The origin of its name, "Além-Tejo", literally translates to "Beyond the Tagus" or "Across the Tagus". The region is separated from the rest of Portugal by the Tagus river, and extends to the south where it borders the Algarve. Alentejo is a region known for its polyphonic singing groups, comparable to those found on Sardinia and Corsica.
Its main cities are Évora, Elvas, Portalegre, Beja, Serpa and Sines.
Topographically the countryside varies considerably, from the open rolling plains of the south of the Alentejo to the granite hills that border Spain in the north-east. To feed the water needs of this considerable area a number of public dams have been constructed, most notably the Alqueva Dam. The landscape is primarily one of soft rolling hills and plains, with cork oaks and olive trees, or the occasional vine. In the north agriculture is mostly livestock-based as typified by cows, sheep, and pigs (both white and black). To the south the agriculture is mostly arable.
To the east of Portalegre is the Parque Natural da Serra de São Mamede, a Nature Park Area that includes charming medieval villages that have changed very little from those days. In the south near Mértola is another Nature Park Area named Parque Natural do Vale Guadiana. This is mainly uninhabited and a contrast to the other above. To the west, the coastal strip that runs from the port of Sines down to Cabo de São Vicente is the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park.
The climate of the region is typically very dry for a large part of the year with summer temperatures reaching up to 40 degrees Celsius and mild winters. Alentejo is one of the hottest places in Europe, as the South inland of Spain. In Alentejo, year temperature averages can be as high as 25 degrees, and 50 degrees can even be measured there (Amareleja, 05/07/2010). In most of the territory of Alentejo, the climate is Hot-Summer Mediterranean (Csa) but there is a part, in the South of Beja District that has Semi-Arid climate, where temperatures are really hot. In this part of Alentejo, the summers are even hotter than the summers in Almeria, a city in South Spain that has a Arid climate. Most of the yearly rainfall occurs in the late autumn to early spring. The biggest cities in Alentejo (Beja, Evora and Portalegre) are really hot in summer with a Hot-Summer mediterranean climate (Csa) but they are not the hottest cities, or villages in this hot Region. Some studies even show that Alentejo is not the hottest place in Portugal.
The resident population of the Alentejo stands at around 759,000 (fourth quarter, 2008 – 2 700 less than the fourth quarter of 2007), with 49% men and 51% women. It is the most depopulated region in the country, representing over one third of national territory but only 7.1% of its population. It is also the region with the oldest population, 22.9% being 65 years of age or more (while the national average is 17.5%).
The population is low and declining - especially to the east of Alentejo. Portuguese migrate from the villages to the towns and from the towns to cities beyond Alentejo. Virtually the only migration into Alentejo is from Northern Europeans looking to escape their overcrowded countries, either permanently or for sunny holiday retreats.
The area is commonly known as the "bread basket" of Portugal, a region of vast open countryside with undulating plains and rich fertile soil. With very few exceptions all the major towns are mainly reliant on agriculture, livestock and wood. There are several types of typical cheeses, wines and smoked hams and sausages made in Alentejo region, among these: Queijo de Serpa, Queijo de Évora and Queijo de Nisa (cheeses); Vinho do Alentejo and Vinho do Redondo (wines); and presunto (ham). Marble, cork, olive oil and mining industries are other important activities in the region. The Alqueva dam is an important irrigation and hydroelectric power generation facility which supports a part of Alentejo's economy.
The region is the home of the world's most important area for the growing of cork. Cork-oak, known in Portugal as "sobreiro", has been grown commercially in the region for the past 300 years, with the areas between the trees typically given over to grazing, or on the more productive soils, to the growing of citrus fruit, vines or olives. As a consequence, a uniquely rich and varied eco-system has developed. The bark of the cork-oak is still harvested by teams of men using locally made hand-axes. No mechanical method has yet been invented that will allow the harvest to be achieved as effectively. The stripping of the bark is performed only in mid summer, when the bark can be removed more easily. The cork-oak is the only tree known that will allow this regular stripping of bark without damage. The harvest of one mature tree provides sufficient bark to produce about 4,000 wine bottle corks. The industry provides employment for about 60,000 workers. In 2006, the region had an estimated GDP per inhabitant rating of 17,200 EUR.
The castle of Mértola, located on the highest point of the town. Even though the castle is of Muslim origin, the current building dates from a reconstruction carried out by the knights of the Order of Santiago after the town was taken by the Christians. The most notable feature of the castle is its 30 metre-high keep tower, finished around 1292, which has an inner hall covered with Gothic vaulting. The defences include a city wall, which still encircles the town.
Main church (the Matriz), originally a mosque built between the 12th and 13th centuries. After the Christian conquest of the town, in 1238, the mosque was turned into a church, but its architectonic structure was left unaltered. In the 16th century the church was partially remodelled, gaining Manueline vaulting with a new roof and a new main portal in Renaissance style. Nevertheless, the inner arrangement of the naves of the church, with four naves and several columns, strongly resembles that of the original mosque, and the interior of the church still has the mihrab, the decorated niche that indicates the direction of the Mecca. Outside, the church has four portals with horseshoe arches, typical of Islamic architecture.
The museum of Mértola, consisting mostly of archaeological findings and excavations, with collections distributed all over the town. The nucleus of Islamic art in the museum is the most important in Portugal. It consists of various objects (pottery, glassware, metalwork, coins) dating from the period of Islamic domination. The collection is housed in the old cellars of the noblemen of the House of Braganza. Other exhibits include remnants of an ancient Christian church, of the basilica type, with an active cult lasting from the 5th to the 8th century. It has a large collection of palaeochristian tombstones with inscriptions; and excavations of a Roman house found under the Municipality building.
Mértola - City view
Amendoeira da Serra - event tea
Castelo de Vide - City view
Castelo de Vide
An episcopal city and frontier fortress of Portugal, located in the district of Portalegre in Alentejo. It is situated about 230 km east of Lisbon, and about 15 km west of the Spanish fortress of Badajoz, by the Madrid-Badajoz-Lisbon railway. The city itself has a population of 18,106.
Elvas lies on a hill 8 km northwest of the river Guadiana. It is defended by seven bastions and the two forts of Santa Luzia and Nossa Senhora da Graça. Its late Gothic cathedral, which has also many traces of Moorish influence in its architecture, dates from the reign of Manuel I of Portugal (1495-1521). A 6 km long aqueduct supplies the city with pure water; it was begun early in the 15th century and completed in 1622. For some distance it includes four tiers of superimposed arches, with a total height of 40 m. The surrounding lowlands are very fertile, and Elvas is known for its olives and plums, the last-named being exported, either fresh or dried, in large quantities. Brandy is distilled and pottery manufactured in the city. The fortress of Campo Maior, 15 km to the northeast, is famous for its siege by the French and relief by the British under Marshal Beresford in 1811, an exploit commemorated in a ballad by Sir Walter Scott. It was wrested from the Moors by Afonso I of Portugal in 1166; but was temporarily recaptured before its final occupation by the Portuguese in 1226. In 1570 it became an episcopal see. From 1642 until modern times it was the chief frontier fortress south of the Tagus; and it twice withstood sieges by the Spanish, in 1658 and 1711. The French under Marshal Junot took it in March 1808 during the Peninsular War, but evacuated it in August, after the conclusion of the Convention of Sintra.
Quinta de Santo Antonio - Rural Tourism - A good place to rest - 6 km from Elvas
Forte da Graça
As of 2004, it had 41,159 inhabitants.
Due to its well-preserved old town centre, still partially enclosed by medieval walls, and a large number of monuments dating from various historical periods, including a Roman Temple, Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Évora has a history dating back more than two millennia. It was known as Ebora by the Celtics, a tribal confederacy, south of the Lusitanians (and of Tagus river), who made the town their regional capital. The etymological origin of the name Ebora is from the ancient celtic word ebora/ebura, plural genitive of the word eburos (yew), name of a species of tree, so its name means "of yew tree." The city of York, in northern England, at the time of the Roman Empire, was called Eboracum/Eburacum, named after the ancient celtic place name Ebora Kon (Place of Yew Trees), so the old name of York is etymologically related to the city of Évora. Other two hypothesis of the origin of the name Évora is that the Romans had extensive gold mining in Portugal, and the name may be derived from that oro, aurum, (gold) and also may be named after ivory workers, but these two hypothesis are much less likely than the first one, because the name Évora has no relation with gold or with ivory in ancient celtic, latin or Portuguese languages or other languages, there is no etymological ground for these two hypothesis. It may have been capital of the kingdom of Astolpas. The Romans conquered the town in 57 BC and expanded it into a walled town. Vestiges from this period (city walls and ruins of Roman baths) still remain. Julius Caesar called it Liberalitas Julia (Julian generosity). The city grew in importance because it lay at the junction of several important routes. During his travels through Gaul and Lusitania, Pliny the Elder also visited this town and mentioned it in his book Naturalis Historia as Ebora Cerealis, because of its many surrounding wheat fields. In those days, Évora became a flourishing city. Its high rank among municipalities in Roman Hispania is clearly shown by many inscriptions and coins. The monumental Corinthian temple in the centre of the town dates from the first century and was probably erected in honour of emperor Augustus. In the fourth century, the town had already a bishop, named Quintianus.
During the barbarian invasions, Évora came under the rule of the Visigothic king Leovirgild in 584. The town was later raised to the status of a cathedral city. Nevertheless, this was a time of decline and very few artifacts from this period remain.
In 715, the city was conquered by the Moors under Tariq ibn-Ziyad who called it Yaburah يابرة. During their rule (715–1165), the town slowly began to prosper again and developed into an agricultural center with a fortress and a mosque. The present character of the city is evidence of the Moorish influence. During that time, several notables hailed from Evora, including Abdul Majid ibn 'Abdun Al-Yaburi عبد المجيد بن عبدون اليابري, a poet whose diwan still survives to this day.
Évora was wrested from the Moors through a surprise attack by Gerald the Fearless (Geraldo Sem Pavor) in September 1165. The town came under the rule of the Portuguese king Afonso I in 1166. It then flourished as one of the most dynamic cities in the Kingdom of Portugal during the Middle Ages, especially in the 15th century. The court of the first and second dynasties resided here for long periods, constructing palaces, monuments and religious buildings. Évora became the scene for many royal weddings and a site where many important decisions were made.
Particularly thriving during the Avis Dynasty (1385–1580), especially under the reign of Manuel I and John III, Évora became a major centre for the humanities (André de Resende - buried in the cathedral) and artists, such as the sculptor Nicolau Chanterene; the painters Cristóvão de Figueiredo and Gregório Lopes; the composers Manuel Cardoso and Duarte Lobo; the chronicler Duarte Galvão; and the father of Portuguese drama, Gil Vicente.
Évora also held a large part of the slave population of Portugal. Nicolas Clenard, a Flemish tutor at the Portuguese court, exclaimed in 1535 that "In Evora, it was as if i had been carried off to a city in hell:everywhere I only meet blacks." A testament from 1562 shows that D. Maria de Vilhena, a Portuguese woman in Évora, owned many slaves, including Indian (Native American), morisco, black, white, mulato, Chinese and other slaves. Maria's husband before she was widowed was Simão da Silveira who was involved in trading slaves. Her Chinese slave was used to take care of her mules.
The city became the seat of an archbishopric in 1540. The university was founded by the Jesuits in 1559, and it was here that great European Masters such as the Flemish humanists Nicolaus Clenardus (Nicolaas Cleynaerts) (1493–1542), Johannes Vasaeus (Jan Was) (1511–1561) and the theologian Luis de Molina passed on their knowledge. In the 18th century, the Jesuits, who had spread intellectual and religious enlightenment since the 16th century, were expelled from Portugal, the university was closed in 1759 by the Marquis of Pombal, and Évora went into decline. The university was only reopened in 1973.
In 1834, Évora was the site of the surrender of the forces of King Miguel I, which marked the end of the Liberal Wars.
The many monuments erected by major artists of each period now testify to Évora's lively cultural and rich artistic and historical heritage. The variety of architectural styles (Romanesque, Gothic, Manueline, Renaissance, Baroque), the palaces and the picturesque labyrinth of squares and narrow streets of the city centre are all part of the rich heritage of this museum-city.
Today, the historical centre has about 4,000 buildings and an area of 1.05 km².
Portalegre was founded in the reign of Afonso III, in 1259. It was to be given to his bastard son Afonso Sanches.
In Denis I reign, by a foral of 18 November 1299, it was determined that Portalegre would be donated to the king himself and later to his first born and heir.
Portalegre was elevated to the status of city on 23 May 1550, by John III. At this time, the city was regarded as an important administrative and economic centre. In the 15th century, it was already recognized for its cloth manufacturing.
As it is near the frontier with Spain it always suffered lots of invasions from foreign troops: in 1704 (during the War of the Spanish Succession), it was attacked and conquered by the army of Felipe V; again in 1801 during the War of the Oranges, it surrendered to the Spanish Army, this way trying to counter the French dominion. In 1847 it was occupied by forces of Spanish General Concha.
The importance of Portalegre would come to be recognized in 1859, when it became capital of the Portalegre District
The house-museum of José Régio, a famous Portuguese poet, was installed in his home, in which he lived for 34 years. When Régio was accepted at the high school of Mouzinho da Silveira, in Portalegre, this place was a hostel. It was previously an annex of the convent of S. Brás, of which there are still some vestiges, namely the chapel. It also served as a headquarter when the peninsular wars were fought, but it was later named Pensão 21.
José Régio rented a humble room and, as he needed more space (he collected several works of art, amongst which more than 400 representations of Christ), he would rent more space. So, as time went by, he finally became the only inhabitant of the hostel. In 1965, he sold his collection to the municipality of Portalegre with the condition of it buying his house, restore it and transform it into a museum. He lived there until he died, in 1969. The museum opened to public in 1971.
Together with the two other marble towns, Borba and Vila Viçosa, Estremoz is internationally known for its fine to medium-grained marble that occurs in several colours: white, cream, pink, grey or black and streaks with any combination of these colours. Especially the pink marble (Rosa Aurora and Estremoz Pink) is in high demand.
This marble has been used since Antiquity as a material for sculpture and architecture. The first exports in Roman times were probably for the construction of the Circus Maximus of Emerita Augusta, in modern day Spain. The Portuguese navigators exported this marble to Africa, India and Brazil. The marble from this region was used in famed locations such as the Monastery of Jerónimos, the Monastery of Batalha, the Monastery of Alcobaça and the Tower of Belém.
There is so much marble around Estremoz that it is used everywhere; even the doorsteps, pavements and the cobble stones are made out of marble. This marble is even converted into whitewash for painting the houses.
Portugal is the second largest exporter of marble in the world, surpassed only by Italy (Carrara marble). About 85 % of this marble (over 370,000 tons) is produced around Estremoz.
In the quarries marble blocks are cut from the rock with a diamond wire saw, a durable steel cable with a series of circular diamond beads. The initial conduit for the wire is made by drilling a horizontal hole and a vertical hole of which the ends meet exactly inside the rock. The wire saw may need a day to cut through the marble.
Estremoz is also the name of a song by E.S. Posthumus.
Due to its geographic position, the hilltop of Monsaraz always occupied an important place in the history of the municipality, having been occupied by different peoples since the pre-historical record. It’s one of the oldest Portuguese settlements of the southern Portugal, occupied since pre-history, whose examples of permanent habitation include hundreds of megalithic monuments. These include the neolithic remains of: Anta do Olival da Pega, Bulhôa Menhir, Rocha dos Namorados Menhir and Outeiro Menhir. The hill, on which the main settlement is locate, was a pre-historic fortification, or castro, that was the basis of pre-Roman occupation and funerary temples, carved from the local rock.
Monsaraz was reorganized during the Roman occupation, but later successively occupied by the Visigoths, Arabs, Mozarabs, Jews, and, after the Reconquista, Christians loyal to the Afonso Henriques. In the 8th century, Monsaraz fell under the dominion of Arab forces who occupied the Iberian Peninsula, becoming known as Saris or Sharish, and following the control of the Taifa of Badajoz (one of the more prominent Arab centres at the time). The name Monsaraz originates from the word Xarez or Xerez, the Iberian transliteration of the Arabic Saris or Sharish, for the Gum Rockrose (Cistus ladanifer L.), a plant that still today prospers in poor, dry, acidic slate-based soil that surrounds Monsaraz. The Iberian words Xarez/Xerez latter evolved to the Portuguese Xaraz and to the Castilian Jerez (the Spanish name for the Sherry wine). The settlement that became Monsaraz, originated from the Monte Xaraz, a fortified hill surrounded by Gum Rockroses. It is natural position, the highest hill in the area and proximity to the deep Guadiana valley, made it a location of strategic importance.
In 1167, the Castle and medina was taken by Geraldo Sem Pavor, in an expedition that came from Évora (which had just been retaken, about the same time). After, Afonso Henriques' defeat in Badajoz, Monsaraz was once again taken by Muslim forces. In 1232, supported by the Knights Templar, King Sancho II definitively retook the citadel and town, placing it under the control of the Templars, and obligating them to establish a garrison that would protect the border. The Christian repopulation of Monsaraz ended around the reign of Afonso III, when it was assigned an alcalde, the knight Martim Anes, and first letter of foral.
In 1263 it was already an important fortress, being the head of a municipality, with large privileges. The local economy was fundamentally based on agriculture and livestock, existing some small artesnal industries producing terra cotta earthenware and hammered copper.
After the Portuguese Interregnum (1383-1385), the town of Monsaraz was integrated into the dominions of the House of Braganza under Nuno Álvares Pereira. By 1412, it is inherited by Fernando, his son, becoming one of the more precious profit centres in the Ducal estates.
In 1512, King Manuel of Portugal issued a foral (charter) to the Vila de Monsaraz, reformulating the public and jurisdictional administration of the municipality.
The demographic crises created by the plague forced the Duke of Bragança, in 1527 to carry out small land reforms in order to promote the settlement Monsaraz. The small plots were established in the area surrounding this village.
Following the Portuguese Restoration War, in 1640, the castle received new tactical defenses, that included a new walled bastion, that allowed the city-fort to be integrated in to the system of defences that connected Elvas, Juromenha, Olivença and Mourão.
The condition of the walled medieval city, the growth of the farm estates of Reguengos, the richness of the artesnal production and vineyards, and more importantly, the loyalty towards the Miguelist forces during the Liberal Wars were all factors that contributed to the shifting of the municipal seat from Monsaraz to Vila Nova de Reguengos in 1838, a fact that became permanent after 1851.
The parish of Monsaraz is located in the northeast corner of the municipality of Reguengos de Monsaraz fronting the Guadiana River and Alqueva Dam to the east, Corval to the west and Campinho to the south in the municipality of Reguengos de Monsaraz. Across the reservoir to the east is the parish of Mourão (in the municipality of Mourão) and to the north the parish of Capelins (in the municipality of Alandroal
Serpa is of ancient origins and its establishment probably preceded the coming of the Romans to the area. After the Roman occupation, the neighbouring town of Beja (known as Pax Julia to the Romans) became the Roman capital of Pacensis (southern subdivision of Lusitania province) and Serpa was settled by Roman settlers. The archeological remains of a Roman Villa today lie close to Serpa.
The Moors settled in Serpa after their invasion of the Iberian Peninsula and remained until their defeat at the hands of Portuguese forces fighting their way south during the period of the Reconquista (the Christian re-conquest of Iberia).
As a result of Serpa's proximity to the Spanish border, the town has always been a defensive stronghold and today is still surrounded by thick castle walls. The town castle stands in the middle of town and is partly damaged as a result of the last Spanish invasion.
Owing to its rich past, Serpa offers much in historical interest to visitors, including archeological sites, the town walls, the castle, the aqueduct, the clock tower, the town's museum and numerous interesting old churches.
The area surrounding Serpa consists mostly of wheat farms and wheat has traditionally been the staple of the local economy employing many people. Due to the area's strong agricultural reliance much of the area's people have traditionally been peasants or sheep herders.
After the Portuguese Revolution of 1974 the Portuguese Communist Party gained strong support in the area and its popularity continues to this day.
Today many urban residents of Lisbon, Beja and other cities maintain country homes in Serpa or take weekend breaks to the area as a result of Serpa's rural location and laid back lifestyle.
Serpa is famous for its cheese, a spicy and strong-smelling cheese made in the area and eaten throughout Portugal, although a good one is now hard to find. Other local and regional specialties include Shepherd's Lamb Stew, a Clam and Pork dish and Sweet Potato Pastries. Slightly to the northeast, Pias is known for its wine.