The allure of Monsaraz

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Monsaraz, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte, 2014.

Monsaraz is a medieval village perched on a hill in Alentejo. Squint at the landscape and you see an abstract painting of white and pink shapes. Open your eyes and you see a world of peace and tranquility. Faint are the echoes of the battle in which Geraldo Sem Pavor (Gerald the fearless) first conquered the town from the moors in the 12th century. Gone are the busy years, early in the 14th century, when king D. Dinis built a castle to ensure that this strategic hill would forever remain Portuguese. The soldiers who kept watch from the castle towers were replaced by photographers who shoot with their cameras the majestic view.

Vinicius de Moraes, the Brazilian poet who wrote the lyrics of Girl from Ipanema, recorded his feelings about this Alentejo village: “Thank you, Monsaraz, but I do not want to see you ever again because, if I do, I will stay forever inside your white walls amidst your men and women with eyes full of honesty.”

Amalia’s beach

AmaliaBeach

The great fado singer Amalia Rodrigues built a beautiful house on a cliff with an expansive view of the ocean. The adjacent beach is called Amalia in her honor.

To visit this magical place, you need to drive to Brejão, a village on the southern tip of the Alentejo coast. Stop in one of the coffee shops and ask for directions to the beach (you have to follow a hidden path alongside a small brook).

This secluded beach is a perfect setting for declarations of love. The spirit of the place will inspire you. But if words fail you, you can always say: this beach was named after Amalia, a singer who sang about the joy of love and the pain of loss. I brought you here because I love you and I never want to lose you.

 

Few people know that you can rent Amalia’s house by emailing the Foundation Amalia Rodrigues (secretariado@amaliarodrigues.pt). But now you do!

A classic Alentejo recipe

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The dining room was full but Claudia Santiago, the chef at Flor da Rosa, kept her cool. She runs the kitchen like an orchestra conductor, making sure that the rhythm is just right and that all the subtleties of the cuisine of Alentejo are reflected on the plate.

After the lunch service, we told Claudia how much we liked her cooking and asked whether she had any culinary secrets. She confessed that: “we have an amazing ingredient which are the sausages made from Alentejo black pork; everything they touch turns to culinary gold.”

We asked Claudia whether she would share a recipe with our readers. She described several classic desserts but they were all too complex. So, we opted for the marinated rabbit recipe which is simple but delicious. Here it is.

Claudia Santiago’s marinated rabbit (“coelho de escabeche”)

Cook the rabbit in a rich bouillon made with parsley, mint, cloves, and carrots. Then, grill it over charcoal for a few minutes to intensify the flavor of the meat. Shred the meat. To make the marinade, fry minced onion and garlic with a bay leaf in olive oil. Add vinegar. Combine with the rabbit and let it marinade over night. Decorate with peppers and carrots and serve.

Enjoying this dish accompanied by Alentejo wine in the elegant dining room of Flor de Rosa, made us feel like lords of the manor.

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Flor da Rosa.

The serene beauty of Flor da Rosa

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On the way to Flor da Rosa, a medieval castle converted into an historical hotel, we traveled through small villages lost in time and fields of cork and olive trees. Nothing prepared us for the sight of the castle standing proudly on the Alentejo plain.

The hotel has 24 rooms with beautiful views of the countryside and a swimming pool that overlooks the castle. The space is designed to offer guests great privacy. And the staff is so attentive that they made us feel like royalty.

The next morning, we woke up in luxurious silence, far from the cacophony of modern life. We relaxed by the pool until it was time for lunch. We then headed to the restaurant where we tried some wonderful renditions of the local gastronomy: purslane soup, fish in coriander sauce, and marinated rabbit. These courses were followed by cheese from Nisa and Serpa. Our taste buds were celebrating these amazing gifts from the shepherds of Alentejo when a sampling of desserts arrived. They had uncommon names like “sericaia” and “encharcada,” and rightly so for everyday words cannot begin to describe these sweet creations.

We had a great time sightseeing around Crato, the village where the hotel is located. In the late afternoon, the church bell reminded us that the sun would soon retire and that it was time to return to the castle. As we crossed the vaulted arches, we heard birds singing. These are the same sounds that were heard in the castle during the middle ages. Flor da Rosa is a precious time capsule that preserves the beauty of an age gone by.

Click here for the Pousadas’ website and here for more photos of Flor da Rosa.

Adega Mayor

Adega Mayor

If you’re a wine lover traveling in Alentejo, don’t miss the chance to visit a wonderful winery called Adega Mayor. It is located in Campo Maior, a region on Portugal’s border with Spain that was once the stage of fierce battles between the two countries.

Adega Mayor was designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira, a Portuguese architect who received the Pritzker prize. He is famous for his ability to create buildings that are in harmony with their surroundings. At Adega Mayor, he succeeded brilliantly. The winery is a subtle white accent on the Alentejo landscape, toped by a terrace with amazing vistas. It is extraordinary to sit on the terrace at sunset and watch the Alentejo sky painted with colors others skies can only dream of.

The wines of Adega Mayor are produced with immense skill and care. But they offer much more than technical perfection. They carry in them the soul of Alentejo.

We left Adega Mayor with a warm feeling of optimism. We saw ancient battle fields turned into peaceful vineyards that produce extraordinary wines.

Click here for Adega Mayor’s website.

Pêra Manca

Pêra Manca is a cult wine produced near Évora, in Alentejo. It has a long pedigree that is intertwined with the history of Portugal. Pedro Álvares Cabral took bottles of Pêra Manca in the voyage that resulted in the discovery of Brazil, in 1500. The wine continued to gather fame, wining gold medals in Bordeaux in 1879 and 1898, but its production ended with the death of the vineyard’s owner in 1920.

In 1990 the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation resumed the production of Pêra Manca, aging the wine in the cellar of a 1580 Jesuit monastery.

The white Pêra Manca is made with Antão Vaz and Arinto grapes. The red Pêra Manca is made with Trincadeira and Aragonês grapes and it is produced only in exceptional years.

It is a wonderful wine for a special occasion. After all, it was good enough to celebrate the discovery of Brazil.

Click here for the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation Cartuxa winery website.