WITH so many cheap fares to western Europe, it’s hard to imagine there are many areas left untouched by mass tourism.
Portugal is no exception. With demand for villas, golf courses and modern hotels, the country is a well-established destination for the UK market.
Against all the odds, however, there are still undiscovered corners, and for those who don’t want to bump into their neighbours, suggest Alentejo.
The largest region in Portugal, Alentejo is home to just 10% of the country’s population, yet offers the biggest concentration of historical hotels – known as pousadas – in the country.
The concept of pousadas is nothing new. But the four-star converted convent in Vila Viçosa that was to be my home for the next three nights looked so superior I’d driven past it thinking it must be some sort of palace.
I later learnt the palace was the building next door – a magnificent structure that hits you as you turn a near-blind corner.
The region is so peaceful, often the only sound is a bell resonating from a nearby convent or church; some having been lovingly restored by The Pousadas de Portugal Group as places to stay and eat.
Those looking for manicured golf courses and modern gyms won’t feel at home here. Sell the area to families and couples wanting to immerse themselves in local culture.
An easy routine soon befalls guests at the converted convent of Dom Joao IV: step down from a wrought-iron four-poster bed after a night of deep slumber; walk just far enough to take breakfast on a huge balcony overlooking perfectly tended gardens.
Then spend up to two hours grazing on fresh coffee, mango juice, hot croissants, breads, jams and eggs cooked to perfection before finally descending on the town of Vila Viçosa in time for lunch.
The town consists merely of a double tree-lined street with a castle at the top and a modern sculpture in the middle that strangely befits its surroundings.
Despite the lack of visitors, it has more cafés than you can shake a Biscotti at, each with outdoor seating in the pleasant October sun.
There are no nightclubs but evenings are spent in cosy restaurants sampling hearty produce including artisan cheeses, sausages, patés and fresh breads with locally produced olive oil. Reds dominate 80% of the regional wineries with full-bodied Shiraz a speciality.
Days can be frittered away wandering around the castle walls taking in the views from on high; spying through the windows of tiny crooked houses that are either post offices or gift shops; staring at beautiful marble floors – the mainstay of the local economy – or getting lost in the winding streets that all seem to lead back to the castle.
If you’re lucky enough to be travelling with a responsibly-minded driver, talk them into a day trip to the Monte Seis Myrias vineyard – a tiny building in the middle of Estremoz.
It isn’t clearly signposted, but it’s worth asking for directions. After an hour sampling jammy reds, crisp Chardonnays, and white and tawny port in an individual tasting session, I knew I’d uncovered a gem lost to those who haven’t yet ventured past the Algarve.
Where is it?
In the middle of Vila Viçosa, a two-hour drive from Lisbon in the heart of the country, behind the town’s palace.
4 / 5
What’s it like?
A charming and sympathetically-converted 16th century convent with many original features including stone walls, high arched ceilings and original paintings. The property is vast, but intimate, with only 34 bedrooms (all of which are enormous), two suites, a five-star restaurant and an outdoor swimming pool.
4 / 5
Rooms have extremely large balconies overlooking lovingly tended gardens. The bathrooms are equally large with marble floors, whirlpool baths and a separate walk-in shower. Church bells aside, the four-poster, king-size bed did a great job of lulling me to sleep and the wooden shutters blocked out all the light.
5 / 5
Definitely, if you can find anybody, that is. Despite the low staff/guest ratio, the service was always friendly.
3 / 5
Eat in or out?
In. The hotel’s restaurant attracts many locals on a Saturday night and serves an extensive menu of hearty patés, soups and meats from the region. Forego a starter in favour of the cheese board, which comes on a giant platter with pickles, breads and mustards, or opt for the self-service dessert tray laden with more than 20 tempting puds.
4 / 5
The property also has a small gymnasium, two meeting rooms and late check-out (2pm) for those who are struck by the sleepiness of the town.
3 / 5
Total rating: 23/30
Sample product:Keytel International offers one night from £62 per person twin-share including breakfast in October. Commission of 10% is paid to agents who use the company’s booking line: 020-7616 0300.
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