“Follow my mustache!” says enthusiastic tour guide Libânio Murteira Reis from Mendes & Murteira, a cultural tourism company that’s been operating for 33 years in Portugal.
Reis brings both his knowledge as a historian and a humorous flare, making him the perfect person to lead the first day of our FAM in the Alentejo region in south-central and southern Portugal.
As an extension of this year's Air Canada Race, which took place in the medieval city of Évora, I join eight travel advisors (two Canadians, six from the U.S.) to explore active/nature-oriented activities in this lesser-known part of the country, hosted by Visit Alentejo, Air Canada, and United Airlines.
Portugal’s magical stones
We drive out from Évora upon well-maintained roads and highways with barely another vehicle to slow us down. But when we turn onto a dirt track, things get bumpy quickly.
It’s been intentionally left in rough shape, according to Reis, “to limit visitors” in order to protect the historic site we’re approaching from too much impact, “but lots of people still come.”
READ MORE: “The Pinkoes are triumphant!” Air Canada Race wraps up in Portugal
When we get there, it’s clear why folks are not deterred by potholes. We reach the Cromlech of the Almendres, Portugal’s version of Stonehenge.
The cromlech consists of dozens of “megalithics” (a large stone prehistoric monument or structure) ranging from two to more than six feet tall pointing to the sky, arranged in an ellipses that’s 205 feet long and 105 feet wide.
While the Cromlech of the Almendres isn’t as catchy as “Stonehenge” (marketing folks at Portugal tourism take note), the cromlech is older by several thousand years, predating even the pyramids in Egypt, and because this site is less known, it makes for a much more enjoyable, and arguably magical, tourist experience.
We arrive late morning and have the stones, situated near groves of cork oak trees, all to ourselves for a good 15 minutes before a family of tourists show up. That gives us lots of time for pictures and a “private” tour.
Reis points to how the megaliths line up with the sun during each equinox. He says that with the technology of the time (ropes, sticks, and brawn) “the effort to create this is comparable to building the Empire State Building.”
He emphasizes that this site was chosen because it’s a place of power, and we get the chance to touch the stones and “feel” the energy—something that’s a definite no-no at Stonehenge—making this a very special and unique Alentejo treasure.
As a group of schoolchildren arrive, we drive to our next “big stone” location.
On the roadside, storks ignore us from their huge nests atop utility poles, and Reis explains that Alentejo has some of the best and oldest megaliths in Europe—without the crowds and more freedom to experience the feel of these unique locations.
We turn onto another road that jostles us side to side and tosses us up in our seats. Again, Reis says this route has intentionally been left in disrepair, inviting only those truly curious for the special experience of visiting our next destination—the Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro.
After a short walk up a dusty path, we circle the “dolmen,” made of huge stones leaning against each other to form what was once a tomb for a “VIP.”
Once more, no one is here when we arrive, making us feel like the very important people.
Made for the adventurous
It makes me ponder this unique strategy to not attract too many people, and only the more adventurous, which seems to fit Portugal’s larger tourism philosophy.
“Canadians are a marvelous market for us; it’s growing fast,” says Vitor Silva, president of Visit Alentejo. “But we’re not a mass tourism region, and we don’t want to be. We’re looking to attract clever people who want to understand us. We’re discussing the type of tourist we want, and how we want to receive them. We’re not just selling a service.”
Reis is more blunt, even if he says it with an utterly charming laugh: “Send people with money and education who can afford and appreciate what we have to offer.”
He also advises the agents on the tour to book their clients in Alentejo “for at least a couple of nights. A week is better.”
Stay, sit, sip
He’s right about how much there is to do and see in Alentejo—visiting vineyards for wine tastings (or even picking and stomping grapes, if the season’s right), exploring olive farms and sampling some of the best olive oil in the world, or learning about how to get cork from a tree.
(Portugal’s the world’s top producer of cork, Reis tells us, as he proudly tips his cork fedora, “and it requires a lot of skill to not harm the tree.”)
Alentejo’s also known for its marble quarries, and it’s definitely worth stepping into a cemetery here. They’re filled with locally-sourced marble tombstones and mausoleums, which are eerie yet beautiful.
“When people want to see a lot in a short amount of time,” Reis says, “it’s rubbish.”
Agents should pay heed. While Reis’ delivery is part standup, the subtext feels prophetic.
Like the region’s tourism bureau, he’s not looking for any traveller. He wants people who are going to get it.
Compared to Lisbon and the Algarve, Alentejo’s largely undiscovered by the tourist masses—but how long can that last?
Now is the time for clients looking for affordable quality experiences to visit this diverse, friendly, and delicious land.
At present, Portugal’s price point is remarkably reasonable. As Air Canada’s Director, Sales and Global Accounts Tracey Bellamy points out, the bus from Lisbon to Alentejo’s largest city, Évora, averages only six euros.
“And most Portuguese people speak excellent English and/or French,” she says.
Évora is a beautiful and charming city of 50,000 people, with cobblestone streets and amazing food, from local pork to vegan specialties.
It’s the perfect jumping off point for bike and walking tours. Turaventur is a local, family-owned tour operator known for putting together fun and unique immersive packages that can include a guide or be self-guided.
For eclectic accommodation and eats with historic ambiance, Alentejo has numerous monasteries, convents, and fortifications converted to hotels or restaurants, such as castle-turned-hotel Pousada Castelo Estermoz.
“Alentejo checks all the boxes,” says Bellamy.
Where Madonna rides horses
When we head for Alentejo’s coastal vacation towns of Tróia and Porto Covo, tour guide Eusebio Lima of Eagle Travel Tour tells us more about the value to be found here.
He says that in Portugal, a traditional restaurant can be cheaper than McDonald's, “including a glass of wine.”
That’s hard to process given the solid infrastructure, including drinkable tap water, and Alentejo’s seemingly endless natural and historical beauty.
It’s a huge draw that’s attracting mega stars like George Clooney, Sharon Stone, and Tom Brady to buy land in the region.
Our guide, Lima, points at Comporta beach as we pass, where pop star Madonna’s been known to ride horses.
Also in the region, shoe designer Louboutin opened a gorgeous boutique hotel for the rich and famous while the heiress of the Inditex Group (which owns Zara) will be building a luxury beach resort in Tróia.
Since we aren’t quite at that level (yet), we stay at the hotel Editory by the Sea in Tróia. Their modern, slick apartments range from a bachelor to two bedrooms and start at about 100 euros.
Tróia boasts almost 60 km of sandy beaches, including an amazing 1.7 km raised boardwalk that twists through the diverse flora of the dunes. The easiest way onto the boardwalk is from the marina, which is a one-minute walk from our hotel.
Birds by the boardwalk
We set sail from the marina with tour operator Vertigem Azul. “The owners started the company in the ‘90s with a zodiac,” our captain explains.
Now, we enjoy ourselves aboard a five-star catamaran with five bedrooms. “Last week, we had a wedding on board.”
We’re going for a half-day of sun, sailing past an old fortification that’s now an orthopedic hospital and laughing like kids at a pair of dolphins breaking water.
“They’re locals, part of a pod of 25,” the captain says. “We’ve been following them for nearly 25 years.”
Back at the marina, there are loads of eating options by the water, including steak and sushi, but we go for a short drive to Escola Primária.
As the name implies, it’s located in a converted school. It’s packed with locals well-versed in the quality and quantity the restaurant delivers.
We’re wined, dined, and stuffed with steak, grouse, pickled veggies, and cuttlefish stew.
Fortunately, there’s time for one last early morning walk along Tróia’s beach boardwalk before catching the flight home.
Ahead, a thick line of mist cuts through the beach vegetation. I share the boardwalk with one other person who quickly passes, leaving us both to our solitude, a sense of the mystical, the chirping of birds—and it doesn’t cost either of us a thing.
Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today! Click here to follow PAX on Facebook.