trips

Alentejo & Algarve regions, Portugal

July 30, 2015

GETTING THERE & AROUND
After picking up our little Fiat rental in downtown Lisbon, we drove about 2.5 hours south to Cercal (the nearest town to our next inn). Most of the trip was on a large 3-lane highway (A2). You can pretty quickly notice the more rural change in landscape, with dusty rolling hills covered in cork trees, as you head south. Finding our next hotel, Herdade Da Matinha, was a bit tricky, as our Tom Tom wasn’t really recognizing the address (in hindsight, I see their site provides actual GPS coordinates, which would have done the trick), so we were particularly excited when we successfully arrived, the cows, less so.

From Cercal, our next hotel was about a 2 hour drive northeast to Montemor-O-Novo. As we mentioned in the Lisbon post, driving in Portugal was really quite simple, as long as we were able to figure out how to plug the proper address in to the GPS app (surprisingly, that part was not as easy as it sounds).

THE DIGS
Herdade da Matinha
7555-231 Cercal do Alentejo, 7555-231
This was exactly the laid back rural juxtaposition we were looking for coming off of the Lisbon leg of our trip. Herdade da Matinha is the kind of place where you can do as little or as much as you want. The coast is about a 10 minute drive away, and known as a really good surfing area, but other than a morning hike and day trip down to Lagos (see Highlights below), we were totally content to spend the majority of our time here soaking in the farm-to-table vibe, enjoying the art of doing nothing. We spent one entire day getting up out of our shaded poolside lounge chairs only long enough to eat lunch, pick some plums off a tree to snack on, and mingling with the freely grazing horses.

The overall decor is farmhouse chic. They’ve found ways to infuse colorful modern art and pops of color with comfy style into all of the shared community spaces. Our room, #14, was one of their “Romantic Rooms” at $149/night—the crisp white bedding and walls contrasting beautifully with the exposed wooden ceiling beams. Our bathroom was nice and large with good natural light, overlooking the pool.

There aren’t too many restaurant options super close by, so we were a tiny bit nervous about eating just about every meal of our stay at the same place, but the food was so tasty it totally wasn’t an issue. The dinners were a fixed price at about $35/pp and included 4-5 courses. Out of the three dinners we ate here, there was only one course of one dinner that we weren’t oohing and ahhing about (it was a modern twist on their national dish of salted cod, and to be fair we weren’t loving the whole Portuguese salted cod thing in general). Lunches were a casual a la carte affair – all yummy. The breakfast spread, included in the cost, featured the usual European meats, cheeses & breads, plus farm-made jams and an array freshly squeezed fruit juices.

They have a pretty extensive wine cabinet, featuring vineyards mostly local to the region, with the bulk of bottles in the $15-$25 range. They also had a few house wines you could order by the glass. And there was a cozy bar for mixed drinks. The mojitos, with fresh mint picked from their garden, and sangria loaded with fruit from their very own trees, were of course, excellent.

L’And Vineyards
Estrada Nacional 4, Herdade das Valadas, Apartado 122, 7050-031 Montemor-o-Novo, Évora
This was one of two splurge hotels we’d booked for this trip, at $265/night. We typically try to stay in the $150/night or less range, but this was a special occasion trip for us and how many times in your life do you get the chance to literally sleep under the stars in a bed with a FULLY OPENING SKYLIGHT over it? And did I mention the hotel is a winery, with a Michelin-starred restaurant? Yeah, this one was worth the splurge.

The architecture and suites at this place are gorgeous, designed by Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan, who created the space using natural stone, slate and wood. We loved the pool. We loved everything about our suite. The service was impeccable. Although it’s worth mentioning that lunch service at the less formal, outside restaurant was VERY leisurely and, as to be expected, overpriced for sandwich-type fare. The breakfast, included in the price, was a very impressive spread, and all delicious. Our only real letdown was dinner at the main restaurant. This was our first Michelin-starred experience, so maybe our expectations were a bit too high. Our waiter was excellent, as was the wine, naturally. John enjoyed his steak, although he wasn’t blown away, but I actually outright disliked my fish entree and made John eat it because I’m just not one of those folks who is brave enough to send a meal back. So while we’d GLADLY come back here for the hotel experience, we’d seek out dinners offsite.

There is also a spa onsite, featuring vineyard-themed treatments. And while we didn’t get a chance to partake, we did have conversations with other guests who said it was excellent.

HIGHIGHTS

Hiking the Rota Vicentina
Rota Vicentina is a network of walking trails along the Southwest coast of Portugal, totaling 400 km to walk, along the most beautiful and best preserved coastline of Southern Europe. There are 75+ small hotels and inns featured on the site that line the trail, which is how we found Herdade da Matinha (these places get totally booked up during the summer beach season, so book several months in advance if that’s when you plan to travel). There’s an entrance to the trail right from the Herdade da Matinha property, although Matinha is a bit inland, so we were told it was a 2hr hike just to reach the coastline via the trail. We hiked about an hour in and then turned around because while there were some shaded sections, it was a bit too hot to make it the all the way to the coast on that particular day (and poolside mojitos were calling our name). But we really enjoyed the mix of cork trees, blue skies, and lush pockets of wooded areas along the way.

Sea kayaking the cliffs & caves in Lagos
Caís da Solaria , Forte Pau da Bandeira – 8600-000 Lagos
Lagos is about a 2 hour drive south from Herdade da Matinha, so we visited this picturesque beach town as a day trip. The cobblestoned town itself is quaint, if touristy, with plenty of cafes, bars and shops. But the real draw of Lagos is the range of fabulous cliffside beaches, some of which can only be reached by boat or kayak. There are several operations that offer tours of the beaches, cliffs and caves, ranging from small skiffs to big party boats, but we preferred the intimacy and peaceful satisfaction of exploring via kayak. The crustal clear turquoise water was cooler than expected, given the hot August climate, so we did not actually swim, but the views were stunning.

Évora
Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to the preservation and eclectic combination of old & new European architecture, about 30 minutes from L’And Vinyards. The hilltop medieval walled village has a lovely town square, roman ruins and charming side streets lined with cork-filled shops.

Just around the corner from the front of St. Francis church is the entrance to Capela dos Ossos, aka the Chapel of Bones. The macabre greeting on the wall states “we bones, lying here, for yours we wait”. It’s a surreal experience to see the remains of bodies dug up from the town graves in the 17th century used to create a place of worship and reflection, but you can’t help but appreciate the artistry and dedication that went into it.

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