We had never given much thought to cork before. But on this pleasant November day, as we drive along a little-traveled country road in the Alentejo region of Portugal, cork is what my wife and I find ourselves thinking and talking about.
Eighty percent of the world’s supply of cork comes from Portugal, most of it from the Alentejo region, this “land beyond the Tagus” that stretches from that great river down to the Algarve and from the Atlantic coast and a little east of Lisbon across to the Spanish border.
Unlike money, cork grows on trees. Vast expanses of cork trees lie on both sides of the scenic road that we are traveling. We have never before seen cork trees, so we slow down for a better look.
They look peculiar. They average about 20 to 30 feet high with large, wide trunks, and thick, twisted branches and crowns of shiny dark-green leaves. What makes them so peculiar-looking is that many of them have large areas of their bark cut off. And on all the trees where the bark has been removed, there are numbers written on the exposed richly terracotta-colored trunks and branches.
Most trees will die if much of their bark is removed. But not the hardy cork oak tree, which is actually an evergreen member of the beech family. That’s what cork is—the harvested bark of these trees that has been dried, bleached, and washed.
In the summer months, skilled workmen using razor-sharp axes cut around the trunk and branches of the trees, first horizontally, then vertically, and strip off rolls of bark. They have to do it without damaging the trunk, as that would kill the tree.
They then paint the last number of the year on the red-colored trunk so they will know when to next harvest that tree. After a cork tree reaches about 25 years, it can be harvested once every nine years over a period of about 200 years.
Cork oak trees, olive trees, and wheat dominate the vast plains and gently rolling hills of the Alentejo. This may be Portugal’s largest province by far, covering one-third of the country—equal in land area to Belgium—but it is home to relatively few people. Only 6 percent of Portugal’s population lives here.
A Beautiful City
Our first base in the Alentejo region is the walled medieval city of Evora, the region’s largest town (population: 56,000) and one of the most beautiful cities in Portugal. It was home to Portugal’s first two royal dynasties. Like most towns in the region, it stands high on a hill overlooking miles of surrounding cork orchards.
Evora’s history is one of the oldest in the Iberian Peninsula. It has Roman walls, Moorish narrow streets and arched alleyways, Renaissance squares, fine churches and museums, and grand 16th-century buildings that were erected when it was a favorite spot for Portuguese royalty. All are well preserved and should continue to be. Evora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Its oldest site, dating back to the second or third century, is the best-preserved Roman ruins in Portugal. The structure is believed to have been built as a place of worship and is said to have been dedicated to the goddess Diana, though there is no solid evidence to support this claim.
Although the Temple of Diana is small—only about the size of a tennis court—it is striking. It stands at the highest point in the city. Fourteen of its original granite ribbed columns still stand. Ten of them still have their ornate Corinthian capitals. Nearly three sides of the temple remain intact. The bases and capitals of the columns are carved from fine Alentejo marble.
Our hotel, located right next to the Temple of Diana, is itself an interesting architectural work and attraction. Pousada dos Lóios, a government-run tourist inn, is a beautifully restored monastery from 1485.
Like most towns that were laid out in the Middle Ages, Evora is compact—an easy and enjoyable city to walk around. It is particularly impressive at night. The Temple of Diana and other major monuments are illuminated with floodlights until midnight.
The heart of town is Praça de Giraldo, an eye-pleasing spacious square named for “Gerald the Fearless,” who liberated Evora from Moorish occupation. The square, dominated by the massive 1557 Renaissance-style Church of Saint Anthony with a large baroque fountain in front, is ringed with cafes and is a favorite gathering spot.
Evora is known as a town of museums, about half of them churches. A short stroll from Praça de Giraldo down the pedestrian walkway Rua 5 de Outubro leads to a couple of the finest. This narrow street, with its wrought-iron balconies, is the best place to find tourist shops specializing in good-quality Alentejo products.
At the top of the street is Evora Cathedral, a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles, more Romanesque on the outside, more Gothic on the inside. It was completed in 1204. The carved stone figures of the Apostles at the main doorway should not be missed.
Across from the cathedral is the home to which Vasco da Gama retired following his great voyages of discovery. Nearby is the Evora Museum, established in 1915 in a former palace of the archbishop. It is best known for its 16th- and 17th-century Flemish and Portuguese paintings.
Fond as we are of Evora, it is the smaller towns and the countryside that most intrigue us. Life in the Alentejo countryside has not changed as much as it has elsewhere. This is a place where you can see shepherds tending their flocks by the side of a country road. Where you can watch a weaver turn out a fine rug. Where a potter will show you how he makes a fine piece of pottery just like the one you’ve decided to buy. Where, now and then, not all that infrequently, you spot someone trekking along on a horse-drawn cart.
A short drive northwest from Evora is the little town of Arraiolos, set upon a hillside, lying under the shadow of a church and the ruins of a 14th-century castle. It is an attractive town, with neat whitewashed houses. Nearly all of the doors and window frames are painted either blue or yellow, a tradition that dates back to the centuries of occupation by the Moors, who believed that those colors helped ward off evil spirits.
What draws us to Arraiolos is that in Lisbon and in Evora we have admired the Oriental-styled rugs and wall hangings that bear its name. There is not much to the village—a small square, only one miniature main street, and a couple of smaller still side streets. Everything centers on the world-famous Arraiolos rugs that its citizens produce.
The people of Arraiolos may have started making hand-stitched rugs at some point during the centuries that the Moors occupied the area. No one knows. It is generally believed, however, that the village’s rug-making tradition is more accurately traced to the demand for fine carpets and rugs that started during the Age of the Discoveries, when Portuguese explorers returned from their journeys to India and Arabia with samples of Persian carpets and rugs.
They still make them the way they always have—with cross-stitch embroidery, not woven—in workshops behind and above the rows of small shops located near the center of the village. You can watch groups of women work their needles with amazing speed. But an Arraiolos rug, with its Oriental-inspired geometric pattern or floral design, is a truly distinctive work of art. It takes weeks to produce a large one, which explains why they are expensive, although you can purchase one here for 10 to 20 percent less than in Lisbon and for much less than back home.
Villages every bit as charming as tiny Arraiolos are the rule, not the exception. Another one near Evora that we discover is Azaruja. We had read that there are a dozen cork factories in the area, as well as an artisanal handicraft store in town that sells all sorts of cork products. But there is no handicraft store to be found anywhere along the town’s two tiny main streets.
Fortunately, we had asked someone at our hotel to write out in Portuguese exactly what we are looking for. We show it to a man who we encounter walking down the street. He motions for us to get in our car and follow him. In a few minutes, we are in a nice home, behind which there is a large workshop. It is filled with objects made of cork. From our limited knowledge of Romance languages, we understand that this is the man’s son, that he is a fine cork craftsman, and that this is the place you go to in Azaruja to buy cork products. We end up with a box full of unusual items, including a cork nativity set, a few cork birdhouses, even a couple of cork ladles. Alentejo people leave cork ladles by the sides of streams because they believe that cork does not transmit germs.
Also within easy driving distance from Evora is the magnificent hilltop castle village of Monsaraz. The Portuguese call it “The Eagle’s Nest.” It’s easy to see why. It’s dazzling from a distance. There is a steep climb up, after which you are rewarded with an amazing panoramic view. Its narrow cobblestone streets, lined with 16th- and 17th-century homes and shops, many of them with ironwork balconies, are pedestrian traffic only. It is tiny—only a few streets and one large castle—but well worth a visit if you are partial to picture-perfect places.
These picture-perfect places abound in the Alentejo. We pick one for our second base of operations here. The Convento de São Paulo is one of the most unusual and delightful hotels we have ever stayed in. Set in a forest high up in the Serra d’Ossa north of the small village of Redondo, this wonderfully restored 14th-century monastery is as pleasant and peaceful a setting as can be imagined.
There are some 50,000 azulejos (the distinctly Portuguese blue painted tiles) in Convento de São Paulo, including those that make up its famous 62-yard-long corridor, which tells the stories of Christ, and of Joseph in Egypt.
The nearest hamlet, Redondo, is famous throughout Portugal for its potteries and plates. With the aid of a note written for us in Portuguese by a clerk at the hotel, we locate the best place to buy them. Olaria Jeremias is a factory, showroom, and family residence all rolled into one large center. In one area, a potter is at a wheel churning out his wares. In another area, a man operates a small blast furnace. Elsewhere, women paint pottery pieces and plates. The showroom contains a large selection of colorfully painted works as well as natural terracotta pieces. We purchase a number of fine works at bargain prices.
One of the things we like about Redondo is that a restaurant there, Rei dos Frangos (“King of the Chickens”), serves the best grilled chicken we’ve tasted in Portugal. We don’t visit the Alentejo—or Portugal, for that matter—because of the food. It’s good—restaurant meals are a lot like home cooking—but nothing like Italy or France. Most meals begin with a platter of cheese, followed by vegetable soup. Pork and lamb are favorite main dishes. Portions can be huge. It is often a good idea to order a half portion.
Also not far from Convento de São Paulo is Villa Viçosa, where streets are lined with orange trees, doorways and windows of buildings are framed with weather-worn marble, and a former royal summer palace now houses a museum dedicated to hunting, Roman ruins, and Portuguese pottery.
Also nearby is the fortified town of Estremoz, renowned for having the liveliest country market in the Alentejo. It is also known for its unglazed pottery and as a center of the Alentejo’s marble industry. The Alentejo has been exporting marble to Spain and Italy since the days of the Romans.
Estremoz is also famous for the brightly colored figurines produced here. Animals, saints, and peasants are favorites. We meet a man from Germany who has traveled all the way here to buy some more figures for a nativity set he had purchased on an earlier visit.
Further north, an easy day trip from Convento de São Paulo, is the place that many consider to be the most picturesque hilltop village in Portugal—Marvão.
Just 11 miles northeast of Portalegre, almost on top of the Spanish border, Marvão clings to a 2,838-foot high cliff. From a distance, it looks impregnable, an awesome fortress. We ascend slowly on a hairpin climb.
Tiny Marvão is every bit as stunning up close as it is from a distance. We look over its walls and savor the grand vista of the Alentejo plains. We admire the fine features of its whitewashed 16th- and 17th-century homes. We enjoy the little touches, such as the tiny faces carved in stone above many of the doorways.
As we leisurely walk down a stone street in Marvão and chat about what we will do tomorrow in Lisbon, for a moment we feel as if we are about to leave the Middle Ages behind. And we realize that the feeling of stepping back in time to an era when life was slower and more simple is exactly what we enjoy so much about this delightful area that the Portuguese call the Alentejo.
If You Go
When to go: Spring and fall are considered the best times to visit. Portugal has perhaps the most appealing climate in Europe, so off-season travel can provide virtually the same enjoyment but with the added advantage of reduced costs.
Safety: Portugal is considered one of the safest destinations in Europe. The crime rate is very low.
Costs: Portugal is considered one of the most reasonably priced, good-value European destinations. The Lisbon area is more expensive than the rest of the country, but considerably less costly than other major European cities.
Food: Portuguese cuisine is excellent, of wide variety, and reasonably priced. Almost all restaurants serve portions so huge that it is often a good idea to place a half order or split the meal with your companion.
Accommodations: Portugal offers an abundant supply of hotels in all price ranges, including utterly delightful pousadas—medieval castles, palaces, country inns, and convents that have been converted into modern hotels with all the amenities. All hotels are subject to strict government standards.
Language: Portuguese is, of course, the official language, but English is widely understood and spoken, particularly by younger people. Unlike Spanish, many Portuguese words are not pronounced as they would appear to be, so it is a good idea, when possible, to write out a word or phrase that is causing confusion.
Information: For more information, check out VisitPortugal.com.
Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents.