It is open space that appears to have no end. It is colours and smells that burst from the earth. It is the unmistakeable outline of rural architecture, present in the "montes” (farm complexes) of the great estates, in the oldest rows of houses in the cities, towns and villages or in the chapels, which paint with white the tops of hills. It is what is gleaned from the ways of being and doing, from the arts and skills that are conserved and renewed, from the tradition that is maintained and recreated, from the "choral chanting” that, with heart and soul, only the Alentjans know how to sing.
But the rural quality of the Alentejo of the 21st century is not exhausted in simply "country matters”. Through the not always positive changing fortunes of its history, this Region has preserved what today confers on it a value full of future promise: the smallness and environmental quality of its urban centres, the human scale, the silence, the peacefulness, the freedom, the freshness of the air we breathe. It is time. A way that is so peculiar of understanding time, making us feel under our skins that, finally, it is possible to live time in this dizzying world, allowing it to be exactly what it is: the most precious of our possessions.
Linked to Marian cults or to devotions to the saints, for those who enjoy benefits or seek mercy, the chapels are a fundamental element of rural life and of traditional architecture itself. Almost all of them date from the 16th to the 18th centuries, although there are treasures from earlier times. Normally they consist of three parts: the chancel, with vaulted dome, the central nave and, on the exterior, a covered porch, well ventilated and lined with benches for pilgrims to rest on. They are located either in or outside villages, on hilltops, or with party walls shared with isolated farms. Some have interesting tile cladding, frescos and extraordinary collections of votive offerings. They are always impeccably whitewashed for the festival days in honour of Our Lady or the Patron Saint. On these days they are guaranteed to be open. But they are almost all so beautiful in their genuinely rustic layout and outline that, even when they are closed, they are worth seeing.
Whenever there is a festival, there is also a fair. And, in some cases, the movement of people attracted to both is so great that the chapel has become too small to cope with so many pilgrims and has led to the construction of large sanctuaries.
Between chapels and sanctuaries, which should not be missed?
In Central Alentejo, there are four important sanctuaries of great value as regards heritage: N.ª S.ª das Brotas, in Brotas, Mora, set among the former houses of the fraternity, is an excellent example of rural architecture (2nd weekend in August); N.ª S.ª do Monte do Carmo, in Azaruja, covered with more than 1,500 votive offerings, is today part of a Rural Hotel installed in the former pilgrims’ houses (2nd Sunday in September); N.ª S.ª da Boa Nova de Terena is a fortified chapel of the 14th century (Easter Sunday and Monday); and, in Rococo style, N.ª S.ª d’ Aires, in Viana do Alentejo, also has an important collection of votive offerings in the Casa dos Milagres (house of miracles) and which, every festival year, is the occasion of a major horseback pilgrimage (pilgrimage, 4th weekend in April; fair, 4th weekend in September). As an example of a "mirador” chapel, we suggest you go up to N.ª S.ª da Visitação, in Montemor-o-Novo (2nd July).
In Lower Alentejo, have a look at Senhora da Represa, on the road from Cuba to Vila Ruiva, with a fantastic interior that is visitable on the day if its festival (Easter Monday) and through the programme called "The Fresco Route” (information from the Tourist Offices in Alvito, Cuba, Viana do Alentejo, Vidigueira and Portel); N.ª S.ª da Guadalupe, also known as S. Gens, in Serpa, is a beautiful church of Mudejar appearance (from Good Friday to the following Tuesday); N.ª S.ª de Aracelis, close to the hamlet of Salto, S. Marcos da Ataboeira (Castro Verde), is truly a "roof onto the world” of the south (1st weekend in September); and N.ª S.ª da Cola, between Ourique and Santana da Serra, is part of the Circuito Arqueológico da Cola, another weighty reason for visiting the place (7th & 8th September).
Finally, on the Alentejan coast, despite the many chapels to be found there, especially in the villages in the hills, we would highlight those whose religious festivals include sea or river processions involving decorated fishing boats, such as those at N.ª S.ª do Rosário, in Tróia (beginning of August), N.ª S.ª das Salas, in Sines (14th and 15th August) and N.ª S.ª da Graça, in Vila Nova de Milfontes (15th August).
You will find the calendars of festivals, fairs and pilgrimages for each locality in the Tourist Offices. Of the posters you will come across during your stay, take special note of their musical programmes and don’t miss those that include "Saias”, characteristic songs and dances of North Alentejo; the popular songs, called "Despique and Baldão”, typical of some of the council areas in Lower Alentejo and Coastal Alentejo; and the activities of choral groups who can offer you the magic of Cante Alentejano.