Lisbon sits beside the mouth of the Tagus (Rio Teju), the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula and long a considerable factor in the country's history and culture. It is fitting that the region through which it does not flow is named for its absence: Alentejo, a region in southern central Portugal, draws its name from Além-Tejo, meaning beyond the Tagus.
The area has a reputation as something of a backwater but, while it lacks the drama of the Douro wine region's terraced hillsides and the grandeur of Porto's historical buildings, the spare, sun-burnished countryside of Alentejo was as lovely as anything I saw in Portugal. Narrow roads are edged by tree stands and crumbling stone walls, winding past cork forests, vineyards, and the occasional medieval castle.
My base was Marotiera, a cork forest near the village of Aldeia da Serra, where I was able to watch the annual cork strip, or harvest. Local men, who have apprenticed for years in the trade, balance delicately on limbs to make their incisions with traditional axes. You can see more pictures here.
The provincial capital of Évora was a short car trip away, so my traveling companion and I headed over to see the remains of a Roman temple (the city is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and look for additional dining options. I was hoping to visit Tasquinha d’Oliveira, known for its traditional petiscos (the Portuguese take on tapas, with slightly larger portions), but due to time constraints headed for Restaurante Vinho e Noz instead. Stuck on a none-too-scenic side street, my expectations were low as we entered, side-stepping one of the ubiquitous Olá ice cream freezers that sit outside of countless Portuguese stores. But after a glass of vinho verde recommended by our server, I was ready to try the baby lamb chops. Perfectly seared in butter with garlic and mint leaves, they were all caramelized edges and pink, tender interior. I gnawed on each and every bone, of which there were quite a few (some were hidden under the pile of lackluster, cardboard-y french fries).
And of course, what's a trip to a region dotted with medieval castles without a good old-fashioned Renaissance Fair? Vila Viçosa obliged with just such an event, complete with fencing performances, shirtless young men wearing leather pants, and plenty of batik for sale. We purchased a large mug of homebrew from a friendly Lisboan. ("This is my hobby," he confided. "There's no money in it." Considering we got the beer and a commemorative mug for about $5, I see his point.) We took our beer up to the honest-to-goodness ramparts (built in the 14th century), accompanied by the sound of panflutes.
I'll leave the last word on the Tagus and its discontents to Fernando Pessoa, Portugal's greatest poet.