private tour.
By this time we were warm and ready for lunch. We climbed into a small town and arrived at a crowded local restaurant. You can always tell when a place is good by the clientele, and this place was filled with construction workers and we felt lucky that we had a table reserved. We had the daily special of braised pork, clams and potatoes, hearty and delicious.
After lunch we made our way through winding back roads until we got to the Ervideira Winery. It’s a family-owned operation that dates back to 1880, but it’s also quite a large operation, that produces 800,000 bottles a year from their vineyards.
Ervideira has a tasting room overlooking their vineyards that’s quite popular. We were a bit early and had to wait for the crowds to filter out before we were able to start our tour. Our guide walked us through their production facility and showed us their cellar with wines more than a hundred years old, before we sat down to taste.
This was by far the hottest day of our trip and we were relieved to get into the shade and relax for a while. This was our first introduction to the many different grapes grown in Portugal, so different from what we’re used to – Ervideira grew something like 17 different varieties and most of the wines we tasted during our time in Alentejo, red and white, were blends of different grapes. It made it difficult to remember which grapes we liked but we enjoyed trying as many as we could. We enjoyed our wines with a massive spread of fresh meats, cheeses and fruit.
After our tasting we headed back to the farm in the van, getting a much needed rest from riding outside in the sun. After a short break, we embarked on another adventure – a cooking class.
Alentejo Cooking class
When we were leaving the wine tasting I was exhausted and frankly dreading the cooking class. I was more in the mood to take a shower and go right to bed. But our class turned out to be one of my favorite nights of our trip.
We cooked in the farmhouse kitchen with Teresa and her friend João, and it felt like we were visiting family instead of getting a lesson in traditional Alentejo cuisine, but we did both. We cooked four different courses together, starting with one of our favorite appetizers we had in Alentejo, quail eggs and chorizo. It was fun to learn how to make this simple and tasty dish that looks like an egg pizza.
We also cooked stuffed mushrooms, traditional Portuguese codfish, and for dessert, we made individual Marie cookie cakes – with decadent mocha cream in between and covering the final cake. Mark’s had twice as much cream as everyone else’s and certainly impressed Teresa’s son. Marie cookies are evidently ubiquitous in Spain, Portugal and Latin America but we had never tried them before. The cookies are thin, round and just slightly sweet, almost like a graham cracker.
We loved cooking and drinking local wines and learning more about our hosts and life in Portugal. I’m glad I persevered instead of just going to bed.
Free Day Exploring the Farm
Our next day was our planned break from cycling, a day of just lounging on the farm. After a leisurely breakfast, we wandered over next door to the garage to visit the antique car collection.
We expected maybe we’d spend 15 minutes looking at a few cars so we were surprised to find a big collection of almost three dozen vintage sports cars, all immaculately clean and in perfect working condition. There were Jaguars and Triumphs and many other rare cars I’d never heard of.
The owner, Pedro, has a passion for driving, on and off road, all over the world. After we toured the museum we got to take a peek at the working garage where several newly acquired cars were getting spruced up. Turns out Turaventur also holds an annual classic car rally every year, which would be fun to return for someday.
After we checked out the cars, we went on a walk around the farm to see the remains of the 16th century aqueduct. The aqueduct is a huge part of the landscape of the city of Évora, since it brought in much needed water in the 1500s when the Portuguese kings and aristocracy were traveling there a lot.
You can follow the aqueduct all the way into town but we just walked along the part of it that bordered the farm. We had a great tour guide, black lab Cookie, who stayed with us for our entire hour plus walk.
Unfortunately for us, we thought we knew better than Cookie and took a wrong turn through the neighboring cattle farm. She kept trying to get us to go the right way, but after we had been ignoring her for about 5 minutes she gave up and came back to go with us. To get back on the right trail at the end we had to go under a fence. It was a lot harder for us than for Cookie.
Later that evening we had our best meal of our trip at a local restaurant in Évora, Adega Típica Quarta-Feira. (Wednesday). It’s a small restaurant with a casual feel, crowded with clay pots and small tables. There’s no menu, so our only choice was what kind of wine to have. Then they brought us many plates of food.
Our first course was traditional Alentejo-style appetizers, chorizo, bread, stuffed mushrooms, all fresh and tasty, followed by a mysterious small sandwich on a homemade bun. We gobbled up the delicious bite and when our waiter came back he asked us to guess what was inside. We never would have guessed beef tongue, but that’s what it was. I had only had it one other time in my life, and I certainly didn’t remember it being so tender and flavorful.
For our entree, we had roasted black pork, spinach, carrots and homemade chips. It was not a fancy meal, but a typical Alentejo meal prepared perfectly. Everything about the experience was excellent and we felt like we were in a restaurant that should have a Michelin star.
The Famous Carpets
The next day we were back on our bikes for our visit to the famous carpets of Arraiolos. This was our shortest day of cycling so we were able to sleep in a little bit before our trip.
We made our way to the town on the eco trail, an off-road multi-purpose trail that goes through the countryside and past local farms. We’re used to paved bike paths on our road bikes, and this was not that. The trail is dirt with grass growing closeby, rough at times but always pleasant. This day we had our closest call with rain, some cloudy skies and a few drops here and there, but luckily no downpour.
Arraiolos’ carpets have a long history dating back to the Moors. Many Moors fled Spain, then later Northern Portugal to settle in this area and create their hand-woven and dyed rugs. In the carpet museum in the town center you can see the color dye pots that were excavated in the center of town and preserved under glass, that are believed to date back to the 13th century.
Later, the locals continued their traditional rug and tapestry weaving and the carpets of Arraiolos enjoyed an international reputation for beauty and quality. The museum in town covers all the history and has beautiful examples of the rugs over the years. There was even a local artisan in the museum stichting a rug by hand. She and other artisans are employed by the government to help keep this tradition alive.
After visiting the museum and the town, we rode up the hill to see the Arraiolos castle. This is a remarkably preserved 14th century castle with a circular wall surrounding it. Riding up we again thanked ourselves for reserving e-bikes. It was steep and at times covered in gravel. Up inside the castle wall, we had the place to ourselves and it was easy to imagine what it must have been like to be there hundreds of years ago.
After our visit to the castle, the trip was all downhill and we were back at the farm with plenty of time for relaxing and putting away our laundry to get ready for our last day of cycling.
Wine and Cork
Our last day we began our journey by van to the cork factory. By this point in our trip the weather really was starting to change and we were downright chilly as we waited for our expert guide to show us how they process the cork.
We had been admiring the cork oak trees all week during our ride. After the trees are established, which can take up to 25 years, the farmers harvest the cork with specialty tools. Then they paint a number on the trunk, indicating the year of harvest, so that they know when to do it again, nine years later. Since the bark grows to the inside, you can still clearly see the number year after year. We were excited to see what happens next.
All around the factory were huge pieces of cork tree bark, laid flat on pallets. Our guide walked us through the process they use to wash, grade and cut the cork into usable pieces for everything from wine stoppers, to flooring, to badminton shuttlecocks. Cork is buoyant and almost impermeable, which is why it’s been used for wine stoppers since ancient times.
The factory had an incredible shop filled with all kinds of cork goods, but unfortunately they didn’t take credit cards so I only left with a cheap pair of earrings.
From the factory, we rode through the countryside to an old train station and one of my favorite places on the trip, a prickly pear farm, Pepe Aromas. The prickly pears are grown from cactus and need very little water, making them a great sustainable crop for the dry climate of Alentejo. We enjoyed a huge spread of fresh juice, fresh fruit, jam, honey and even some prickly pear liqueur.
One weird thing about the fruit was that you could swallow the seeds and our guide encouraged us to eat the fruit and do that. That was not my favorite part of the experience, I think I would still rather have it without the seeds. But the fresh juice and jam were tasty and I loved the other sustainable products they made, including soaps and bar shampoo. Luckily they did take credit cards.
That day we had another incredible local lunch at a tiny restaurant. This time, the special was duck rice, which didn’t sound exciting, but was so delicious and a very generous portion. The restaurant was filled with men, and I swear they were giggling at me while I waited outside the locked ladies room. It took me a while to realize there were no other women in the place, so I needed to ask for the key.
For our last stop of our trip, we headed to the Fitapreta estate, set on the grounds of an old medieval palace and believed to be the oldest winery in the region. Fitapreta is one of several wine brands by award-winning Portuguese winemaker António Maçanita.
The estate itself is worth the visit, even without the wine. Construction started at the site at the end of the 14th century but over the years it had fallen into disrepair. The winery now owns most of the palace but has worked with the Saldanha family, who have owned and maintained the property for centuries, so that they still retain an ownership stake.
First we toured the property and learned about the wine and the winemaker. It was great to see the palace in different states, most fascinating to me was the original wine storage area, which now has a mix of modern stainless steel vats and some older traditional clay jars storing and aging the wine.
After our tour we moved on to the main event, our wine tasting in their modern tasting room downstairs, with its elegant bar and comfortable seating. We met our first Americans in Portugal, a couple from the midwest who had come down to Évora for a day and taken a taxi from the station to Fitapreta. We all enjoyed our wine and conversation.
Monte do Serrado de Baxio – a great place to stay in Evora
We loved our cycling in paradise tour and getting to know our hosts and hostesses at Portugal’s Best Cycling. Every day we had an amazing home-cooked breakfast, with fresh bread, pastries and eggs cooked to order, and we loved the evening meals, especially with the local wine.
The team takes sustainability at Monte do Serrado de Baxio seriously and nothing is wasted – even our food scraps went to feed the animals. We’d definitely recommend a visit to anyone looking for a real Portuguese adventure, whether you want to bike, hike, or just stay for a few nights in Alentejo.
Read about our next stop: Porto and the Douro Valley.