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8 Best Things to Do with Kids in the Alentejo

The first time we took our daughter to the Alentejo she was 9 years old; she still remembers it as her favorite childhood adventure. Who could blame her? She was alternately a princess being rescued from a castle rampart and a goddess standing inside a Roman temple. Boys may see it differently: an armored knight defending his castle from the invaders at the gate, or a Roman soldier marching over the stones of a Roman road. Along with plenty of attractions and places to see that will appeal to tourists of all ages, the Alentejo is filled with things to do that spark a child’s imagination.

Sleeping in a Queen’s Castle 

Take sleeping in a royal palace, inside the castle of a real king and queen, for example. The Alentejo town of Estremoz is crowned by an 88-foot-high tower, surrounded by castle walls. Inside this medieval fortress, King Dinis built a luxurious palace for his queen, Reina Santa Isabel. Her palace is now a pousada – a luxury inn with lofty views of King Dinis’ realm.  Isabel was a generous queen known for her charity, and while staying in her castle the children will certainly hear the story of how her apron full of bread for the poor turned into roses. The Alentejo is filled with stories and legends like this one that will charm visitors of any age.

Walking on a Roman Road

It’s one thing to study about ancient Rome in school, but quite another to walk on the stones Roman soldiers laid to pave roads connecting their Iberian towns. Or to inspect close-up how they heated water for their bath houses or stand under the columns of a Roman temple. Not far south of Lisbon, archaeologists are still uncovering the Roman town of Mirobriga, exposing temple ruins, houses, shops, elaborate baths, stairways, mosaic floors, the forum and a long stretch of stone-paved Roman road.

Discovering Prehistoric Stones

Kids love a mystery, so the enigmatic stone monuments and dolmen in the Alentejo are sure to pique their curiosity. These megaliths are especially plentiful around Évora, and you can follow a marked driving route to find sites dating between 4000 and 2000 BC. The Cromlech of Almendres is an oval of 95 standing stones, some with carvings; historians still puzzle over their purpose. The Dolmen of Zambujeiro, Portugal’s largest chambered tomb, has a 40-foot entrance passageway leading to a room of enormous stones slabs. At the end of the megalith route, explore the Caves of Escoural to find 15,000-year-old cave paintings. 

Finding a Spooky Chapel of Bones

Probably not for younger children, but for teens with a taste for the Gothic, Évora’s church of São Francisco promises spine-tingling shudders. An entire chapel is lined in human bones arranged into patterns that cover the walls and decorate the ceilings and altars. The bones of about 5,000 monks were painstakingly arranged here in the 1600s as a grim reminder of human mortality. Such chapels are found throughout Europe, but Évora’s is the largest and most elaborate of them. The Franciscans surely didn’t intend it as a tourist attraction, but you can be sure it’s one your kids will relish in the retelling when they get home.

Guarding the Ramparts of a Mountaintop Castle

Hanging almost directly over Portugal’s border with Spain, which it was constructed to defend, the Castle of Marvão has everything a kid’s imagination could dream of. High walls that enclose it are topped with towers to climb and battlements that are safe to walk, offering views across neighboring Spain, as well as vertigo-inducing views straight down. 
The castle sits at the highest point in Marvão, itself set atop a escarpment nearly 3000 feet high. The entire town is surrounded by walls, entered through a massive gate. Another gate guards the castle; inside is a vast courtyard, built so that sounds echo to make a small group of defenders seem like a larger army to attackers outside. Just inside the gate, follow stairs into to a gigantic vaulted cistern where water was stored to withstand a siege. The best part? The castle is open at night, so you can explore after dark with flashlights. Of all the places to go in the Alentejo, this may be your kids’ favorite.

Making their Own Soap

Kids won’t need to be urged to wash their hands frequently when they can do it with soap they’ve made themselves. Beginning in the 1500s, the area around the town of Belver was the center for soap making in Portugal, and today those traditions are revived at the Museu do Sabão -- Soap Museum. After they see how soap was made in early times, kids can make their own, using glycerin and coloring it with safe dyes. Admission, which includes making soap, is free for children under 6 and only 1 euro for ages 6-12. Adults are 2 euros, so this is a popular thing to do for families traveling on a budget.

Riding a Horse though Portugal’s Wild West

The Alentejo’s vast plains and open landscapes meet the Atlantic Ocean abruptly, in a coast bordered in long surf-washed beaches backed by soaring cliffs. Add to this landscape the fabled Lusitano horses and it’s easy to see why the western Alentejo is one of the best places to go for trail rides. The Natural Park of Southwest Alentejo and the surrounding sparsely settled coast and farmlands are dotted with horse farms catering to families, with riding lessons, trail rides, pony rides for young children and even week-long riding holidays. Most combine rides along the beaches with trails across fields of yellow flowers, under forests of fragrant eucalyptus and pine, and through groves of cork trees with their cinnamon-colored trunks.  

Learning to paddleboard 

The Alentejo’s wild coast is well-known to avid surfers, but the Atlantic shore also has kinder, gentler waves and long beaches that are perfect for families. At the pretty little town of Vila Nova de Milfontes, Praia da Franquia sits at the mouth of the Mira River, with enough waves to play in, but safe for kids. The beach is good for paddle boarding and windsurfing, and kids can take lessons here with qualified instructors. Lifeguards are on duty at the beach, which is within walking distance of the town. 
Or travel farther south along the cliff-lined coast to the town of Odeceixe. Here, at the mouth of the Seixe River, is a sandy beach with shallow water on one side and surf on the other; there’s a surf school if teenagers want to take on more of a challenge. 

* Barbara Radcliffe Rogers is the co-author of four books on Portugal and is the Luxury Travel Editor for BellaOnline. She covers Europe for PlanetWare.com. 

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