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.
Handicrafts in the Alentejo are changing. The time has gone when they were identified only with the rugged faces of the old masters, who worked in clay, iron, pewter, wood, cork, wicker, leather, hide or horn, and with the skilled hands of women who painted everyday dishes, made lace, did embroidery or spent endless hours in front of their looms.
The tradition passed from parents to children, but the masters became teachers of a wider public. In this way a new generation of artists began to emerge, who invested in what people sought after, leaving the rest to the place which is always kept for what is valued but has no use: the museum.
Among the Arts that are establishing the right to have a future, we here highlight only three: pottery and painting, work in hide and leather and textiles. They are linked to three well-defined centres of production/creation, which provide training, can be visited and have products for sale, in the workshops themselves and in shops selling regional handicrafts. Begin by going to the Tourist Offices, where good collections are on display, and pick up information about where you can see the artisans at work and can purchase some of their products.
Pottery and Painting
The Olaria (pottery) Pedrada de Nisa is unique in the Alentejo. After the red-clay pieces are shaped, they are decorated with designs involving small quartz stones, gathered from the Serra de S. Miguel, encrusted on the surface. In Nisa, also take a look at the Núcleo do Bordado (embroidery), situated in the Centro Transfronteiriço de Artesanato e Produtos Tradicionais (trans-frontier centre for traditional handicrafts and other products).
In Estremoz, its famous Barrística (figurines in clay) is outstanding. The best way to get to know it is to visit the Museu Municipal Prof. Joaquim Vermelho, which exhibits a notable collection of popular art from the 18th and 19th centuries. The traditional themes continue to inspire the city’s artisans. The niche saints and the nativity scenes are the best known and most sought after, especially by collectors. The nativity scenes include both sacred and profane figures and some of the latter are created and sold separately. But there are other recurrent themes: the whistles and the "nightingales”; the hooks for making socks, lace or mesh; the "Napoleons”, soldiers dressed in uniforms from the time of the French Invasions; the "blacks” with red skirts; the "Springs”, figures of a woman dressed as a dancer with an arc of roses from shoulder to shoulder and a hat decorated with little bows and flowers; and, laden with symbolism, the metaphor "love is blind”, the figure of a woman with eyes blindfolded.
As far as utilitarian and decorative pottery is concerned, although there is production in various locations, there are three names of reference: Redondo, Viana do Alentejo (today producing less) and S. Pedro Do Corval, the biggest centre of pottery in the Iberian Peninsula. Pitchers, amphorae, vases, jugs, plates of all shapes and sizes, cups, candle-holders, decorative garden pieces, all can be found in these welcoming places, which deserve a visit for this and other reasons. All the potteries are open to the public, which allows you to follow the process of creation from the shaping of the piece, through the drying, the firing in the kiln and the final decoration.
Work in leather and hide
In Terugem, near Elvas, and in Nossa Senhora de Machede, near Évora, there are tanneries which, despite some mechanisation, conserve a truly mediaeval atmosphere. It’s worth visiting them and having contact with the stages the leather goes through before arriving in the hands of the person who transforms it and produces the final piece of work.
As well as these two places, you can find excellent artisans working in leather and hide in Alter do Chão (belts and straps), in Cuba (footwear), in Almodôvar (footwear) and in Alcácer do Sal (belts and straps).
The carpets and rugs of Arraiolos, embroidered throughout the centuries, have come down to our present time thanks to the work, ingenuity and art of the various generations of embroiderers who, even today, are often to be seen sitting in the street doorway to their houses continuing to create, stitch by stitch, the traditional designs.
As far as is known, everything began in the 15th century when, on the orders of King Manuel I, various Moorish families were expelled from Lisbon. On the road to North Africa and southern Spain, some stopped off in Arraiolos and stayed there. Faced with a warm welcome from the locals, the artisans of these groups, disguised as "new Christians”, began to work in the manufacture of rugs and carpets. Thus the carpet-making of Arraiolos was born. Up to the present day, it has known three epochs, which correspond to three distinct decorative compositions.
Arraiolos continues to be the capital of this art which, in June, enjoys a high point of self-revelation in the celebration called "O Tapete está na Rua” (the carpet is in the street). Its shops are often places where the work is carried out and can be visited throughout the year and it is worthwhile watching live the skills of the embroiderers. But it is also worthwhile going up to the castle, the only circular one in the Alentejo, and to stroll along the narrow streets that cut through the rows of traditional houses, to go into the Igreja da Misericórdia (charity church) whose nave is covered in tiles which tell the story of the Misericórdia’s work. And, not to miss the local delicacy, you must taste the succulent pastéis de toucinho (sweet tartlets).
As well as the crafts mentioned, don’t miss a chance to appreciate the painted wooden furniture of Évora, Redondo and Ferreira do Alentejo, always complemented by chairs with rush or wicker seats; the furniture and decorative objects in wrought iron of Campo Maior and Ferreira do Alentejo, among which you will find contemporary pieces that are highly sought after; and throughout the region, the baskets, the objects in cork and horn, and the various expressions of pastoral art in wood.
In the Tourist Offices, you will find up-to-date information about the many Handicraft Exhibitions and Fairs which are held throughout the year.
The Museu de Artes Tradicionais de Évora (traditional arts and crafts museum), situated in the space that was the former Celeiro Comum (communal granary), has on display an excellent collection which brings together rare pieces associated with the heritage of the region, together with interesting contemporary creations. Its inexhaustible documentation centre, open to visitors, fulfils well the function of being guide to what is the essence of Alentejan handicrafts.