On top of the world in Marvão

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Some people climb the Kilimanjaro, others struggle to conquer the Himalayas. But you can feel on top of the world without hiring sherpas or buying oxygen masks. Simply drive to Marvão, a village on the São Mamede mountain, 834 km above sea level.

We spent the morning exploring the ancient castle and walking the beautiful narrow streets. After working up an healthy appetite, we walked to the Pousada for lunch. The view from the dining room is absolutely stunning.

The Pousada has some wonderful signature dishes, including codfish Santa Maria, partridge with 14 (partridge cooked with 14 ingredients), and shrimp Alentejo style. We asked chef Conceição Lourenço why codfish Santa Maria tastes so wonderfully unique. Her eyes smiled brightly for this is one of the culinary secrets she has guarded in her three decades as a chef. She confided that: “the codfish is cooked with flour made from a local mushroom; but that’s all I can say.”

We stayed for quite a while at the table mesmerized by the view. Seen from Marvão, the world below looks harmonious and the skies above divine.

 

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Marvão.

The allure of Monsaraz

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Monsaraz, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte, 2014.

Monsaraz is a medieval village perched on a hill in Alentejo. Squint at the landscape and you see an abstract painting of white and pink shapes. Open your eyes and you see a world of peace and tranquility. Faint are the echoes of the battle in which Geraldo Sem Pavor (Gerald the fearless) first conquered the town from the moors in the 12th century. Gone are the busy years, early in the 14th century, when king D. Dinis built a castle to ensure that this strategic hill would forever remain Portuguese. The soldiers who kept watch from the castle towers were replaced by photographers who shoot with their cameras the majestic view.

Vinicius de Moraes, the Brazilian poet who wrote the lyrics of Girl from Ipanema, recorded his feelings about this Alentejo village: “Thank you, Monsaraz, but I do not want to see you ever again because, if I do, I will stay forever inside your white walls amidst your men and women with eyes full of honesty.”

Amalia’s beach

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The great fado singer Amalia Rodrigues built a beautiful house on a cliff with an expansive view of the ocean. The adjacent beach is called Amalia in her honor.

To visit this magical place, you need to drive to Brejão, a village on the southern tip of the Alentejo coast. Stop in one of the coffee shops and ask for directions to the beach (you have to follow a hidden path alongside a small brook).

This secluded beach is a perfect setting for declarations of love. The spirit of the place will inspire you. But if words fail you, you can always say: this beach was named after Amalia, a singer who sang about the joy of love and the pain of loss. I brought you here because I love you and I never want to lose you.

 

Few people know that you can rent Amalia’s house by emailing the Foundation Amalia Rodrigues (secretariado@amaliarodrigues.pt). But now you do!

The serene beauty of Flor da Rosa

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On the way to Flor da Rosa, a medieval castle converted into an historical hotel, we traveled through small villages lost in time and fields of cork and olive trees. Nothing prepared us for the sight of the castle standing proudly on the Alentejo plain.

The hotel has 24 rooms with beautiful views of the countryside and a swimming pool that overlooks the castle. The space is designed to offer guests great privacy. And the staff is so attentive that they made us feel like royalty.

The next morning, we woke up in luxurious silence, far from the cacophony of modern life. We relaxed by the pool until it was time for lunch. We then headed to the restaurant where we tried some wonderful renditions of the local gastronomy: purslane soup, fish in coriander sauce, and marinated rabbit. These courses were followed by cheese from Nisa and Serpa. Our taste buds were celebrating these amazing gifts from the shepherds of Alentejo when a sampling of desserts arrived. They had uncommon names like “sericaia” and “encharcada,” and rightly so for everyday words cannot begin to describe these sweet creations.

We had a great time sightseeing around Crato, the village where the hotel is located. In the late afternoon, the church bell reminded us that the sun would soon retire and that it was time to return to the castle. As we crossed the vaulted arches, we heard birds singing. These are the same sounds that were heard in the castle during the middle ages. Flor da Rosa is a precious time capsule that preserves the beauty of an age gone by.

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Flor da Rosa.

Alcobaça

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Alcobaça, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte, 2014.

To understand Portugal, you have to visit Alcobaça. It was here that the first king of Portugal, Dom Afonso Henriques, founded a monastery in thanksgiving for his conquests. He laid the first stone in 1148 on a beautiful valley irrigated by two rivers, Alcoa and Baça.

Alcobaça became a center of agricultural research with a vast library that included volumes printed by Gutenberg. The monastery served as a luxury hotel for the royal family and their guests, but it also baked bread to feed the poor. The kitchen of the monastery was famous throughout the kingdom. Water from the river Alcoa runs through the kitchen, providing water for cleaning and cooking.

Built in an early gothic style, the monastery was expanded and renovated throughout the centuries. King Dom Pedro erected sumptuous tombs to celebrate his eternal love for Inês de Castro. Henry the Navigator, who was the abbot of Alcobaça, built a palace inside the abbey. Every stone of the Alcobaça monastery is a page of the history of Portugal.

In a tuk tuk on the spice trail

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Tuk tuk is a new company that operates three-wheeled motorized rickshaws in downtown Lisbon. These fun vehicles are the perfect way to travel: slow enough to see the sights, but fast enough to cover all there is to see without getting tired.

If you smell a whiff of cinnamon, it is perfectly ok to ask the driver to follow the trail and find the pastries that are sweetening the air. After all, visitors have been coming to Lisbon in pursuit of sugar and spices for more than five centuries.

Click here for the web page of Tuk Tuk Lisboa.

A magical Summer soup

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When we sat down for dinner in the beautiful esplanade of the Arraiolos Pousada, we expected good food and attentive service. We got much more than that. We were served a series of delicious dishes that harmonized perfectly with Alentejo wine and made us feel we were at the right place, at the right time.

The dinner started with two soups, a Summer cucumber soup, followed by a tomato soup with quail egg. We then had “migas” (an Alentejo specialty made with bread) with wild asparagus and lamb grilled with rosemary. The grand finale was a sampling of traditional convent desserts updated with great refinement.

We congratulated the chef, Elizabete Velez, who told us that she learned to cook with her mother and grandmother in a small village in Alentejo. She offered to give us the recipe for her delicious Summer cucumber soup because it is very easy to make. Here it is.

Elizabete Velez’s Summer cucumber soup

Get the very best cucumbers you can find. Peel them (this step is key because the peel is very bitter) and remove their seeds. Dice the cucumbers, season them carefully with salt, pepper, and great olive oil. Puree the mixture in a blender. Pour into small bowls, placing one or two ice cubes in each bowl. Garnish with toasted slivered almonds, small strips of cucumber peel, and Portuguese sausage (preferably from Alentejo!).

Imagine eating this soup in a warm Summer evening, as the sun sets over a grove of olive trees and the stars wait their turn to shine on the Arraiolos castle. It’s magical!

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of the Arraiolos Pousada.