Why the Camino is good for the soul

 Why the Camino is good for the soul

Saddle up for a bike tour with a smattering of cultural and culinary pit stop in Portugal's Alentejo region, writes Tom Breathnach, as he ventures off the Camino.

It’s how every rustic escape should begin; sun rays teasing through your bedroom shutter lats and the sound of rapturous cockcrow. After arriving in rural Portugal in the dead of night, I’d awoken from my slumber to the most idyllic of Alentejo settings.

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Wandering outside through the last of the season’s agapanthus, I discover my hosts Dana and Ilda on breakfast duty; feeding mango and strawberry peels to Zurra the donkey and her supporting cast of farm animals.

As I breathe in the scenes, my farmhouse abode is looking like a postcard, the air is tingling with the aroma of wild fennel and my relaxation levels are on point. If Dr. Eva Orsmond was looking for the ultimate Portuguese retreat, she’d surely find it right here.

I’d travelled to Portugal with outdoorsy specialists One Food Abroad and their Portuguese partner Turaventur. Its owner Teresa Vilas Boas curates a range of ever-trending unplugged immersive experiences and I’m gearing up for a weekend cycling tour of the unsung Alentejo region. It’s Portugal - but in slo-mo.

I’ve never been a cyclist by nature but saddling up my mountain bike, there’s an instantly liberating satisfaction to being armed with a map and an end-point. Turaventur offer varying levels of assistance but I’m cycling DIY, while meeting my guides Jorge and Maria sync up with me at my various points across my route. It’s like a bike tour but with your very own Uber.

Peddling off, I gear into the great unknown as Portugal’s largest region folds out around me. If the Algarve is known for rugged coasts and fishing villages, then the Alentejo’s vast interior is an undulating time-lapse of cork tree blotted landscapes amid olive groves, cattle farms and charming wine estates of varying grandeur. It’s not what you’d consider spectacular, but its rustic yet rugged topography instantly beguiles. And as those cork trees catch the horizon in the soft October light, there’s even an air of an Iberian savannah out here.

In total, I”m cycling about 40kms per day with my swish aero-dynamic bike making light work of any troughs and inclines. A glorious seasoning of pitstops along the way helps, too. First of these is Pepe Aromas, a one-time railway station turned organic farmstead which showcases the Alentejo’s bounty of prickly pears, citrus trees and acorns.

My effervescent French-Portuguese guide Marie guides us through the groves, highlighting the increasing organic and slow food movement in the Alentejo, from its fare to indeed, its fashion. She’s sporting both a bag and baseball cap made from sustainable cork wood - Alentejo chic, you could call it.

Beja, Portugal
Beja, Portugal

Our tour continues us through a patchwork of sleepy villages skirted with yellow and ochre until we reach the region’s capital of Evora; a gorgeous UNESCO heritage town featuring an exquisite cathedral, 15th-century ramparts and an extraordinary Roman temple. But architectural prowess aside, any brush with civilisation in Portugal seems to warrants time for the fine Portuguese custom of the petisco. Similar to the tapas tradition across the border, petiscos are traditional snack, typically of smoked cheese, charcuterie and wine and offering a great opportunity to catch up with Maria and Jorge en route..

Meeting the locals delves one right in the Alentejo culture, no more so with a visit to a local olario or pottery workshop. In São Pedro Do Corvalor, we pay a visit to the Bulhão family who have been working the wheel here for four generations. Maestro Antonio is in fact one of the few Portuguese potters who still works with a manual pedal to this day.

The craft pays off as we watch (and attempt) the art of pottery before browsing the family’s very own pottery farm, bursting with ware. There’s no pressure to buy anything but now’s the time to purchase - not duty free - so I happily pick up a fine serving platter for €10 with change.

Though perhaps overshadowed by its neighbouring regions or the Algarve and Duoro, the Alentejo is home to one of Europe’s most vibrant viticultures with wine-tasting stops to suit every shelf budget. Approaching Monsaraz, we visit Herdade de Esporoa; one of the largest wine estates in Portugal where we enjoy a tour through the vineyards and cellars before enjoying a pairing lunch in their exquisite restaurant. Terroir cuisine is a new trend here where local food delights are met with such a Michelin quality treatment, dished appear almost like Noma Instagram posts. (€45).

There are a trove of hidden gems, too. In the village of Arcos, we down saddle in the hole-in-the-wall cellar of Adega do António Gato, which has been operated by Senhor António and his wife Dona Joana for over 50 years. António emerges from a nap to serve us up some home-made vintage which local patrons still come to tipple every morning. It’s deliciously tasty, berried and bold but the price helps, too.

15 cents for a small glass? By Jorge, I may just discovered the cheapest glass of vinho in Europe.

We soon reach the finish line to our Alentejo journey at Monsaraz - a medieval mountaintop hamlet which lingers across the horizon like a Renaissance watercolour. By now, a gentle autumn rain is relieving the summer parch and no longer in the running for the polka-dot jersey, Maria picks me up in our van to make our final transit. Winding up the town’s spaghetti road, our views exalt with every hairpin; first rolling countryside, then lake wetlands, then the Spanish province of Extramadura across the frontier. Perhaps the Alentejo can do spectacular, after all.

Established as a fort settlement in 1276, Monsaraz is today a white-washed and terracotta treasure with a historic air and hypnotic allure. Even in the shoulder season of October, it’s virtually hibernating and as I wander its cobbled lanes - I’ve rarely been in a more beautiful town, so void of tourists. The solitude makes our final base, a traditional inn named Casa Dona Antonia, all the more a fairytale fandango. Opening our shutters window, Rapunzell views spill out all around us. There’s even a panoramic jacuzzi, as if it needed the wow factor.

Panoramic photo of the village of Monsaraz, where we can see the houses, the tower and part of the wall. Monsaraz is one of the main tourist spots in Alentejo, Portugal
Panoramic photo of the village of Monsaraz, where we can see the houses, the tower and part of the wall. Monsaraz is one of the main tourist spots in Alentejo, Portugal

Come evening, with the village to ourselves, we wind down to the cobbles to Sabores de Monsaraz; a family restaurante clutched to the clifftop. In true Alentejo tradition, there are no menus, just the dishes of the day prepared to rustic perfection. That’s indeed the beauty of Portugal; a languid unpretentiousness as moreish as a well-sung fado.

After being served a variety of local specialties; slow-cooked pork cheeks with wild rice, a fragrant baked cod pie and flourless mandarin tart - the perfect supper swan song for our journey. Afterwards, the silver-haired nonna running the show ushers us outside in a burst of Portuguese to the panoramic terrace where a harvest moon was lighting up the lake beneath us. By now I’d truly fallen for the Alentejo. To the moon and back.

Getting There

Get to Portugal TAP Air Portugal (flytap.com) fly from Dublin to Lisbon with fares from €60 return. Tom paid €5.50 with vita.ie to offset his carbon emissions.

Tom travelled to the Alentejo with OneFootAbroad.com (an Irish-based walking and cycling holiday company) and their local Portuguese partner [url=https://www.turaventur.com]turaventur.com. They offer eight-day walking or cycling tours of the region from €990pps excl. flights.

Three Iberian Adventures Cycle the wild Algarve: this 8-day self-guided cycling tour along the wild Algrave coastline takes in the beauty of southwest Alentejo and Costa Vicentina National Park, along with the southern coastline of the Algarve.

Quiet beaches, cliff top views and artisan producers are a highlight.

From €965pps

Walk the Rota Vicentina: An 11-day tour scenic trek through the walking trails that meander through the Alentejo and Vicentina Coast Natural Park.

Combining the Fishermen’s Trail, the Historical Way and several circular routes, this trail combos the rural charm of Portugal with the rugged coastline shaped by the Atlantic.

From €415pps

Camino Romantico: Spend 7 nights in the most romantic hotels, paradores and delightful guesthouses along the Camino in Northern Spain.

After walking the trails, guests can enjoy added pampering with candle-lit dinners, breakfast in bed, massages and additional treats.

From €1400pps

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