Tuesday, 1 September 2015


Driving towards Spain there are plenty opportunities for distraction in the form of pit-stops in Alentejan vineyards to buy wine and olive oil

Herdade do Esporão winery in Reguengos do Monsaraz

We cross the border at Badajoz, and from there it's a hop to the walled medieval town of Caceres in Spain's Extremadura region.

Roman, Arabic, Jewish and Christian cultures have collided and left their traces here.

Looking through the Arco de la Estrella, where Ferdinand and Isabella passed through, to the Plaza Mayor

A World Heritage site, it's preserved so intact that you have the feeling you've stepped right back into the Middle Ages in this town.

It's also steeped in prosperity: built with Conquistador wealth, the proceeds of American exploration, it's filled with the solares (manor houses) of returned empire builders.

Caceres may be a little remote - there's no quick or easy access by plane or train - but it's on the map as a food destination: it's this year's Spanish Capital of Gastronomy. 

Dripping and wilting in 40 plus degree heat, we had a gastronomically unsophisticated lunch under umbrellas in the Plaza Mayor where rotating fans sprayed cool water on sweltering diners: tortilla, salad and cold beer.

A swim on the cool roof terrace of the Atrio hotel was the perfect solution in the heat.

I loved how Atrio, in complete contrast with the medieval surroundings, is contemporary and minimalistic inside its ancient stonewalled facade. The only decoration is in the form of an amazing modern art collection with the likes of Antonio Saura, Andy Warhol and Antoni Tapies.

Atrio's restaurant is drop-dead elegant and pared-down in style

 I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of the wine cellar (which has been rated best in the world by Wine Spectator for several years running, so no slouch). Wine expert I am not, but I was mesmerised seeing the labels on every vintage of Chateau Mouton de Rothschild going back to 1945: each one painted on commission by Miro, Chagall, Braque, Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Freud, Bacon ... 

 Image source

Being off the beaten track is a definite advantage as far as I'm concerned; this place is a wee gem in Spain.

Caceres, Spain June 2015
Day 11 Iberian road trip

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Alentejo towns: marble and miracles

Scenes from towns in the Alentejo in a boiling summer heatwave ...

Estremoz, perched on a hillside and topped by a castle, has gorgeous views over Alentejo farmland.

Gateway to the town

Estremoz is famous for the marble that's mined, cut and exported here

Marble is everywhere in this town - in doorways and gates, even the pavements and cobblestones are made of beautiful pale marble  ...

The castle, converted to a pousada, was the palace in the early 14th century of King Dinis, whose main claim to fame was his wife, Isabel of Aragon.

Isabel was canonised after her death, making her not only Rainha but Santa Isabel, for devoting her life to the poor and miraculously turning bread (hidden in her voluminous skirts) into roses when confronted by the angry king (not so keen on feeding the poor).

She stands here (in white marble of course) watching over the Alentejo plains.

At A Cadeia, the town's old jail turned into a restaurant, we had drinks on the roof terrace and watched the sun set over the plains, glad of an end to the intense heat of the day.

But in Évora the next day there was no escape from 45 degrees heat, so there was no lingering at the Roman temple whose columns, topped with Estremoz marble, have survived 1800 years.

There were narrow streets with whitewashed buildings and a cathedral where the flags of Vasco da Gama's ships were blessed

and good Alentejo food, even if snails are not your thing ...
'We have snails'

Alentejo, Portugal June 2015
Day 10 Iberian road trip

Monday, 24 August 2015

Alentejo Blues

When I was a child and teenager, the Alentejo was a hot, dry, dusty bit-in-the-middle you had to drive through (preferably as fast as possible) to get from Lisbon to the beaches of the south in summer.

How one's perceptions can change.

Although I love the green mountainous north of the country, there's something captivating about this landscape of golden wheat fields, cork and olive trees, and clean blue-and-white villages.

The small town of Arraiolos, where handmade rugs have been produced since the Middle Ages.

Celebrating 40 years since the Carnation Revolution that ended almost 50 years of dictatorship

Arraiolos with its castle from afar

If you want to get away from it all, this is the place to come: the Alentejo makes up over one third of Portugal's land mass but contains only 7% of its population!

Not really surprisingly, we got quite lost among the olive groves trying to find Vila Extramuros, but oh what a find. 

Owned and run by lovely French couple François and Jean-Christophe, whose home this is too, it's a fabulous surprise for being totally unexpected in style, in a region of traditional pousadas.

Designed by a Lisbon architect, the structure is all contemporary, clean, clear white lines, with rooms surrounding a cool central courtyard. 

The interiors, however, are all the doing of this talented pair, whose tastes are eclectic indeed: local objects and references mixed with Parisian touches and iconic 20th century designs.

It all works brilliantly with their eye for detail and design.


Not to mention their love of good food. Perfect summer supper in the courtyard was salad, grilled bread with local cheese and herbs, chouriço and patanegro.
Breakfast (below, with view to Arraiolos): delicious queijadas, Alentejo bread, cherries

François and Jean-Christophe, who moved here from Paris and have never looked back, fell in love with this landscape, saying they were attracted to the Alentejo as 'one of the last wild regions of Europe, where you have kilometres and kilometres of nature and wilderness.'
A neighbouring farmer's sheep graze on their land, providing free control of the vegetation.

The heat was intense, in the low 40s, and we were enormously happy to trail down this path ...

to wallow in the cool clear swimming pool ...

and stretch out under olive trees with the cicadas for company.

I just wished I could have stayed for weeks doing little else.

Alentejo, Portugal June 2015
Day 9 Iberian road trip

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