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I am not an Alentejano, but I would not mind being one

I seem to think that I was not intended to love the Alentejo but I do. My earliest memory of that vast province south of Portugal’s River Tejo was from around Christmas 1977. My father had brought us to Portugal to see our family. We took a road trip to get a sense of the place, which seemed to involve a lot of driving around in a rented Mini. He told us not to speak in English, because the Alentejo was full of Communists. And while there may have been some truth to that — he was more motivated about having lost his ceramic exporting business after the 1974 revolution, then by the local communists — who, as it turns out, were perfectly lovely people.

Fast forward to 1981. I am spending my first summer alone in Portugal, and my grandparents have rented a room in the Algarve for us to spend 2 weeks at the beach. But to get to that golden strip of sand from our home in Coimbra - one has to cross the Alentejo. Portugal is still a few years from joining the EU. Roads are, in one word, terrible. Two lanes were about as good as it got, and the long straight road of the Alentejo came as much needed relief after the curves and mountains of the Beira.

My grandfather loved food. He would travel based on restaurants. In fact, he had a favorite eatery in most big towns — and the Alentejo was on his list. The thing was, my grandmother was from Porto. To her, the further south you ventured, the worse the food became. And, she was convinced that no one south of the River Mondego could make rice. She thought that cooking with bread was primitive, and that the inclusion of coriander in any food was akin to cooking with soap. She hated the food of the Alentejo - and let us all know it. In all fairness, she also spent a week in Italy and almost starved.

So, one of my early memories of eating in the Alentejo was at a massive 1940s style eatery off the road in Montemor called O Monte Alentejano. And, my grandfather was right — the food was pretty good.

I am not of Alentejo stock. My family all hail from around a town called Vila Nova de Poiares, and Porto. I had absolutely no ties to the Alentejo- and as a kid, knew nothing of the Alentejo. But, like the old song - I didn’t know what I had in the Alentejo - but I began to remember. Despite the dislike by some relatives, and the jokes about the pace of life - I became a huge fan. Now granted, it has to be one of the fairest of the many fair parts of Portugal. A massive untouched Atlantic coast, sweeping plains, and light that would have enchanted Claude Monet, tiny towns set on hills and wrapped in castle walls, and the best cheese, olives and bread you can conceive of.

I came to see that the Alentejo was very much its own place- and as a result, the rest of Portugal just did not understand it. But it spoke to me. It called to me…

I was a city kid: Raised in Chicago, and loving hamburgers and hot dogs. The closest I ever got to my food source was in the aisles of Treasure Island, and the closest I got to the land was Grant Park. And then one summer my father shipped me off to Portugal for a month. Yes, there was one TV channel and on Saturday mornings instead of Tom and Jerry they showed cartoons from the Soviet bloc. Not only did the fish come with a head on it, so did the chicken and goat in the markets- and they hung on hooks no less. Did I mention that they ate goat?

So, the thing with the Alentejo that got me was this: It was the people. Portugal has a reputation for having a kind and welcoming population, and that is still very true. But the folks who live on the plains and hills of the Alentejo have to be some of the kindest people I have ever met. And, as a kid they made a real impression on me.

I have already written about a certain car problem in Ponte de Sor. But, I will never forget the old woman of Terena. On a hot August day, I was full of a desire to explore every castle in Portugal - including the one in Terena. Back in the 1980s most castles were like toothless giants, forgotten and alone — and a few had wooden doors. And, in the warmth of summer, those gates were locked in Terena - and my hope was to explore the castle. And it was hard not to want to, as Terna is one of those places where the scale of the ancient castle dwarfs the town itself. But the gate was locked, and there was no indication of who to ask. But an older gentleman passed by and directed me to a small house up the road. There the woman inside indeed had the key, and was more than happy to venture out into the hot afternoon to unlock it for us. Check that castle off the list, just 140 to go!

A few years later, I remember stopping with friends in an unknown town, Gavião, at a lucky time. The streets were pretty empty — except for a lone policeman.  We stopped and asked him where to eat. He paused, as if that were a question of great importance. He began to speak, but then stopped to consider the options again. In those days, the town of about 4,000 people offered 2 restaurants. He firmly recommended one. He gave us directions. He paused again. I’ll take you, he said, follow me. And we drove very slowly as he walked us to the door of his favorite eatery, introduced us to the chef. And, he was right - I still remember the fried robalinhos tail in mouth, fresh and delicious.

Lastly, that was the old man of Escoural. The cave at Escoural has some very cool pre-historic paintings. The cave was at the end of a long dirt road, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. An old man sat at the gate. Not only did he seem pretty jazzed to see us, he was happy to give us a tour. He was not an archaeologist, or a professor, but just a friendly local who volunteered at the cave, made sure it was taken care of and welcomed anyone who came down the dirt track.

That’s the thing about the Alentejo, is it is a place where folks seem to remember what the rest of us somehow forgot. And, with its brilliant sky, olive groves, wonderful food and wines, and unique landscapes, it is unique.

Life does move slower there, but by choice, and everything tastes fresh and wonderful. But what made this place so special to me was the fact that it was not in any way like anywhere else. And, that same fact may have been a draw to the Romans, Arabs and others who came and lingered. So, that makes it hard to compare the Alentejo to any place anywhere.  And, I am also surprised as visitors drive from Lisbon to the Algarve and miss the best part of Portugal. We stopped, all those years ago, and I am thankful today for it. I hope you take the time to get to know the Alentejo too.

* Jayme H. Simões is a travel blogger on Portugal. He grew up in Chicago but spent summers exploring Portugal with his family.

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