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.
To get to know the Alentejo well, you should visit it in all of the seasons. The landscape changes a great deal during the year and the rural activities that are most interesting to observe are seasonal. We begin the cycle in autumn.
September is the time for harvesting the grapes and making the wine. You can see this from any road where there are vineyards, but you would gain much from choosing an organised enotourism programme: you will be able to understand the skills, participate and, at the same time, taste the wines of previous years.
In October, stroll with no clear destination to contemplate the palette of colours provided by the chestnut trees where cultivation transforms the Alentejo. Enjoy the sun of the so-called "summer of the Quinces” and, if there are quinces where you are staying, ask your hosts if you can attend the making of home-made marmelada (quince jam). In November, taste the new wine on St Martin’s Day (11th November), a time when we are again blessed with several days of summer weather. It is an excellent time to visit places that have festivals, such as Marvão, Cabeção, Borba or Vila de Frades. Between November and January, watch the harvesting of the olives (the traditional way, not mechanised) and go inside an olive press.
In Spring, the countryside is filled with thousands and thousands of wild flowers, which are an inexhaustible subject for photographers. And when the first heat arrives, the sheep shearing begins. If there are no flocks where you are staying, ask where you might attend this.
On Ascension Day (a Thursday), take part in the ritual called Dia da Espiga (ear of wheat/rye/barley etc). Join with the people who go into the countryside and always put together a spray as tradition dictates: 5 ears of wheat, 5 poppies, 5 olive twigs, 5 white corn marigolds and 5 yellow corn marigolds. Hang these outside your front door for a year in the belief that they will bring, for you and for your family, bread, peace and happiness.
Suddenly, the yellows and golds take over the countryside. It is in June and July that the cereal harvest takes place, a time to imagine, at the height of the heat, the life of the men and women who, years ago, did by hand from sunrise to sunset what is now done by combine harvesters and balers. Later, when you listen to Alentejan singing, you will understand it better.
But it is not only the yellow of the dryness that you will see in the countryside: in the months of summer you can see the brilliant yellow of the fields of sunflowers and of lupins, the exuberant green of the vines and, around the reservoirs that irrigate the interior of the Alentejo, the strong colours of corn and of horticultural plots. In the Sado valley, it is an excellent time to see the rice fields and, above them, the painted pink and white of flamingos in flight.
In June and July and sometimes in August, don’t miss the cutting of the cork and the surprising orange colour of the bare trunks, which suddenly brighten up the montado (oak woodland and pasture). It is one of the most interesting activities in the region, one that demands great skills and provides work for anyone who has them. Since bark of the cork oak can only be removed every nine years, again ask your hosts if they can tell you where you can watch the activity happening.
At every season, whenever you sense in the air the strong smell of burned wood, stop and go to take a look at the traditional ovens making charcoal from holm-oak and olive wood.
If you are on the coast, visit a fishing port. Here, as in the rest of the world, the fishermen are courageous folk and fail to venture out to sea only when they are prevented from doing so. Go and watch them set out in search of everything that makes the difference in the Alentejan cooking of the coast and, when they return, attend the activity of the fish auction.