They say that people in the Alentejo remember what the rest of the world has forgotten. I have to admit I have used that as a lead more than once. But after the last few weeks, I saw that it was pretty true. My family and I spent 7 weeks living in the Alentejo - we bought a rural farmhouse not far from Estremoz - and transplanted ourselves into an area where we knew no one.
I had not spent a whole month in Portugal since I was still in college, so a good 30 years ago. Back then, Portugal was transforming based on its membership into the EU - it was far from any bucket list or top retirement or relocation lists. So over the past three decades, so much changed, and while Portugal became more modern, and popular — it still kept on being Portugal.
Our new farmhouse, or an old Monte, is set in an olive grove that shares the hills around Estremoz with grape fields and cork trees. The economy is pretty diverse, aside from olive oil-there are two dozen wineries, numerous marble quarries, and a blooming tourism industry. Estremoz, with its tall marble castle keep, rises above the hills like a white ship, and still lives mostly in its 17th century walls. The city of about 8,000 has a thriving main square, called the Rossio, full of shops and excellent places to dine — and on Saturdays a big antique and food market. From there you climb to the old part of the city, set on a hill above the square. To get to the top, you cross through walls, past convents, and monuments. While the city boasts an impressive mix of high end and modern restaurants, it is far from overrun with tourists. Unlike Évora, where the streets of the old city are full of guests from around the world, Estremoz is lively but very Portuguese.
From a relocation perspective, it has the right mix; four major grocery stores, a public health clinic, an outdoor market, a public swimming pool, a highway to Lisbon, hiking trails just minutes away, and easy access to major stores in Évora on one side, and Badajoz on the other. Just 30 minutes from the frontier with Spain, Estremoz seems pretty looped into the modern world, as the border is open, and the currency the same. That means it is a fast drive to major stores, hardware and the tastes and looks of a very different country.
Over the summer we got a few emails asking how we were doing with the heat and danger of fires. The Alentejo is known for long dry summers with temps in the 90s at day, and 50-60s at night. Heat is part of the summer fun, and the Alentejo is much better adapted to the heat than most places. The rolling plains and hills are covered mostly by oaks and olives — with the trees having wide crowns, and the space between trees being considerable. The cork oaks, or sobreiros thrive, and along with their cousins the holm oak or azinheira, are very fire and drought resistant. They are the basis of the montados, or cork forests, that preserve the natural environment, and offer a crucial balance of nature. Our Monte sits in the middle of a centuries old olival (olive grove) with a massive stand of azinheira trees. The fire resistance of the forest, and the cool night temps make the hot dry summer of the Alentejo pretty tolerable. As does easy access to river beaches.
Then there were the people who came to introduce themselves; shepherds, retired military, local business owners, and farmers. Within a few days, we got help to clean the house, cut down the overgrown fields, and haul away hay bales. A cold Sagres beer was always welcome, and they liked to chat and socialize.
We met expats too, from New England and old England. We shared coffees, and dinner. By the end of our trip, we had a list of new friends.
There were critters too — a pair of wild foxes that came by every few days. Lots and lots of wild rabbits. Local weasels and even a scorpion. I did not know they lived in Portugal, too.
The house was amazing: More than 200 years of history, but with a happy vibe. Cool by day with its massive walls. We learned that our Herdade was once vast, with wine, olives and cows. Our kitchen had been the place where breakfast was made, and bread was baked each morning for the farm workers. It has a massive oven churning out fresh bread and meals. And the house had so much to discover. A Roman tomb, all kinds of fruit from figs to oranges to lemons. There were olive trees dating back centuries, and old azinheiras with huge canopies.
As for things to do, we were never without options. We took a tour of marble quarries, tasted wines at a nearby winery, explored the new tile museum, hiked to castles, explored nearby towns like Elvas and Veiros. Every Saturday we went to the Estremoz market, for antiques, cool collectibles, and a massive offering of cheeses, sausages, flowers and a few live birds. We even went to a bullfight and a running of the bulls.
The nicest surprise was the food scene. Estremoz is a good sized small city. But what amazes me is the quality of great places to eat: from high-end Alentejo cuisine to young chefs celebrating local ingredients; sushi and pizza to the classics. And even at the higher end spots, prices were well below what is average in the US. On the more traditional end, it would be hard to recreate the same meal at home for less. We tried all kinds of migas and grilled pork. We had elegant pizzas, carpaccio in seaweed mayo and some great stews. Add to that affordable wines, beer and plenty of good vibes.
But, after a few weeks the kids started to tire of Alentejo food. It is true that most eateries offer the same classics — and grilled pork, migas and coriander are everywhere. They craved Asia and Italian food-and were happy to cook their own in our newly renovated kitchen.
That said, food is a sort of nationalism to the Portuguese - a concept that is hard to explain. It starts with being one of the oldest nations in Europe - going on nine centuries. It also has a lot to do with practically having the same shape since the 13th century. I had a hard time explaining what I have learned over the years — that Portugal is a survivor nation. Forged by occupation by Romans and Arabs. Born into an endless struggle with a more powerful and growing neighbor. Invaded three times by the French under Napoleon. Surviving civil war, conflict, colonialism, dictatorship, revolution, hope and disappointment, isolation and economic disaster. The world Portugal emerged into in 1143 looks nothing like the place it thrives in today. Somehow, people learned to get by, survive poverty and hardship. Back to the food; it is a sense of who they are, what they identify with, and how they see the world. Simple, local and steeped in tradition, it offers a sense of place and being. It does evolve, but it does not change much. And being proud of one's food and wine is a lot better than other forms of nationalism — making Portuguese some of the most welcoming people in Europe today. But, behind that lacks a sense of being — wrapped in a negative viewpoint and infused with hope. They may argue and disagree on so much, but when threatened as a community, they will bond together and overcome. That's how they obtained some of the highest vaccination rates in the world today. So, bring on the grilled pork and migas, a cold Sagres and some sheep’s milk cheese. They may strive to be modern — but they are who they are.
And on hot days, a nice pool or beach was not far away. We enjoyed the new Azenhas del Rei beach on the Guadiana, and the beach at Monsaraz, set in between two fortified towns.
So, after 8 weeks in the Alentejo - was it worth it? Yes. The people are warm and welcoming, the pace of life slower, and there is little to sacrifice. I think we were all welcomed in a strange place, and disconnected from the domestic points of worry that we left on the other side of the Atlantic.
To those who seek to live in Portugal for reasons they struggle to explain I can say this — don’t run away from something, but aspire to something. As tricky as it is — learn to speak Portuguese, read the centuries of poets, playwrights and authors who defined our culture. Feel free to celebrate Portugal for all it is, and embrace a slower, more subtle way of life. Portugal is not perfect, but it is absolutely wonderful.