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The People of the Alentejo

So many things define the vast and open expanse of Portugal’s Alentejo: The past, the wine, the cork forests, the Atlantic Coast, the light… But to those who know this wonderful province - there is one thing that truly defines it:  The people. And, while the kindness of welcoming of the Alentejo people is something that permeates social media, it is often not given full expression into travel articles. Yes, that may sound like a cliché - but here is my story, and you can judge for yourself.  

So, it was the late 1980s - I had just gotten my driver’s license. My family lived in Coimbra, in the center/north of Portugal. As a teen, I was so lucky to be able to travel for 1-2 months to Portugal each summer. And, see the country transform as it entered the European Union.  Obviously, as a kid from Chicago, Portugal seemed an ancient and far off place. I was just learning to speak the language, and back then there was no internet, few American TV shows, no cable — in fact there were just 2 TV channels (more like 1 and ½).

So, each summer I grew my love of the outdoors, of hiking, traveling and exploring the countryside in search of special places. I soon discovered castles — of which Portugal had a generous portion. 

And, each summer we would spend a couple of weeks on the Algarve Coast. To get there one had to cross the Alentejo, 30% of Portugal in a vast, unique region. So, I took full advantage and planned the trip to explore new and far-flung corners of the province — and I soon fell in love. 

Nothing better captures the spirit than this simple tale of loss and redemption: My grandmother, aunt and I were heading South one August day, heading to the Algarve. We started early in the day in Coimbra, and drove the 2 hours to Tomar, for a quick visit with my uncle and aunt. From the City of Templars, the road meandered through pine forests all the way to the banks of the Tejo River, and we crossed at Abrantes. Here we caught the fabled EN 2, Portugal’s Route 66 that runs from Chaves to Faro across the heart of Portugal. Well paved and narrow, back then the road grew more and more open as the pines fell behind us, and the plains of the Alentejo opened up as we headed south. 

On the cassette deck I had a mix of Fado and music by Joaquin Rodrigo. We drove for miles without seeing a town. And then, in the distance we saw the market town of Ponte de Sor, surrounded by fields and olive groves. But just as we passed the old fashioned concrete sign that read "PONTE DE SOR” every light on the dash of our 1983 Renault 12 lit up. I pulled over, not knowing much about cars, but my aunt thought we could make it into to town and find a mechanic. The Renault limped into the center of Ponte de Sor, and it was midday — with the temperature about 40 Celsius, or 95 Fareinheight. The streets were mostly empty, but a local cafe was open. My aunt asked about a mechanic — and a local man, hearing our tale of woe, asked us to wait for a few minutes while he got help. About 15 minutes later, he returned with a Senhor Esperto, the local mechanic, who had been home having his lunch. Mr. Esperto told us not to worry, to sit down have lunch and he would push the Renault to his garage, check it out, and get back to us.

Given the warm day, the remoteness of our location, and the kind eye of Mr. Esperto, we obliged. 

There was a cool and inviting eatery right there, and off we went.  The menu was written on a blackboard on the wall, and offered Ensopado de borrego, a lamb stew, and Especialidades de porco preto - a mix of grilled pork. We had a plate of both, and found them to be wonderful - accompanied by a glass of the local red. And, even though my grandmother was from the North, and held Southern food in low regard (with a strong dislike of coriander), even she had to admit the grilled pork was outstanding.

By the time plates of Boleima de Ponte de Sor, a local pudding came out - Mr. Esperto was back, and he had some bad news. The fan belt had broken, and the engine had overheated. It would need a new head gasket, and it would take a week to get the parts and complete the repair.

This did not go over well, but Mr. Esperto had a plan, his friend Senhor Lucio, had a car, and he would gladly drive us right away to the Algarve with all our stuff.

Certainly, for a city-hardened American - this was a tremendous leap of faith - but the wonderful lunch, the nice local wine, the warm temps, and kindness of Mr. Esperto’s eyes put us all at ease- we agreed, piled into Mr. Lucio’s black Mercedes, and heading south thought cork forests and open plains. These were such kind people.

A week later, Mr. Lucio was back, he had our silver Renault with him - repaired and running about as well as a Renault 12 could run - and of course a bill - for 11,000 Escudos for the repair. In today’s dollars, it works out to less than $100.

And, I learned a lession. The kindness of Mr. Esperto, his ability to drop everything and help a stranger - the warmth and kindness of the people of a small town, and the instant trust and openness of people I had never met. This was the spirit of the Alentejo - something I have found time and time again - honest, welcoming people who go out of their way to help the stranger. From the man in Gavião who walked me to his favorite eatery on a summer's day, to the fellow in Castelo de Vide who helped find the key to the synagogue so we could visit it.

I say, without a doubt in my mind, that the people of the Alentejo are the kindest, friendliest, and most welcoming folk I have ever come across. They remember something the rest of us forgot along the way. My advice is talk to locals, even if they don’t speak you language 

And they make what is absolute enchanted place all the more special. The pace of life just moves slower, the weight of the world seems less. Under a light the blue sky, that seems layered and nuanced, the Alentejo moves at its own pace. And, like a fine wine, it gets better with each sip. 

Noon: The plumb sun falls fiery, gilding everything. The golden wheat waves, lightly ... sweetly ... The bloody, sensual poppies ...

Wings flap in the air; and girls,
Blooming flowers in beds, 
Show through the gold of the wheat
The profiles delicate and wheaten...

Everything is peaceful, chaste, and dreamy ... 
Looking at this landscape that is a canvas 
From God, I think then: Where there is the painter,

Where is there an artist of deep knowledge? 
Who can imagine the most beautiful of things? 
The most delicate and beautiful in this world 

Florbela Espanca

* 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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