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Seeking a Sustainable Trip to Portugal? The Alentejo is one of the most Sustainable destinations in Europe

Sustainable travel is a word we are hearing a lot of these days.  And, sustainable practices don’t just apply to the travel industry, they apply to all of us. We need to make smart choices, and not contribute to over tourism or factors that will have a negative impact on our planet. We all need to do our share. And by escaping the crowds we can make a real difference.

The UN Environment Program and UN World Tourism Organization define sustainable tourism as taking into "full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”

Sustainable travel starts with understanding the impacts of tourism, both bad and good. Then an effort by all of us to reduce negative impacts and focus on the positive ones.

Meet Portugal’s Alentejo, a place that remains sustainable being both rural and natural with thousands of miles of cork forest and a richness of wildlife. Here the balance between nature and humanity goes back millennia. It is a place with a clear harmony between nature and humanity — people and nature live in balance-in Montado cork forests that protect and are impervious to drought or fire. Here you can hike for hours and see no one. Here you can dine on locally harvested foods in small walled towns amid the locals, and no one else. Here you swim in an ocean cove, and nothing in view is built by humans. Here you see industries that conserve nature — from olive oil to cork to wines. And the only crowds are made of sheep, and the lines are the endless straight old road made for cycling.

This is the reason why the Alentejo was included as one of the 52 world destinations to visit by those who want to contribute to "a more sustainable planet” as chosen by The New York Times. The newspaper placed the Alentejo in one of the 52 Places for a Changed World, a list that highlighted destinations around the globe where travelers can be part of a solution. The article points to the sustainable wine movement in the region, where sheep help clear wine fields, and water is used sparingly. 

The Wines of Alentejo Sustainability Program was established back in 2014 - the first such program of its kind in Portugal. It has grown to include more than 425 wineries, and almost 50% of all vineyard land. The "Sustainably Produced” moniker is awarded to wines that are balanced in their growth, and their taste. The New York Times put it this way: By prioritizing water conservation, with measures like developing cover crops for water retention and creating ponds to collect rainwater, the program has helped wineries reduce their average water consumption by 20 percent; some that were using 14 liters of water to produce 1 liter of wine have decreased their needs to 6 liters of water.

The Alentejo is one of Portugal’s innovative wine countries. There are eight sub-regions of Alentejo wine, including the enchanting towns of Évora, Moura, Portalegre, and Redondo.  Different microclimates and the moderating coast influence led to a wide array of wines. And the grape varieties are almost all distinct to the Alentejo. 

In the Alentejo wine has been cultivated for millennia, and you can experience its creation today and learn from local winemakers. During the grape harvest, running from late August into September, wineries offer a harvesting experience with grape stomping and cellar tours. The Alentejo Wine Route is the perfect way to find and experience new wines.

The Montados cork forests of the Alentejo surround wine country — and serve as refuge to rare species of plants and animals. The cork oak is the key to the Alentejo’s living landscape.  Cork forests extend for miles and each tree plays a role in this balanced ecosystem. Their bark is harvested every nine years, and a cork tree can live for centuries. After the bark is harvested, the trees light up the day with their red hues, a sign of the only tree that has a renewable bark. 
The azinheira oaks provide food for animals, which allows for the preservation of native species and the continued use of traditional herding techniques. The oaks are resistant to both drought and fire. And, the shade of the montados offers a unique place to sit back and enjoy the view of vineyards and olive groves. 

Cork Country has distinct seasons, with a green spring rich in wild flowers. In the early summer the sun turns the montado plains to gold. The winter is mild, but the open fields become bright yellow-green, and the shepherds dress in long capes to stay warm.

The Portuguese look at the Alentejo, with its own dialect, strong Arab flavors, white washed towns, and unique songs, as its own place. Flowing from the southern bank of the great River Tejo to the mountains of the northern Algarve, the Alentejo is bound by the Atlantic to the West, and Spain to the East. Its name means "Beyond the Tejo,” and it occupies more than 30% of Portugal, with a population of less than 600,000.   It's an hour's train ride or drive from Lisbon. The Northeast is famed for its villages along the Castle Route: Nisa, Castelo de Vide, Marvão, Portalegre and Alter do Chão. Further south, the landscape becomes warmer and flatter. Around Évora we find the monumental towns of Monsaraz, Vila Viçosa, Estremoz, and Santiago. 

The Alentejo is home to a conserved Atlantic coastline, with miles of wild and secluded beaches carved into cliffs. The Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina Nature Park covers more than 60 miles of protected seacoast, stretching from São Torpes near Sines to Cape São Vicente, Europe’s most south westerly point, in the Algarve the beaches are untouched with long swathes of sand framed by limestone cliffs. The clean Atlantic is viewed from well designed hiking and cycling trails that run the whole coast. This just one of many natural reserves. The Sado Estuary Nature Reserve features grassy sand dunes, tidal pools and many local species of fauna and flora. At the River Sado’s estuary there is a community of dolphins. Heading south along the Atlantic Coast, the crystal-blue waters and golden sand of the Lagoas de Santo André e da Sancha Nature Reserve host thousands of migrating birds take shelter here between seasons. The lagoons are separated from the Atlantic, and great for families. Across the region, along the border with Spain, the River Guadiana is wild, set between the olive groves of Serpa and the cork oaks of Mértola. Here you can explore the Vale do Guadiana Nature Park. Enjoy the beautiful landscape of hills and fields, and look for the hundreds of protected species like the black stork or the Iberian lynx. The Serra de São Mamede Nature Park is full of oaks, chestnuts, and olive trees with more than 800 species of plants. The walled village of Marvão, set atop a high mountain, provides a view of raptors soaring in the sky below.

Today, we don’t want to travel to create pollution, crowding or damage the natural environment with over tourism. It can hurt a local population by pushing up prices or creating unsustainable traffic, and pollute water and air. But with it cycling trails, hiking wonders, and ancient balance of nature that makes the montados of the Alentejo a sustainable, wonderful destination — not for all, perfect for those who care about tomorrow as well as today.

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