Familiar through years of repetition, men deeply tanned under their worn flat caps hack away at the trees, peeling off the cork layer by layer. Despite some being of advanced years, they shimmy easily up ladders and wield their axes like extensions of their own limbs, seemingly unaffected by the intense heat which slices through the gaps in the trees and warms the earth, lifting the scent of the oregano, rosemary and thyme growing underfoot.
Boasting almost 3,000 hours of sunlight a year, the word ‘Alentejo’ translates to ‘beyond the Tagus’ – referring to the fact that the region is separated from the rest of Portugal by the Tagus river.
Though it is one of the country’s hottest regions, the landscape here is incredibly colourful. Clouds of violet, red, pink and yellow flowers are interspersed with cork and olive trees, and occasionally a verdant shock of rice paddies – another of the Alentejo’s important industries. Aromatic herbs including thyme and lavender grow wild here, infusing the region’s honey with a unique flavour, olive oil is another important product, and wine lovers are spoilt for choice.
‘The specialists say you don’t have to be a specialist to make good wine in the Alentejo,’ notes my guide, Olga Miguel with a smile. The region is home to hundreds of species of birds and the nests of haughty-looking storks are everywhere. We see an entire series perched proudly atop a tall electricity pylon, forming neat rows against the bright blue sky. ‘A stork condominium’ jokes Olga, as we travel through villages oozing Portuguese charm through every lemon tree and whitewashed wall.
Some 70% of Portugal’s cork comes from the Alentejo where many families have a long history of working in the industry, tending to the often ancient forests. Olga, who comes from Grandola, is one of them. ‘It has become more difficult to find good quality cork, mainly because of pollution’ she explains.
Though the difficulties the industry is facing are of concern, watching the cork harvest is a revelation. It is completely non-mechanised, except for the old tractor which chugs around collecting the pieces of cork, and once each tree is stripped, another nine years must pass before it can be harvested once more. This is a truly sustainable industry harvesting a totally natural product. Cork is environmentally friendly, renewable, recyclable and biodegradable. In fact, the only loser in the cycle seems to be the busy ants who, surprised by their homes being abruptly ripped apart, scurry off to find another tree.
One younger man has the job of traipsing around the forest, painting on a dribbly ‘3’ to mark this year’s harvest – not to be touched again until 2022. The white paint marks a sharp contrast with the red-hued exposed tree. The Alentejo people are rightly proud of their cork forests and a focused conservation vision is now enforced, a reforestation programme is helping secure their future and the felling of healthy trees strictly forbidden.
We visit a factory where huge sheets of cork, still bent to the shape of their tree, are stacked in piles, beautiful and red against the piercing blue sky. The cork is soaked then dried, and this process repeated, until it turns into manageable sheets which are then made into bottle tops or, increasingly, as the industry responds to the invasion of the screw top (bereft of romance but arguably capable of sealing tighter the wine), with a huge variety of products. We see cork handbags, belts, shoes and even a beautifully-crafted cork umbrella – evidence I hope, that this industry so important to the region, will live to fight another day.
We journey on to the beautiful city of Évora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and still partially enclosed by medieval walls. The Capela dos Ossos – chapel of bones – is one of the city’s best-known attractions, getting its name from the interior walls being entirely decorated in human skulls and bones. There reads a famous warning at the entrance: ‘We, the bones that are here, await yours.’ A spooky, yet impressive experience.
Stepping back into the sun, shops sell an intriguing mix of cork products and other traditional Portuguese crafts. My favourite are the white handkerchiefs decorated with colourful stitching - modern versions of a local custom which saw girls stitch love letters to their sweethearts.
Gastronomy is king here. You can discover the rich flavours of the Alentejo in an enormous variety of restaurants. Later that evening we are treated to a fantastic cooking lesson at a beautiful hotel – the Convento do Espinheiro which is breathing new life into a 15th century convent.
From a Portuguese twist on gazpacho, to richly-flavoured chicken pies, fresh seafood and the local acorn liquor – food lovers will find plenty to get excited about here – and under the cheery expertise of chef Bouazza Bouhlani – who breaks from his position at the stove to play us some traditional Alentejan songs on his iPod - we gather more than a few tips to take home.
With its slow but elegant sun-bleached charm and fascinating local culture, the Alentejo has so much to offer. Tourism is helping support the likes of the traditional cork and rice industries, and visitors are paid back in kind with truly memorable experiences - timeless and unique, like the Alentejo itself.
For further information about the Alentejo, visit visitalentejo.pt
Packages from £600 pp (two sharing) including one night at the Herdade das Barradas da Serra (B&B), three nights at the Convento do Espinheiro (B&B), car hire and return flights with TAP from Heathrow or Manchester. See sunvil.co.uk, tel: 020 8758 4722.